The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why are there so few girls in children’s books?

The main characters — whether they're human, animal, a snowplow or a crayon — are almost always male.

(Bill O’Leary/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.

My own nonscientific research suggests that not much has changed. While there are a handful of exceptions, like Frances the badger, Olivia the pig and Lilly the mouse, they are the exceptions, not the rule. Of the 69 Caldecott Medal and Honor winners since 2000, just four — “Kitten’s First Full Moon,” “Interrupting Chicken,” “Olivia” and “A Ball for Daisy” (which has no text but identifies Daisy as “she” on the jacket copy) — have animal protagonists that are clearly identified as female. Recent bestseller lists are topped by books starring crayons, fish and a snowplow: all male or non-gendered. Lists from Scholastic and Time magazine of the best 100 picture books include fewer than 10 female non-human characters. If these books reflected reality, we wouldn’t have to wonder why the dinosaurs went extinct — there were no females around for them to reproduce with.

[Coloring books only featured girls who were princesses. So this woman made her own.] 

What’s even more surprising is that this disparity persists in a time when gender norms are being challenged elsewhere in the culture: transgender characters on TV, gender-neutral college housing, public bathrooms with unisex signage. Last year, Target announced that it would stop dividing its toy department into “girls” and “boys.” But little has changed when it comes to children’s books.

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.”

Which, I would argue, is exactly why these books are so influential. When I read my daughter “Where the Wild Things Are” or “Madeline,” she is hearing the story of a specific boy or girl. But when she hears story after story in which everything from the skyscraper to the very hungry caterpillar is called “he,” how can she help internalizing the idea that to be male is the rule and to be female is the exception?

Even children’s books that seem radical in other ways reinforce a male-dominated universe. The current bestsellers “The Day the Crayons Quit” and “The Day the Crayons Came Home” have been praised as parables of inclusion and celebrations of diversity. One bookseller I spoke with even described the rebelling crayons as a metaphor for the Occupy movement. Yet not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun. Just about everything and everyone in the books — from five of the crayons to a paper clip to a sock to Pablo Picasso to the crayons’ owner, Duncan, to his father to his little brother — is male, or not assigned a gender. The exceptions are a female teacher and Duncan’s little sister, who uses the otherwise under-employed pink crayon. To color in a picture of a princess. And is praised for staying in the lines.

“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.’ ”

Two studies, one from 1978 and one from 1988, did find that boys expressed a preference for male characters, but the youngest age group studied was the fourth grade, at which point it is impossible to separate nature from nurture. Books are often introduced to kids in infancy, years before they are capable of holding a book upright and turning the pages, much less buying one — which translates to years of parents curating their children’s bookshelves and perhaps influencing what their kids will and won’t read.

The idea that boys won’t read books about girls, even if the girl is a duck or a moose, ties into another assumption: that boys aren’t into books. Concerns about the literacy gap between the genders create a kind of pandering to young male readers. “The winners of recent Caldecott medals often seem to be the kinds of books that have been thought of as having appeal for boys,” says book historian and critic Leonard Marcus, who has written several biographies of children’s book authors. “It could be that librarians know that they lose boys much more often than they lose girls as they get into the middle grades.”

The paradox is that children’s literature as we know it was largely created by women. In the 1930s, educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell formed a writers workshop to produce children’s books, launching the careers of writers and illustrators including Margaret Wise Brown (“Goodnight Moon”) and Esphyr Slobodkina (“Caps for Sale”). Powerful editors such as Ursula Nordstrom and the influential librarian Anne Carroll Moore shaped the reading habits of children for much of the 20th century. Today, the industry continues to be female-dominated, yet the manuscripts they edit and sell aren’t.

“Manuscripts come in with a gender assigned, and you tend to not question it,” says Lucia Monfried at Penguin Random House, who edits the Skippyjon Jones series, about a (male) Siamese cat. She adds that there is an increased awareness about racial diversity in picture books right now. “We would never show a classroom of children that wasn’t racially diverse. That’s become so ingrained, but at one time it wasn’t. We should question [gender] too. Why can’t this character be a female, and wouldn’t it be good if it could?”

The good news is that beyond the animal world, there are more options. Several recent books, such as Andrea Beaty’s “Rosie Revere, Engineer” and Ashley Spires’s “The Most Magnificent Thing,” depict complex human females who like math and science. (Of course there are classic human girls, too, such as Madeline, Amelia Bedelia and Eloise.) And, despite conventional wisdom about what boys will and won’t read, children may be far more open-minded than adults assume. Kevin Henkes, creator of a world of fantastic animal characters of both genders, says he hears from librarians and teachers that his fearless, resourceful Lilly the mouse appeals to boys and girls equally, topping lists of kids’ favorite characters from his books.

As for Henkes’s Caldecott-winning “Kitten’s First Full Moon,” he says the decision to make Kitten female was organic. “When I’m working on a picture book, I write it and write it and read it aloud, and the rhythm of the words has to be exactly right,” he says. “For the rhythm of the words, I needed a pronoun.” Inspired partially by the children’s author Clare Newberry, he says, he made that pronoun “she.”

Which makes me think the gender imbalance may ultimately be as much a problem of language as chauvinism. It seems entirely possible that in my daughter’s lifetime, gender-specific pronouns will sound as archaic as “thee” and “thou,” supplanted by “ze” or “zir” or some neologism of the future. Until that happens, I will continue to seek out books with female protagonists and, as long as she lets me, will read my daughter stories about a mischievous, curious monkey and a pajama-clad, bedtime-fearing llama that, in my telling, just happen to be female. As Monfried says, “When we read our children picture books, we’re saying, ‘There’s a world here that will give and give and give for the rest of your life.’ We should want to show our children that anybody can do anything.”

To which I’d add, we should want to show our kids that girls can be anything — and anything can be a girl.

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