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


Junie B. Jones

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games 



Little House on the Prairie series

OliviaEloise by Kay Thompson




The Golden Compass by Philip PullmanIvy and Bean

The Golden Compass



Ella Enchnted by Gail Carson LevineElla Enchanted


Beka Cooper series

Blueberries for Sal



Childhood Revisited

  ramona If you grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, you probably read at least one of the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary. Cleary documents inquisitive, quirky Ramona from the age of four upward, and how her innocent rationales confound and vex her parents, sister, and just about everyone she meets. Cutting her own hair, baking her doll inside a birthday cake, fighting with her sister, starting school – stories every child or parent can relate to with much laughter.

Fast forward a generation. Ramona gives way to Junie B. Jones, a kindergartener of the modern age whose misinterpretations and misguided notions get her into just as much trouble as Ramona, at home and in school. But while Ramona is filled with the sweet innocence of a bygone era, Junie is modern empowered sass. Whether getting into trouble on the schoolbus or with her family or with her nemesis, That May, Junie says aloudjunie what many children and adults often think.

Myself, I’ll take Ramona over Junie B, simply because Junie is a little too fresh for me, but I confess: I love the Junie B. Jones books, and sneak off to read them even though my youngest is now 17. And yes, I would have no problem rereading a Ramona book if I had an hour to kill – I have the whole set. If you love the genre but won’t read a kid’s book, there is hope: if you miss those kinds of stories, of seeing the world through a child’s eyes as they struggle to make sense of the world around them, often hilariously misinterpreting things, fear not! The adult form of those stories exists.

zippyEnter Haven Kimmel, who grew up in the tiny town of Mooreland, Indiana, in the 1970’s (population 300). Kimmel is a real life Ramona Quimby, and she chronicles her life in a book called A Girl Named Zippy. How she sees things, both odd and oh-so-totally familiar (“A Short List of Records My Father Threatened to Break Over my Head If I Played Them One More Time” “A Short List of Things My Father Won Gambling” “The Breakfast Bar at Which No Breakfast Was Ever Eaten.”), will have you laughing out loud where ever you happen to be reading at the time. Her cast of crazy characters, both friends and family, are common to almost every family, whether they admit them or not. Her father works in a factory, her mother lies on the couch watching TV ignoring any and all household chores, and there’s nothing in the house to eat but carrots. Although Kimmel never has clean clothes (people she visits tend to wash her clothes for her when she stops by), only one room has heat, and the house is falling down around them, Kimmel never feels neglected. She hates her Quaker roots and three-times-a-week church, her mother’s best friend has the mouth of a sailor (I can’t help but see Kathy Bates playing her in a movie), and her brother and sister flee home at the first opportunity.couch

In her second book, She Got Up Off the Couch, Kimmel describes her later years when her mother got some gumption, got off the couch, and decided to enroll at Ball State University – though it only made the home conditions worse, if possible. While being on campus with her mother, attending theater, even just listening to her mother’s phone conversations, Kimmel is suddenly thrust into realizing there’s a world beyond Mooreland, and she is never the same again. Things are not always fun and games, and Kimmel starts to become aware of the differences of how she lives versus how other people live (her father’s friend has gold toilets and velvet wallpaper; they have a hole in their wall that goes almost to the outside, and no running water), and begins to notice her parents are never together. Eventually she catches on to the fact her father’s having an affair, but even then Kimmel’s tone is wistful and both painfully accusatory and forgiving at the same time.

Whether you grew up in the 60’s, 70’s, or 90’s, the fact that you grew up at all gives you a common experience shared by everyone else, oftentimes more than you know. If you can’t relate directly to Kimmel, you probably knew someone in your neighborhood just like her. Whether you grew up in Indiana, Oregon, Arizona, or Massachusetts, you will find delight and painful familiarity in Kimmel’s youthful innocence (“She picked out a wig to wear on the special day, too, a style and color she considered “subtle’ and which I thought said ‘Pekingese.’”), while your children laugh knowingly at Junie and Ramona. It is the same story, different audiences.

Remembering Children’s Author Barbara Park (1947-2013)

Children’s author Barbara Park died at the age of 66 on Friday November 15th after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago. Since then she and her husband, Richard, founded Sisters in Survival (“SIS”), a non-profit, all-volunteer organization that offers financial assistance to ovarian cancer patients. Random House said contributions can be made to

Barbara Park was the author of the well-known and much-loved Junie B. Jones series. Starting in 1992, Park wrote more than 30 illustrated chapter books about the smart-mouthed girl with an ungrammatical opinion of everybody. The first book in the series is Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus.  The Junie B. Jones character is well loved by many children and families, but not everyone approved of this trouble-prone character. Some parents and educators have been troubled by Jones’ language and cheeky ways, worrying that she was a bad example and might negatively influence her readers. The series has found itself on the American Library Association’s list of “challenged” books. Despite the trouble, according to Random House, Park’s books have sold more than 55 million copies in North America alone. The series has also been adapted into a popular musical theater production.

Parks was also the author of other award-winning novels and some bestselling picture books. These titles include: Dear God, help! Love, Earl, The Graduation of Jake Moon,  Mick Harte Was HereThe Kid in the Red Jacket, SkinnybonesMA! There’s Nothing to Do Here!, and Psst! It’s me—the Bogeyman.

To find out more about this author’s life, and read some of her answers to children’s questions, check out her webpage at Random House here.