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

 

 

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.

 

Childhood Horrors

Sometime ago in the mists of the last century, there were only three TV networks. On holidays, you usually had the choice of a football game, a different football game, or the longest movies the network could find – usually Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music.  Chitty, an overly technicolor musical, scared the daylights out of me. As soon as that Childcatcher came prowling, I was behind the sofa holding my breath. Today’s kids would just send his photo to Instagram and beat him up.

Children see things differently. Some are easily spooked, some are skeptical from birth. Kids misunderstand and misinterpret things, and that alone can create unfounded horror.

Obviously, most children’s films try to avoid horror, but what’s marketed to kids is not always Barney and Big Bird – few Grimm’s Fairy Tales end happily ever after. Poltergeist –  ghosts, demons, peeling faces, and evil clowns in child-swallowing glowing closets – was only rated PG. PG, because PG-13 hadn’t been invented yet.

Young Sherlock Holmes (the food nightmare) scarred one of my children; to this day she won’t eat cream puffs. Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and its disembodied heads was another. Another didn’t trust Nazgûl (nor should you), and was terrified by Matilda. The 1971 Alastair Sim animated A Christmas Carol, with its writhing starving waifs and the faceless, voiceless Ghost of Christmas Future taints every incarnation I’ve seen since.

If your child likes spooky things and wants to be a part of the Addams family, here’s a list of kid’s films – honest! – that just might give your kid the shivers. If you have a child with a more sensitive nature, you might want to wait a few years on these:

Toy Story – Oh, doll-headed spider and hook-bodied Barbie, how we hate you! You may be Pixar, but you’re scary!

Coraline – Creepy button-eyed fake parents trying to steal a child?  Hmm….

Labyrinth – Sure, we adore Bowie, but these are Muppets who steal babies, chase girls with drill bits with intent to kill, and drop people into pits lined with talking disembodied hands. ‘Nuff said.

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Disney likes to whistle and pretend this isn’t theirs, but Ray Bradbury didn’t edit the scariness out of his novel of two boys and an evil carnival run by Mr. Dark, complete with electrocutions and freakshow.

Who Framed Roger RabbitBut this is a comedy! you cry – and it is, until crying Toons get faced with The Dip. Be prepared for a talk on death.

Return to Oz – if the flying monkeys didn’t scare you, perhaps Dorothy’s electroshock treatments will.

Jumanji – sure, it’s a game, but a deadly one. Floors that swallow people are just some of the issues; the intensity and situations may be too much entirely for young viewers.

Harry Potter series – yes, the first one is a charming tale of an orphan boy who learns he’s a wizard, but the stories get darker, and major beloved characters start dying. By the third film, Voldemort is embodied evil and believably out to get Muggles. Like your child.

The Dark CrystalFraggle Rock it’s not. It’s a dark Muppet film with lots of dark themes. Preteens maybe, but there’s no Elmo to lighten it for the little kids.

Gremlins – another movie made before PG-13, so it was stuck with PG. Gremlins are cute little things until you feed them, and then they become psychopathic demons out to harm and kill.  If preteen horror films was a separate genre, this would be one of their cornerstones, along with perhaps The Witches, Watcher in the Woods, and Jaws (which is also only PG).

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – let’s face it, Roald Dahl is almost never nice to children. Here alone, he sucks them up pipes, dumps them down garbage chutes, and has them cornered by very scary men in dark alleys asking them to sell their souls for money. But the crowning touch cited by many critics is the boat ride  scene, all psychedelic and threatening – but that’s the way it is in the book, too – a disorienting journey where everyone believes Wonka’s looney.

Every parent knows their child best. Some kids like a scary movie, some kids will wind up sleeping in your bed for a week with all the lights on. If your kid shows interest in scary movies, these might be a gentler introduction over, say, The Exorcist. Just be aware that even a seemingly wholesome, kid-marketed movie can have some really scary moments when you least expect it.

They’re Not What They Seem…

Can you figure out what these women have in common?

AlanaAlanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce “I did this because I wanted to become a knight.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxShadowbridge by Gregory Frost “I did this because I needed to protect myself.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxThe Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted “I did this because I wanted an education.”

 

 

jacketA Soldier’s Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss “I did this because I wanted to escape from my previous life and fight for a cause.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxTwelfth Night by William Shakespeare “I did this because I needed a way to live.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxDisney’s Mulan “I did this because I needed to protect my family.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxBloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. “I did this because I wanted to sail around the world.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxSelf-Made Man by Norah Vincent “I did this because I wanted to learn about how men live.”

 

 

Jacket.aspxRowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest by Nancy Springer “I did this because I was searching for my father.”

 

Ouran

Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori “I did this because I was in debt.”

 

 

Did you guess? Women disguised as men. They were disguised so they could fight for themselves or their families, protect themselves when they were all alone in a man’s world, and earn an education, which they would have been denied otherwise. Each and every one of these is absolutely fascinating. Do yourself a favor and work your way through this list!

Do you have any favorite books/movies/plays with this subject that did not make this list?

A Playlist for the Road

My family is all over the place, more in summer, perhaps, but it’s almost a guarantee we’re out of state at least once a month. Just between August and September, we’ll log Baltimore, Boston, New York City, Maine, and a couple of days in California. In October, it’s Minnesota for a wedding. If it’s on the eastern coast, we’ve driven it. Nothing makes time pass faster than listening to good music, so here is a compiled playlist of songs about cars and the open road.

Now, before you start listing all the songs I didn’t include, know that there are HUNDREDS of songs about cars and driving, from John Denver’s Country Roads to Dr. Dre all the way back to Roger Miller’s King of the Road, which, honestly, makes my hair stand on end. Maybe it’s because it was on too many K-Tel or Time-Life albums that were pushed at every single commercial break back in the 70’s & 80’s. If you search the internet, you can find several lists, some of which are actually about cars and driving, and others that make no sense at all to me (Hey Jude? Psycho Killer?).

My criteria for the list were, yeah, songs about cars, but more so songs that make me want to hit the open road, that make me wish for an empty highway so I can drop the stick down to third and wind that engine out, that make me feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, songs that make a ride seem exciting. And I added a few fun songs at the end, too.

1) On the Road Again (Willie Nelson) This is practically our theme song every time we get in the car. Even if you don’t like country music, this one is quite tolerable.

sm2) East Bound and Down (Jerry Reed) This is the theme song from Smokey and the Bandit, and there probably isn’t a better long-distance driving movie than that. So stick a six-pack of Coors in your trunk, load the dog, open the windows if you can’t take off the roof, but don’t let Sheriff Justice catch you.

3) Life is a Highway (Rascal Flatts) – Again, don’t be fooled by the singer. This is perfectly good rock, without a bit of twang. Your kids will know it from the movie Cars.

4) Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen) One of my favorites for driving. Upbeat, nostalgic – makes you want to run away from home and never look back.

5) Rockin’ Down the Highway (Doobie Bros) – Old school, fast moving, something that’s been on the radio forever.

6) The Passenger (Iggy Pop, or Alison Mosshart and the Forest Rangers) Choose your version. I know the song by Mosshart, from the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack, but Iggy Pop sang it long before. Iggy’s version is a little plainer, while Mosshart’s is harder and has a more driving beat (no pun intended).

7) Truckin’ (Grateful Dead) You know that steady beat you get on some concrete highways (like I-684), where there’s a definite thump as you hit each and every expansion gap? This song has that same beat, adding to that illusion of cruising down the road.

8) Greased Lightnin’ (John Travolta, on the Grease soundtrack) Who wouldn’t want to cruise the streets in Greased Lightnin’?

GLEE: The boys perform in the "Glease" episode of GLEE airing Thursday, Nov. 15 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. L-R: Harry Shum Jr., Samuel Larsen, Chord Overstreet, Blake Jenner and Jacob Artist. ©2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Adam Rose/FOX

9) Fast Car (Tracy Chapman) Another song you can feel, racing through the dark, laughing, carefree, someone’s arm around your shoulder, not giving a hoot at that exact moment to the pressures and responsibilities waiting to crush you when you finally stop.

10) Little Red Corvette (Prince) – This was SO overplayed when it was new it kind of scrapes my nerves, but who wouldn’t love to drive one? I love Fire-Engine Red, even though it attracts speed radar, but I’d prefer one in Candy Apple Heavy Metal Flake.

11) Cars (Gary Numan) – the epitome of that 1980 technofunk that shifted over to what’s considered modern “dance” music. It came out around the same time as “Funky Town,” and I always pair the two.

12) Convoy (C.W. McCall) – more properly it’s talking blues with a chorus, and the movie was filmed so badly you can spot the microphone in some scenes, but the premise remains good – a ticked off trucker who accidentally picks up a convoy, and the media takes it to mean a message. Nothing like a hundred semi’s (and “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus”) to say Road Trip. And fear not, the line is truckin’ convoy.

And just for Fun:

13) Batman theme – the old 1960’s version will give you more nana nana’s for your money, but who doesn’t want to drive like Batman, especially if you’re in the car alone and no one can see you? Crank it up.bond

14) James Bond theme – if Batman’s not dignified enough for you, if you’re wearing a suit and not a cape, if your car is European, crank this one and go practice your corners on the Saw Mill River Parkway, one of the squiggliest little roads I’ve ever seen.

15) Beep Beep (Little Nash Rambler) (The Playmates) Yes, it starts out slow, but that’s the gag. Stick with it to the end. Your kids will love it.