From The Washington Post:
Every night, my daughter picks out bedtime stories from the picture books on her shelf. And every night, my husband gamely asks me the same question before starting to read: “The gorilla [or dog, or pigeon, or llama, or snowplow, or crayon, or bear, or monster, or dinosaur, or fly, or cat, or tank engine] is a girl, right?” “Right,” I say. In our house, she is.
Our daughter doesn’t know how to read yet, so she can’t know that my husband and I are deviating from the text when we gender-swap Pete the Cat or Elliot the elephant or Pigeon the pigeon, and there’s nothing in the books’ illustrations or plots to suggest that these characters need to be male. In fact, it took me a while to notice the disparity myself. But once I started paying attention, I realized I’d have to do on-the-fly editing if I didn’t want my daughter to think that the non-human world is predominantly the province of males.
A 2011 Florida State University study found that just 7.5 percent of nearly 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 depict female animal protagonists; male animals were the central characters in more than 23 percent each year. (For books in which characters were not assigned a gender, researchers noted, parents reading to their children tended to assign one: male.) No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal, but adult men and male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books.
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Does it really matter if the fish or the skyscraper is a boy? And do kids even notice? “Anthropomorphized characters have always been in the forefront of children’s books because they enable the creator to not have to make decisions about is this a tall or short, black or white … character,” says Marcia Wernick, a children’s literature agent who represents Mo Willems, creator of the Pigeon, Piggie and Gerald the elephant characters. “When kids aren’t looking for that resemblance to themselves, there can be a universality, and the characters can express all the internal emotions.”
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“There is an unspoken understanding in children’s books that a boy won’t read about a girl, which I think is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Betsy Bird, the collection development manager at the public library in Evanston, Ill., who blogs about children’s literature. “Any parent of a boy choosing between ‘The Day the Crayons Quit’ and ‘Flora and the Flamingo’ [about a human girl who dances with a flamingo] will choose ‘The Day the Crayons Quit.’ ”
Link to the rest at The Washington Post