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

 

 

Boom! Pow! The Benefits of Reading Graphic Novels

Today’s post comes to us from Ali, our Head of Children and Teen Services.

You bring your child into the library to find a book for them to read. They don’t seem interested in any chapter books you suggest.  They find the graphic novel section and seem really intrigued by a few titles.  You don’t allow them to choose one of those books because you want them to read a “real book”.  Sound familiar? I see this scenario often in the Children’s Room.  A child finally finds something they want but are told that, “those books don’t count”.

Graphic novels and comic books have become increasingly popular over the last few years. Parents and educators often dismiss these books as “junk” however, it is important to see the benefits of reading graphic novels. They are great resources for teaching important literacy skills, especially with unenthusiastic readers.  They serve as an initial gateway to reading because they often have more visual appeal than traditional novels.

Graphic novels are great for visual learners because they force readers to decipher differences in the text format to determine narration, tone, or mood.  The illustrations also help to decode difficult vocabulary. Graphic novels can serve as an introduction to non-linear storytelling. Each chapter may present a different time period or flashback to a past event forcing the reader to stop and contemplate the story.

I think it is important to start viewing graphic novels as “real books” because they truly offer so many literacy aids. They offer the same benefits as traditional chapter books, plus some.  If you’re looking for a good starting place, here are a few of my favorite new graphic novels:

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol.  A hilarious memoir of a middle school student who tries to fit in. It’s not easy for Vera, being a Russian girl surrounded by friends who live in fancy houses and go to expensive summer camps.  Her mother can only afford to send her to a Russian summer camp.  Vera is sure she will fit in, but the camp is not exactly what she expected.

All Summer Long by Hope Larson. Thirteen-year-old Bina and her best friend Austin do everything together.  Austin is off to soccer camp for a month, so it’s up to Bina to find something to do this summer.  When Austin returns, he isn’t the same as when he left.  Can they reestablish their friendship?

Grace for Gus by Harry Bliss.  Grace decides to help her classroom’s pet guinea pig, Gus, because she knows what being lonely feels like.  She is determined to do something special for her four-legged friend.

 Positively Izzy by Terri Libenson.  Izzy loves acting in skits and making up funny stories. Bri is the smart one. But she wants people to see there’s more to her than just her good grades. This books captures the angst, drama, and humor of middle school life.

Books About 9/11 for Kids and Teens

Every time the 11th of September rolls around, I can’t help remembering where I was when I heard about the devastating attacks of that day.  It feels strange today to realize that there’s now a whole generation of Americans  who only know about the events of that day through movies and books. Though it is an important part of our recent history as a nation, it is ultimately for parents to decide how much discussion about the subject they need to have as a family. Sometimes a book can be an entry point into a difficult conversation.

Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey Fireboat by Maira Kalmanby Maira Kalman. A fireboat, launched in 1931, is retired after many years of fighting fires along the Hudson River, but is saved from being scrapped and then called into service again on September 11, 2001. (Ages 4-8)

America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell America is under attack by Don Brownby Don Brown. A straightforward account of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Watercolor illustrations show the destruction of the plane crashes as well as the emotions of the people involved. (Ages 8 – 12)

I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001I survived the attcks of september 11, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis  by Lauren Tarshis. Part of the popular “I Survived” series, the familiar format may make the subject matter easier for middle grade readers. Noah is looking forward to spending his 11th birthday with his brave New York City firefighter dad when the outing is interrupted by the September 11 attacks, to which his father must respond at the risk of his life. (Ages 8-12)

Nine, Ten : a September 11 StoryNine, Ten: a September 11 story by Nora Raleigh Bakin by Nora Raleigh Baskin. This chapter book relates how the lives of four middle school-age kids living in different parts of the country intersect and are affected by the events of September 11, 2001. (Ages 10 – 13)

The memory of things by Gae PolisnerThe Memory of Things by Gae Polisner. Racing to safety after witnessing the first Twin Tower collapse on September 11, 2001, sixteen-year-old Kyle, having been separated from his family, impulsively brings home a traumatized girl who has forgotten who she is. (Ages 12 and up)

All We Have LeftAll We Have Left by Wendy Mills by Wendy Mills. In interweaving stories of sixteen-year-olds, modern-day Jesse tries to cope with the ramifications of her brother’s death on 9/11, while in 2001, Alia, a Muslim, gets trapped in one of the Twin Towers and meets a boy who changes everything for her as flames rage around them. (Ages 12 and up)

Some other nonfiction titles for young readers on this subject are: September 11 We Will Never Forget  by Peter Benoit, September 11 Then and Now by Peter Benoit, Ground Zero Dogs  by Meish Goldish, A Nation Challenged : a visual history of 9/11 and its aftermath, text and photos by the New York Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Sister

Did you know that Sherlock Holmes has a younger sister? Me, either, until I encountered the amazing Enola Holmes.

Author Nancy Springer has written an intriguing children’s series about the exploits of Enola, a girl left on her own on her fourteenth birthday when her mother walks out of the house and disappears. Once her two much older older brothers Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes, learn what has happened, they decide that the best thing would be to place Enola into a boarding school.

The free-spirited Enola has other ideas. Her mother has left behind codes and clues, leading Enola to hidden stashes of money. Once she has enough, she slips away and travels on her own to London, where she turns her talents to becoming a perditorian, a finder of the lost. Having mastered the art of disguise, Enola manages to stay two steps ahead of Sherlock and Mycroft while solving crimes in London.

I confess, I love reading children’s books. This series in particular is entertaining for adults as well as kids because it is not over-simplified. Enola frequently uses terms such as “proboscis”  and “perditorian” and the solutions to the mysteries are not obvious. London’s social rules are humorously and sometimes  poignantly viewed through the eyes of Enola, who often is outraged at the restrictions society places on women. The darker, crueler side of London is also depicted in sobering scenes of poverty, filth, crime, and disease.

It was also announced this year that Millie Bobby Brown (of “Stranger Things” fame) will be starring in a film series based on the Enola Holmes series.

Kids will love the clever Enola, who can disguise her self so well, she often walks right past her two older brothers without them even recognizing her! Adults will delight in Enola’s interactions with her brother Sherlock, which are written with wit and humor. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I greatly enjoyed this portrayal of the world’s most famous fictional detective. He genuinely cares for what he views as his wayward sister and comes to respect her intelligence and courage. He and Enola have some very amusing adventures before the ending of the series.

There are six titles in all, and I wish there were more. Highly recommended for all readers interested in mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and Victorian London.

Notable Children’s Books of 2018

Summer Reading. Those two words can strike panic into parents and kids alike. Finding quality books for children to read can be quite a challenge – you can always ask a Children’s Librarian for suggestions, or how about a whole group of them? The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), is the world’s largest organization dedicated to the support and enhancement of library service to children, and they know a thing or two about Children’s Literature.

Each year a committee of the ALSC identifies the best of the best in children’s books. According to the Notables Criteria, “notable” is defined as: Worthy of note or notice, important, distinguished, outstanding. As applied to children’s books, notable should be thought to include books of especially commendable quality, books that exhibit venturesome creativity, and books of fiction, information, poetry and pictures for all age levels (birth through age 14) that reflect and encourage children’s interests in exemplary ways.

Pinterest LogoThe annual Notable List  is long, but we have simplified it somewhat by creating Pinterest Boards for the three grade-level lists: Younger Readers (preschool – grade 2), Middle Readers (grades 3 – 5), and Older Readers (grades 6 – 8). With book covers, descriptions, and links to each book in our catalog, you can browse the Boards, see which books are on the shelf or place requests for books that are out, all from the CPL Pinterest account. You may even see something else that strikes your fancy while you’re there!

 

 

 

The full 2018 Notable Book List can be found on the ALSC section of the ALA website. Past lists for each year going back to 1995 are also archived.

What other things would you like to see us feature on our Pinterest account? Let us know in the comments!