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

 

 

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.

 

         

  

             

Myth-ing Persons : Heroes of Myth and Legend

January began as one of the last months of year, not the first.  The start of the Roman calendar (and the astrological one) was March. Back then there were only ten months to the year, totaling 304 days. Between was a miasmic 66 monthless days of “winter.” According to legend, Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (after Romulus himself), added January and February to codify that winter term (along with a catch-up month every other year of 22 days).

Was Numa a real figure? History leans toward yes, born around 753 BC. Both Plutarch and Livy (major Roman writers) wrote about him. He codified Roman laws and religion, so we know he actually lived, but like many legends, there are stories about him that are most likely fable.

Every culture has their grandiose heroes of myth and legend. Some we know are fantasy (Beowulf), while others we know are fact (Jesse James). Let’s look at some famous heroes that history can’t make up its mind about.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan. She is believed to have lived somewhere between 386 CE and 620 CE (if you’re not up on your history, Common Era has replaced the Anno Domini). She takes her aging father’s place in the army, and serves for twelve years without her fellow soldiers realizing she’s a woman. Depending on the source, her name might be Hua Mulan, Zhu Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Although she’s first mentioned by the 500’s, historians can’t decide if she’s real or just an interesting story.

 

 

 

 

John Henry

The steel-driving African American of song fame who managed to hammer more rock than the new-fangled steam drill before collapsing and dying was likely a real man. In the 1920’s, sociologist Guy Johnson tracked down not only people who claimed to have worked with John Henry, but one man who claimed to have seen the showdown. The front runner for the actual location is during the cutting of the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia, around 1870, but no one has definitive proof.

 

 

 

 

William Tell

A folk hero of Switzerland, Tell was an expert bowman. When Switzerland fell under control of the Habsburgs, a magistrate put his hat on a pole and demanded all citizens bow before it, or be imprisoned. While in town with his son, Tell refused to bow, was arrested and sentenced to death – though, since he was such a marksman, the Magistrate would let him go if he could shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, was arrested anyway, escaped, and the people rose up in rebellion, in an act considered the founding of the Swiss Confederacy, around 1307. Some historians believe Tell is merely a new twist on an old Danish fable.

Robin Hood

     The story of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, King Richard, and the Band of Merrymen has been told for almost a thousand years. We know King Richard and Prince John are real (Richard took the throne in 1189), but there is debate about Robin Hood. Most likely a yeoman, not a noble, the name Robin was about as common as fleas, and the word Hood (sometimes Wood; the Old English were creative spellers) simply meant a man who made or wore hoods – more common then than hats. History’s been singing about him since the 1300’s, but his true identity isn’t known. If you can, check out the BBC series Robin of Sherwood.

 

 

 

 

 

King Arthur

Oh, Arthur! How we want to believe! Of all legends, yours is perhaps the most influential of any! Your mage Merlin/Myrrdin is the direct ancestor of Gandalf, Dungeons and Dragons, Dumbledore, and more.  “Arthur” (depending on spelling) is believed to have actually been a military leader who fought battles against the Saxons around the end of the 5th century. The earliest possible references to him date to the 600’s, though some discuss a Battle of Badon but give no mention of a king named Arthur.  Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give a romanticized version in the 1100’s, then Thomas Malory came along in the 1400’s and standardized the legend. T.H. White called him the Once and Future King, and Lerner and Loewe put it all to music so we could remember it easier. Arthur was probably real, but not quite as mystical as we’ve been made to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January’s a harsh month, but 31 days is sure better than 66, so curl up with a legendary figure, real or possibly not, and decide for yourself.

 

“Welcome to Marwen” and the power of art therapy

Welcome to Marwen is a film due out on December 21 starring Steve Carell (though, honestly, Jeremy Renner would have been a dead ringer). At first glance it looks like a weird film about a man playing with dolls, but don’t be fooled by that. Marwen is so, so much more than live action mixed with fantasy. It’s a story of loss, recovery, and overcoming disability. And it’s a true story.

 

    A Life Lost

Mark Hogancamp was an artist and photographer, five years in the Navy, five years married, and an alcoholic. In April of 2000, he admitted to being a cross-dresser while drinking in a bar. When he left the bar, five men beat him so badly that he spent nine days in a coma, and forty days in the hospital relearning how to walk, talk, and behave. He had permanent memory loss of everything before the beating, and severe post-traumatic stress. His entire life before that night had been erased. Insurance cut off his therapy after a year, and he could not afford to continue on his own.

Healing Himself

    Instead, Hogancamp turned to fantasy art. Outside his home in New York State, he created Marwencol, a fantastically detailed Belgian town caught up in World War II, and populated it with excruciatingly detailed 1/6-scale figures (that’s Barbie-sized, if you don’t know. Before his injury, he’d painted miniature aircraft as a hobby, but now his hands shook too much) – including both himself and his attackers. In Marwencol, a safe place populated by women, grisly acts do occur (it’s WWII), but women are the heroes. Through the scenes he set up, Hogancamp worked out a lot of his rage and anger by “killing” his attackers over and over, his own form of therapy to deal with the loss of 38 years of memory and the disabilities he’d been left with. He can no longer draw, but he can use a camera, and his artistic photos of his figures caught the eye of the right people. They were published in an art journal, then on to a gallery show, and then a well-received documentary (Marwencol). In 2015, a book was released to critical acclaim (Welcome to Marwencol). Now, Robert Zemeckis has picked up the trail, and turned the story into a wider drama for the holiday season.

Life is Art; Art is Life

    Hogancamp’s photos are a child’s dream: proof that your dolls/action figures are having a rich life when you aren’t looking, a voyeuristic peek into a place where anyone can be the hero, the bad guys always lose, and Mom is there to save the day. His photos are eerie in their realism, down to pen-tip bullet holes and nail-polish blood, a dream gone creepy where department store mannequins have replaced people but you can’t always tell at first glance. Take a look at some of his works here, and if you like them, you can purchase some for yourself here.

    Severe head trauma is no laughing matter. Not everyone emerges from a coma, and fewer still survive them without some form of permanent disability. Trauma has been implicated in everything from brain cancers to seizures to murder, and the road to recovery is long, difficult, fractured, and rarely complete. We think of therapy as being Freudian, or using a walker down a hospital corridor, and dismiss art therapy as wasting time on a hobby, but to some, art therapy may be their very salvation. Hogancamp is still shy, plagued by anxiety and difficulties, his memories will never return, but he’s found his support, and that makes all the difference in the world.

    Check out the movie this Christmas, and read up on these other real-life survivors and their determination to pull themselves through the toughest of times. You might even be inspired to dabble in a little art therapy yourself.

Ghost Boy : The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body by Martin Pistorius

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Proof of Heaven : A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander

The Long Awakening : a Memoir  by Lindsey O’Connor

Overcoming Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-concussion Symptoms by Nigel S. King

The Mindfulness Coloring Book : Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People by Emma Farrarons

 

 

 

That Wild Wild West

Westerns are not my bag. They cover a very short piece of history (usually post-Civil War to the early 1900’s), they’re often trite, and too many of them bore me. You can run down a checklist for almost every one: Horse? Check. Damsel? Check. Angry Indian? Check. Sheriff?  Check. Big shootout? Check.

Clichéd

No doubt, much of my boredom has to do with Hollywood Westerns. Though I’ve never seen the entire Terror of Tiny Town, I’ve suffered a few westerns. I did like Tombstone, and the remake of True Grit, Young Guns, Maverick, and yes, I admit, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger – three times. Maybe I’m un-American, but I can’t stand John Wayne or his films, and while I was excited to watch High Noon (it was mentioned in the TV show M*A*S*H*, and actor Harry Morgan appeared in both), it was a terribly disappointing, tragically dull film to someone used to modern Hollywood. It turned me off from ever attempting My Darling Clementine or Shootout at the OK Corral. So while I can handle modern westerns, those old classic hallmarks aren’t found on my shelves.

Nor had I ever read a real “Western,” although a couple of Best-Western Literature lists include children’s books like the Little House on the Prairie series, as well as Old Yeller (you could probably throw in Young Pioneers, Caddie Woodlawn, Seven Alone, and the sequel to Old Yeller, Savage Sam), and those I loved just fine. If you read through twenty different lists of what’s considered the best of Old West literature, you’ll find ten books are on every list, so let’s call them the Best Westerns of Literature (not to be confused with Best Western, the hotel, or Western Lit as opposed to Asian):

The Virginian – Owen Wister
Hondo – Louis L’Amour
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
True Grit – Charles Portis
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
The Shootist – Glendon Swarthout
Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey
The Time it Never Rained – Elmer Kelton
The Ox-Bow Incident – Walter Van Tildenberg Clark
Shane – Jack Schaefer

Fresh and Award-Winning

I could have lived the rest of my life just fine without Westerns, except for one thing: someone I knew was writing one. I’ve seen Howard Weinstein for many years at various conventions, attended some of his writing workshops, and we know each other at least in passing. Howard’s written more than 18 books, from science fiction to dog training to Mickey Mantle, and some 65 comic books. To make sure he got it right, he visited several of the places he wrote about, making sure he got the details, and over a year or more I listened to him talk about his work and read excerpts from it. It was interesting, but… It was a western.

Galloway’s Gamble was published last September, and now it’s won an award: The Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Best First Western Novel. So I had a quandary: support a fellow writer in his award-winning endeavor, or ignore his success on a project he loved dearly. I thought I’d done my duty by having the library order a copy, but I buckled down and opened my first western.

photo courtesy of Howard Weinstein

Galloway’s Gamble is the story of Jake and Jamey Galloway, two brothers who shift about aimlessly looking to find their purpose and not doing well at it. They join the Civil War too late, they miss marrying the girls they had their eyes on, they get taken by a cheating card shark, and horse-shy Jake just can’t manage to hang onto a hat. Yet, little by little, they take steps and missteps to change their fortune, and wind up trying to save their little Texas hometown from the villainous cattle baron Wilhelm Krieg and the corrupt banker Silas Atwood. 

As a western, I can’t judge Galloway’s Gamble, since I’ve read nothing to compare it to, but winning an award is pretty good sign. As a novel, you certainly don’t have to like westerns to enjoy it. The story of the Galloway brothers is a timeless tale of the little man against the powerful, with a cast of characters that never lets you walk away for long – you have to pick it back up and find out what happens. While the influence of films like Maverick is evident (which is not a bad thing), there isn’t an overwhelming number of bullets, horses, swaggering men in hats, and no cliché’d slang that could be a turn-off to the casual reader. Instead, you get a solid, interesting story that just happens to take place in the late 1800’s.

Give it a try. If you like it (and I’m sure you will), you might find some of the classic westerns to your liking, too. I think I’m going to go watch Maverick again.