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

 

 

Reading about Race: Books from the African-American Experience

The highly divisive election 2016 is over, and the Internet has been blowing up ever since. Some of us are feeling victorious and hopeful, and some of us are feeling frightened and hopeless. If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, the usual pictures of babies and cats are scattered among condemnations of riots and also calls for solidarity with those who have felt targeted by the political rhetoric this past election season.

Here in our rural-ish town, it’s no secret that we are not as diverse – ethnically, culturally, religiously, economically – as the cities to the north and south of us. It’s possible to not understand why our friends and neighbors are fearful, or why the news articles dissecting the election keep bringing up the uncomfortable topic of “privilege.” And that’s where the Cheshire Library comes in. We have memoirs, novels, and studies by and about African Americans, Latinos/as, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQs, persons with disabilities, documented and undocumented immigrants, and other minority voices which we can’t always hear in our daily lives. Today, we’re listing titles that explore the African American experience in particular. (Not all of us can sit down with print books, so where possible, the links will direct you to a list of the multiple formats in our catalog in our title.)

Let’s start with nonfiction picks:

 

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward first came to our attention with Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011. Her 2014 memoir Men We Reaped explores growing up poor and Black in Mississippi, with her story framed by five men she knew who died too young. Make sure you’ve got tissues handy.

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
A culture critic with a Twitter absolutely worth following, Gay’s funny and entertaining essays touch on race, feminism, and politics as she dissects Sweet Valley High, The Help, and Chris Brown.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
Two young men, both named Wes Moore, both growing up fatherless in Baltimore. One is a Rhodes scholar, and the other is serving a life sentence for murder. Why did they end up with such different paths, and how close did each Wes Moore come to having the other’s path?

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Another National Book Award-winning author, Coates delivers his thoughts on race, history, and identity in the form of letters to his adolescent son. He dives into the Black Lives Matter movement, his childhood in Baltimore and college years at Howard University, and his views on the concept of race itself.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Racism in America, Alexander argues, hasn’t been eliminated, but redesigned. Her book examines the impact of the War on Drugs on African American communities, and how the election of Barack Obama and the resulting “colorblindness” has prevented us from acknowledging the full extent of that impact.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Since its publication in 2010, this has become required reading in high schools and book clubs alike. (In fact, we have a book group in town currently reading this!) Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cells were taken without her consent over 60 years ago, and they’ve been used for important medical discoveries like the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization. Yet, Henrietta’s living family members cannot afford health insurance. It’s a great book that explores bioethics and the intersections of race, poverty, and medical research.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Angelou’s autobiography is another required read in many school, and in it she shows her transformation from a young girl subjected to racism, sexism, and violence, to a confident and capable young mother.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
Essays from one of the most influential African American activists and writers. DuBois wrote it in 1903 as a reflection on racism pervading the U.S. since Emancipation, and it influenced future civil rights movements.

 

And now for you fiction lovers:

 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
For fans of the classics, look no further than Invisible Man. Ellison is a master writer who draws upon influences like T.S. Eliot and Dostoevsky, while telling a story of a nameless young man’s journey through America in the middle of the 20th century.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
You might know Adichie from her TED Talks on “The Danger of a Single Story” (a compelling argument for reading diverse literature) or “We Should All Be Feminists,” with the latter being featured in Beyonce’s song “Flawless.” This 2013 novel focuses on a Nigerian-born young woman who emigrates to America, and it takes a look at race and immigration in contemporary Nigeria, the UK, and the US.

Jubilee by Margaret Walker
Described as Gone With the Wind through the eyes of an emancipated slave, this novel is based on the life of Walker’s great-grandmother, who was the child of a slave and a plantation owner, and her experiences during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
A Pulitzer Prize-winning story that still holds up decades after its publication, it’s told through letters exchanged by two sisters over the course of their very different lives.

Native Son by Richard Wright
Wright’s novel, a bestseller when it came out in 1940 and a frequently-challenged book in schools, shows the systemic poverty and hopelessness experienced in Chicago’s South Side.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Morrison is a prolific writer, and Song of Solomon is considered one of her best works. This particular novel tells the story of a rich Black family in the Midwest, from the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance to the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

Further reading: