The Spectre of Gender Inequality in Children’s Books

Someone posted a video online, and it made me steam.

A mother and daughter protest the lack of female leads in children’s literature by removing books to underscore various statistics, until few are left.

And my head exploded.

Anyone can cherry-pick books to fit any given criteria. AND it devalues wonderful books for no reason but gender (anyone scarred by not reading Harriet Potter? Or Curious Georgette?). The facts felt skewed, I HAD to investigate this.

The video, and most relevant articles, stem from a single study by Janice McCabe in the sociology journal Journal of Gender and Society (2011) which studied 5600 US children’s titles from the 20th century and found that males are twice as likely as females in titles, and 1.5 times more common as central characters. Among animal characters, only 7.5% of titles had female lead characters. They also found that in periods of high feminism (60’s, 70’s) this gap lessened, as opposed to low periods of feminism (40’s, 50’s).  Of 69 Caldecott award winners since 2000, just four have female animals. 25% of sampled titles had NO female characters. In children’s media, less than 20% showed women with a job, vs. 80% of men. Even when characters were neutral – an unnamed bear, a building, a car – parents tended to call the character-object male. In many books that do include females, they are a token character – who really cares about Kanga in Winnie the Pooh? Who cares about Wendy, when it’s the Island of Lost Boys? (Disney is hardest on girls, even when they’re the lead).

We Like Kindergarten - a Little Golden BookSo what does that mean? Are books working against girls? Do we perpetuate female stereotypes and patriarchal archetypes starting with early board books? Do we as parents set our children up for failure by gender-typing from an infant’s earliest days?

Yes and no. The first thing to remember is that video WAS AN ADVERTISEMENT. It’s intentionally made to sell a book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. It’s SUPPOSED to make you angry so you will buy their product, or from similar publishers of inclusive stories like Zubaan Virago, and A Mighty Girl, which highlights books for girls. But the actual facts are a lot more complicated:

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky1) The original study was small. It didn’t look at Newbery winners, or Pura Belpre winners, or Coretta Scott King winners. They picked 5,000 books from a century of literature – when 22,000 children’s books were published in the US in 2009 alone! Every report on the subject admits greater research needs to be done.

2) Language. English has just two pronoun genders to refer to living things – Little Blue Truck by Alice SchertleHe and She. If you do not know the sex of the duck, the bear, the cat,  you automatically assign one (and somehow dogs are always male and cats are  female). Inanimate objects (despite what you named your car) are referred to as It. But It doesn’t work when the It is a character (ie, The Little Engine That Could, or Little Blue Truck). We don’t speak that way (though we try with an incorrect singular Their). Other languages have gender-neutral pronouns; English doesn’t, and He has been our default pronoun for centuries.

3) Reading abilities World wide, the reading ability scores of girls surpass those of boys. Doesn’t matter if it’s Africa, the US, China, or Finland, the star of world literacy. Adjust for gender, and Finnish girls lead the world in reading, not Finnish boys. It’s harder to get boys to read, and harder to keep them reading. Around the world, boys slowly stop reading for pleasure by 11-13 (in general). When you switch to older (12-18) readers, female protagonists shoot up to 65%. Even in intermediate readers (9-12), boys drop to 48% of lead characters. Now we’ve opened up a separate can of worms as to whether books are being geared toward boys to attempt to keep them reading, or assuming boys won’t read and letting girls win.

Absolutely One Thing (featuring Charlie and Lola) by Lauren Child4)  Publishers. In the end, it’s the publishers who release titles and illustrations. As Lauren Child (of Charlie and Lola) states: “…If you write a book that has a lead character that is a girl, publishers want you to slightly ‘girlify’ it, to make it ‘look more like a girl’s’ book.”

5) Quality vs. quantity. “… Are the central female characters empowered or do they reproduce stereotypes? Is there conflicting subtext – are the females punished or rewarded for their actions?” Joan of Arc may be a famous teen who did amazing things, but she was burned alive for it.  Not inspirational to all.

In a quick check of CPL’s shelves, I randomly pulled 112 picture booksThe First Step : How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman (no title peeking). Of 52 with people, 21 had male leads, 23 had female leads, and 8 had both. Of animal/objects, 22 were ‘male’, 9 were ‘female’, and 19 were neutral – somewhat more balanced. In the end, yes, books may be skewed toward male characters – for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t make them bad books. You can find just as much to be admired in Hermione Granger or Luna Lovegood or Molly Weasley as Harry Potter. Books on strong girls are out there, in increasing numbers, and the more women are politically empowered, the more books there are. Don’t buy into one misleading advertisement, but look around. Ask your library if they have a certain book. Ask a publisher if they’re planning on anything in a specific category.   Still want books with lead girls? Check out these timeless classics for children,  teens, and more:

Pippi LongstockingJunie B. Jones is a Beauty Shop Guy by Barbara Park

Madeline

Junie B. Jones

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games 

Divergent

Maisy

Little House on the Prairie series

OliviaEloise by Kay Thompson

Eloise

Matilda

Coraline

The Golden Compass by Philip PullmanIvy and Bean

The Golden Compass

Matched

Mandy

Ella Enchnted by Gail Carson LevineElla Enchanted

Cinder

Beka Cooper series

Blueberries for Sal

 

 

March is Women’s History Month

Today’s post comes to us from Bill, Head of Adult Services.
100 years ago, in 1919, women DID NOT have the Constitutional right to vote.  That’s right – your grandmothers or great-grandmothers were second class citizens!  The 19th Amendment to the Constitution – which granted women the right to vote, would not be passed until the following year – 1920.  Yet today there are 102 women serving in the House of Representatives, 25 serving in the Senate, and 3 seated on the Supreme Court.
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Read – listen – watch and learn the stories of the women of today – and yesterday – whose strong, influential, and groundbreaking actions impacted our country.  The lives of the famous and not so famous paint a picture of women’s experiences in America and how they helped build our nation.
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Explore more about the role of women in shaping our history with these books from our shelves:
And these titles available to Cheshire Library cardholders in multiple formats:
Learn more about women in history: https://www.biography.com/tag/womens-history
Learn more about Women’s History Month: https://womenshistorymonth.gov/about/

Leading Ladies in Literature – Strong Female Reads for International Women’s Day (March 8)

When asked to write a post about strong female protagonists, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to think of my favorites. Even if I’ve read hundreds of books over the course of my life, only a handful stand out in their portrayal of a female lead. Most often, the most interesting characters I’ve come across are varied, flawed, and human, filled with errors and quirks that I find easy to relate to in my day to day life. These are the women I find myself relating to (even if I do wish I could be as perfect as Hermione Granger) and rooting for. I’ve compiled a list of a few of my favorites, which barely scratch the surface of the wonderful and wide world of women in books, but hey, we all have to start somewhere.

If I’ve missed your favorites, please feel free to leave a comment down below, I’m always looking to add books to my reading list.                                                    

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. First off, this is a book I swore to never read again, ironically,  just because of how much it hurts to read. Wally Lamb is a master of creating a character you physically hurt for after getting to know them, and Dolores Price is no different. At once a fragile girl and a hard-edged cynic, so tough to love yet so inimitably lovable, Dolores is as poignantly real as our own imperfections. Through rough edges and rougher trials, including assault, mental institutions, absentee parents and lonely adulthood, Lamb shapes a character you find yourself cursing at, wincing for, and holding close.

519bogs1ivl._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. After she shames herself on local TV, 14-year-old Johanna Morgan reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–a fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. Watching Johanna stumble through her rebirth into a plucky more confident version of herself made me look back fondly (and lets be honest, not that fondly) on my high school years. Trying to re-brand yourself, whether it be with new fish net stockings, a streak of pink in your hair, or a new favorite band, is a rough process. How to Build A Girl highlights how surface level all of these additions are, and asks the question, how far will one really go to re-imagine themselves? I found myself wanting to hug the pivotal character Johanna, and tell her it gets better, if not by action, then by time. It seems like even if she’s struggling, Johanna is a character you find yourself egging on, and even being somewhat jealous of at times.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein.  I brought this book on vacation thinking I’d enjoy a pulpy novel about crime scene clean up. I’m a true crime fan myself, and my interest in forensic science has led me down an interesting path in terms of books in the past year. This book turned out to be the opposite of pulp, and had very little to do with crime scene clean up after all. Sandra Pankhurst is a titan in the industry of Specialized Trauma Cleaning, she does her job and she does it well. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. The true life story of Sandra left me wounded in ways I didn’t expect. In a world that profits of making jokes of hoarders and death, this book, and Sandra, treat these people with dignity. She bags up their postcards, their books, their recipe cards tucked into binders, and saves them from the despair of dirt and mold. She returns them to their family, and gives the people effected by it hope to start their life over. She never once jokes at their expense, or teases them for their situation behind closed doors. After going through such a violent and unforgiving life, Sandra shows grace and humility, mixed in with grit and sarcasm I find comforting.

51cbsqw0cbl._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.  If you’re looking for a strange, otherworldly novel, that expands into two more books, then the Southern Reach trilogy is for you.  A group of female scientists, ignoring the high mortality rate of the previous missions, travels into an area only known as “Area X” to research a strange phenomenon.  Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.  The narrator, the biologist of the group,  is a strange and difficult character to get a hold on. You don’t know her motives until they uncover themselves, slowly and methodically throughout the text. She seems driven by knowledge and the unknown alone, until it’s revealed that she had a husband who also went into the reach, but who came back strange and unrecognizable. I think one of my favorite parts of this character is that she’s not a broken record throughout the story. She doesn’t repeat over and over her need to find her husband in the Reach, if anything, she loses that goal almost immediately. Her goals become more abstract, her position as a narrator is unreliable at best, which makes her all the more interesting.

Some other books with strong female protagonists worth checking out: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, Little Women by Louise May Alcott, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

What’s Happening at Cheshire Library in March

In like a lion, out like a lamb, and in between there’s a month full of marvelous programming at Cheshire Library. Here are the highlights for March:

Terrific Tweens

Wednesdays, March 6 and 20, 4:00 – 4:45pm

Kids are invited to drop in for fun with art, science, technology, and games. We’ll assemble robots & contraptions, play with our food, create fun works of art, and bring video games to life,  something different each time! For grades 5-8, no registration required.

New Movie Thursday: Bohemian Rhapsody

Thursday, March 7, 2019, 5:45 – 8:00pm

Did you miss the screening of a film you wanted to see in theatres?  Join us for the first Thursday of the month for a screening of a recently released film. This month we are screening Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Oscar-winner Rami Malek as the unconventional lead singer of the celebrated band Queen. Rated PG-13. Registration is appreciated for the adult program.

Game Night : Dominion

Thursday, March 7, 2019, 6:15 – 8:00pm

Spend your evening meeting new people or with your family and friends playing tabletop games! There will be a different game each month for you to try and to enjoy, this month we are playing Dominion.   Staff will be available to teach you how to play. Light refreshments will be served.  Registration required for this adult program.

From Jazz to Soul with Rhonda Denet and her trio

Sunday, March 10, 2019, 2:00 – 3:30pm

Rhonda and her trio will perform jazz and soul standards from the 1930s through the 1960s, paying tribute to song stylists from Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin. The trio features Mike Bardash on piano, Gene Torres on bass, and Chuck Batton on drums. No registration required, but get here early for the best seats!

Author Talk: Xhenet Aliu, author of “Brass: A Novel”

Monday, March 11, 2019, 6:00 – 8:00pm

Please join us as we welcome Xhenet Aliu, Waterbury native and author of Brass: A Novel, who joins us on her U.S. promotional tour of the paperback version of her bestseller. Told in parallel narratives with biting wit and grace, Brass announces a fearless new voice with a timely, tender, and quintessentially American story. Bookclubs are encouraged to attend. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing, registration is required.

Comics Club

Wednesday, March 13, 2019, 4:00 – 4:45pm

Bang! Pow! Join us for a new graphic novel book club for kids!  Make comic strips, play games, and other fun activities. This month we are discussing Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke. You can pick up a copy of the book at the children’s information desk starting on February 15. For kids in grades 2-5, registration is required.

Art in the Afternoon: A Cheshire Public Library & Artsplace Collaboration

Saturday, March 16, 2019, 1:00 – 4:00pm

Have you always wanted to try a class at Artsplace? Here is your chance to sample up to three classes at no charge! Four artists from Artsplace will be giving free mini-lessons during the afternoon sign up for 1 or more.

  • Sketchbook 101 with Linda Marino
  • Ink & Watercolor with Bob Noreika
  • Felting with Robin McCahill
  • Colored Pencil with Rita Paradis

Pre-registration is necessary as class sizes are limited.

“Headin’ Home” St. Patrick’s Day concert

Sunday, March 17, 2019, 2:00 – 3:30pm

Hailing from Cheshire, the father- daughter duo Headin’ Home creates a joyous sound. Dan Hedden (guitar/vocals) and Christine Hedden (fiddle) dig into the soil of New England and Irish traditions, playing both traditional tunes and songs as well as originals grown from these traditional seeds. No registration required.

Italy: A Cultural Journey

Monday, March 18, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00pm

When one thinks of Italy the usual thoughts come to mind: great food, great wine, beautiful countryside. But delve deeper into this rich and complex country and you will actually find a melting pot of cultures. We will explore the regional differences in a slide presentation which takes us on a colorful journey from north to south and even to the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Registration is required.

Historic Homes of Cheshire

Thursday, March 21, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00pm

Robert Kerson will discuss the historic Nathaniel/Benedict Ives Homestead, the historic Deacon Joseph Ives home, and the Steven R. Bradley house. Learn more about these hometown historical properties! Registration is required.

Kensett Birthday Party Celebration

Friday, March 22, 2019, 3:00 – 5:00pm

Join us for a celebration of John Frederick Kensett’s 203rd birthday!  Cheshire native Kensett was a renowed landscape painter and a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  We will enjoy cake and activities for both children and adults, including pop-up cards. Sponsored by Artsplace, registration is required.

Cuba: More Than Rum and Revolution

Monday, March 25, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00pm

For decades, US tourism to Cuba has been illegal , and the importation of Cuban coffee, rum and other goodies has been banned, but no longer. Join Dr. Cynthia Pope of the CCSU Geography Department as she talks about the link between our two countries and takes a look at why Cuba is a worthy destination for travel. Registration is required.

Kids Yoga

Wednesday, March 27, 2019, 4:00 – 4:45pm

Get moving at the library with fun and relaxing yoga games, songs and stretches! Yoga helps kids with relaxation, focus, balance and flexibility. This class will be taught by one of our children’s librarians who is also a certified kids yoga instructor. For kids in grades K-6. Registration is required starting March 1st.

Renovation Celebration! Concert & Reception featuring the CONN-MEN

Sunday, March 31, 2019, 2:00 – 3:30pm

Join us for a reception, concert and library tours to celebrate Cheshire Library’s newly renovated space!  The concert will feature the CONN-MEN, UCONN’s premier all-male a cappella group. No registration required. This concert is made possible by donations given to the Friends of the Library in loving memory of Janice Miner.

More Than Oprah

Many people are aware that Oprah Winfrey is the richest black woman in America, with a net worth of more than 2.8 billion dollars (which still doesn’t put her in the top 10 richest American women). She is, however, in the top 10 richest self-made billionaire American woman – and the only African-American woman to make the cut. But long before Oprah, there was Sarah Breedlove.

Success Started Early

Breedlove was America’s first self-made female millionaire. Born in 1867, she was an orphan by the age of 7, a domestic by the age of ten, and married her way out at 14. After several marriages that ended in widowhood or divorce, in 1905 Breedlove began her own line of beauty and hair care products for African American women (under the name Madame C.J. Walker), many of whom were going bald because of the harsh lye soaps of the era. The need was great, her products worked, and she went on to become an American philanthropist.

To a degree. Marjorie Joyner was one of her employees. Marjorie became the first African American woman to be issued a patent – for the first machine to permanently wave hair (no Toni kits back then!). However, she never saw a dime for her creation – the royalties and rights went to Madame C.J. Walker! Next time you go to a salon or use a home perm kit, remember to think of Marjorie Joyner.

When we think of African-American women in history, we seem to get stuck on Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Coretta Scott King, but they are just the very tip of the iceberg.

The Long Hard Climb for Recognition

It’s been a slow, hard climb for African-American women. While Hattie McDaniel won a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1939 (the first African American to do so), a Best Actress award didn’t come until Halle Berry won in 2001 for Monster’s Ball. That’s a long wait. While the first white woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was in 1909, the first African-American woman wasn’t until the great Toni Morrison won in 1993. Although actress Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame showed African-American women as educated members of space crews in 1966 (and gave television’s first interracial kiss), Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, didn’t make it to space until 1992. To this day, African American women are disproportionately victims of more violent crimes than any other group of women – by more than double. While more African-American women are enrolled in college than any other group (9.7%), they make up only 8% of the workforce, and earn only 64¢ on the dollar compared to 78¢ for white women; 21% of African-American women live in poverty, compared to just 9% of white women. Only now, decades later, are we beginning to appreciate the remarkable contributions of African-American women in the fields of science and math, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who helped launch NASA’s space program by doing the math in their heads.

Making Strides

While there is still so far to go in equalizing opportunities for minority women, the 21st century has shown remarkable gains, with not only Condoleeza Rice becoming National Security Advisor and then Secretary General under President Bush, but with Michelle Obama becoming the First Lady of the United States.  African-American women continue to enter politics, with record wins in 2018, including the first African-American women elected to Congress from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. So grab a novel, a biography, a great DVD on the lives and achievements of African American women, and catch up on some of the great history you never learned about in school.