Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Stories are some of the most powerful tools we have. When we choose which stories to read to our kids, or which books to place on our shelves, we're sending a message to our children. As a children’s storyteller, reading teacher and children’s book author, I see firsthand how strong female children’s book characters impact young minds, particularly when it comes to empowering growing girls.
Books develop ideas, motivations and wonderment, as well as our sense of self and others. They tap into our own thoughts and feelings about who we are and our place in the world. When the story gets us thinking and feeling, its message sticks.
So, what stories and which writers do we choose? And when we make those choices for children, what message sticks?
Numbers of Male vs Female Characters in Children’s Books
Stories are windows to other people’s worlds. We witness alternate lives in the books we read. We escape, we traverse unfamiliar territories and live vicariously through characters. Stories are also mirrors to our own lives. We reflect on our own desires, difficulties and triumphs as we relate to or disassociate from characters as they go through theirs...
...mostly male characters, that is.
Writer and editor Jennifer Yabroff wrote in Why are There so Few Girls in Children’s Books for The Washington Post that even though gender norms and representations are being challenged on television, through college housing, in public bathrooms and even in toy labeling at department stores, “little has changed when it comes to children’s picture books.”
She referred to a 2011 study led by Janice McCabe of the Florida State University Department of Sociology, Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters, which investigated a full century of children’s picture books in English.
Results found that male characters feature in 57% of the books, while female characters are only in 31%. Furthermore, “no more than 33% of books published per year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100% of books.”
In a more recent study by Cristen Tilley of Story Lab, similar results prevailed. The study investigated Neilson BookScan’s 100 top-selling children’s picture books in 2017 revealing that, “across the 100 titles, there were three male characters for every two females,” while central characters with speaking parts were 65% male and only 35% were female.
“Boys Books” and “Girls Books”
Shannon Hale, a best-selling author of children’s books and young adult novels, asked What are we teaching boys when we discourage them from reading books about girls? in The Washington Post and concluded the following:
“It’s clear that our culture assumes:
Boys aren’t going to like a book that stars a girl.
Men’s stories are universal, while women’s stories are only for girls.
After all, books about boys (Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Holes) are for everyone, but books about girls (Judy Blume novels, Anne of Green Gables) are just for girls.”
Could these assumptions be driving the higher numbers of male protagonists in children’s books? Is this traditional publishing trend an attempt to appeal to boys so that they might read more? If this is the case, it’s problematic.
First, if the motivation is to make boys read more, it isn’t working. As Alia Wong discusses in The Atlantic, Boys Don’t Read Enough. Speaking to experts and delving into scientific studies, Wong’s collection of research revealed that girls read more than boys in almost every developed country in the world and girls are more likely to read for pleasure.
In addition, the fact that boys have more representation in children’s books, yet aren’t as interested in the material, could indicate that boy readers don’t necessarily care about the gender of protagonists. So, is the market truly led by the demands of young readers or is the disproportionate male weight in children’s books the result of the biases held by adult publishers?
Second, it could be harmful to children, particularly girls, if they are not being represented enough in the books they read. In the Ullag & Naz 2014 study Gender Representation in Children’s Books: A Critical Review of Empirical Studies, published in the World Applied Sciences Journal, they found that “gender bias in children’s books does matter,” because these materials “shape the ways in which they think about themselves and society.”
If we consider female perspectives for children valuable, then we need to give all children the opportunity to reflect on them and create more demand for diversity within the books and media children consume.
How Do Books Influence Children?
If we shift things around and actually give children more socio-, cultural- and gender-diverse book collections, what will they see? South African poet and social philosopher Athol Williams argues that it is important for children to see themselves in books:
“Young readers get to know themselves better and appreciate who they are when they see themselves in books through confident, persistent, courageous characters and recognise all that they could be.
Children see the character choices made in books as megaphones of who is valued in society. If they see themselves in the characters, depicted in admirable ways of being, they are more likely to live their lives with passion and self-assurance.
The more children see worlds and lives other than their own, the more they can empathize with a diverse group of people.
The more they feel empowered with what they read, the more they will actually read.”
Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes in Children’s Books
Children learn gender-specific information through modelling, enactive experience and direct tuition. When children’s books show gender stereotypes, legitimize gender systems and reinforce children’s ideas about roles based on gender, the scope and depth of representation is limited.
For example, a 2017 study by Bian, Leslie and Cimpian entitled Gender Stereotypes About Intellectual Ability Emerge Early and Influence Children’s Interests found that, “when children read stories about clever boys, but not about clever girls, this could result in the children assuming that high cognitive ability is typically male.” This stereotype “discourages women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers and influences the interests of children as young as six.”
Children’s stories carry biases that imply that there are “typical” ways of being a boy or a girl, discounting the many different gender expressions (Seitz, Lenhart & Rübsam, 2020 from The British Psychological Society).
With equal, fair and wide representation of genders gravely lacking, children are shown a narrow and fixed view of who they can be, or what they can or cannot do based on their gender. Not only does this disempower young girl readers, but also reinforces stereotypes for young boy readers, which shapes and forms sexism at an early age.
Enter the Heroine
However, in recent years I’ve seen more and more titles on the shelves that feature strong, capable, multidimensional, female leads - and it seems that a shift is starting to take place. Here are a few of my recommendations, which I encourage you to feature on your children’s bookshelves, no matter their gender:
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires features a girl who attempts to make “the most magnificent thing.” She fails, persists, then succeeds.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katherine Russell-Brown tells the story of Melba Doretta Liston, a trombone player and composer who pioneered women’s involvement in the jazz scene.
Jack, Not Jackie by Erica Silverman is a story of a young child who identifies as a boy in many different ways, plus a confused older sister who learns to accept her sibling.
Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina Gilmore shows a little girl’s resolve to do more in the kitchen and be part of the family’s cooking tradition.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo is a collection of short biographical stories about real women who have made history.
For more ideas of children’s books with strong female characters, there are plenty of book lists online available. Some of the best are:
Little People, Big Dreams has a collection of biographies about women who have changed the world.
Shelf Awareness: Next Steps
If you’re looking to make more positive and representative book choices for your child, there are many ways to advocate for equal, fair and wide gender representation in children’s books.
A great place to start is with your own bookshelf. Take an inventory of all the books you own – this exercise can be done with your children or students – by creating an audit of how representative the book collection is.
Sort your books by protagonists: male, female, non-binary, gender-atypical. What are the ratios?
What cultures are represented by the protagonists? What are the ratios?
What are the core messages of books with female protagonists? (i.e. courage, creativity, community, humor, friendship, etc.)
How are the female characters portrayed? (i.e. rough-and-tumble princess, persistent, kind, etc.)
What other messages in the writing and illustrations are there that you can invite children to think about?
How many of the books are mirrors/windows to your children?
If themes guide your plans (such as holidays or festivals etc.), are books with admirable female characters included?
Representation in Children’s Literature
We asked The F Word readers to try this exercise at home and here are some of the results:
1. Teacher at an International School (Year 2, 7-Year-Olds)
“Schools seldom buy one book at a time. We buy boxsets. If schools use the same suppliers, you will see similar trends emerge.”
Genders: 30% non-gendered animals, 32% female characters, 38% male characters
Cultures: 10% African, 10% Middle Eastern, 15% Asian, 65% Western
Families: blended, nuclear, single parents
Mirrors vs Windows: far-leaning to windows
Messages: kindness, teamwork, friendship
2. Mother of Two Thai-British Girls (7 and 9 Years Old)
“Most of our books are about girls because I have girls and that’s what they want to read about.”
Gender: 85% female characters, 15% male characters
Cultures: 50% Thai, 45% British, 5% other
Mirrors vs Windows: far-leaning to mirrors
Messages: behaviour, respect, love, family, kindness
3. Mother of a Male Western Toddler (3 Years Old)
“We love classic books and so does our three-year-old. So, our shelf is mostly collections e.g. Franklin the Turtle, Curious George and the Berenstain Bears.”
Gender: 90% non-gendered animals, 10% male characters
Cultures: 100% Western
Mirrors vs Windows: far-leaning to mirrors
Messages: friendship, love, courage
4. Librarian at a International Primary School
I’d try this exercise with children as young as three years old, who are already capable of having preferences and can explain what they like.
Once the audit is complete, talk to your kids about the data, what you’ve learnt, what you already have, what’s missing, their favourite books in the collection, as well as what they’d like to read more of.
Check your biases and think about the next steps you can take. Some ideas may include:
Parents & Guardians: on your next book shopping trip, select titles featuring strong female protagonists. When there’s demand, it sends signals to bookshops and publishers that these types of books are popular.
Educators: ensure that your students are represented in the books you have on your bookshelves. Create a safe space where discussions can take place.
Schools: invest in the purchase and curation of library books that are gender-inclusive and discuss with teachers, parents and carers about this issue.
Book Businesses: support the publication, distribution and selling of gender diverse stories.
Publishers: give equal opportunities – both in getting published and being well paid – for gender and culturally diverse children’s book writers.
Writers: write more stories with female and gender-atypical protagonists.
Happily Ever After…?
In the end, perhaps girls will choose to read princess books and boys will pick up superhero titles. This is not “wrong” or “bad.” We’re all influenced by what we’ve read or seen already and preferences are valid. Our responsibility now lies in offering a wider spectrum of familiar representations and alternatives to the status quo.
For example, if your child likes to read about princesses, why not throw in The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch, where the “damsel in distress” plot is reversed to show a determined, clever and courageous princess, who saves the prince and doesn’t end up marrying him. If your child prefers superheroes, try Even Superheroes Have Bad Days by Shelly Becker, in which superhero characters are male and female, all experiencing and dealing with bad days.
Stories, being the most powerful tools we have, can help ensure that girls and a more diverse range of children get fair representation in books; a chance to be seen and have their voices heard, which can impact a whole generation to read and live in a more gender-balanced way.
By Anna Manuel
Anna Manuel is a children’s storyteller, reading teacher, children’s book author, and professional trainer. Through her company Heads and Tales Storytelling, she helps individuals and institutions provide high-quality and thoughtfully curated storytelling performances and workshops for children, as well as programs for adults who want to become better storytellers. Anna believes that stories are the most powerful tools we have in understanding ourselves and thriving with other human-beans.