As the mother of three daughters, I have always been on the lookout for strong female role models for them; role models who are smart, brave, kind, funny, talented, confident, strong and oh-so-amazing are the ones I hope to offer at each stage of their lives. When they were very young, for instance, I provided books featuring female protagonists and music by female artists, along with learning opportunities by female scientists and naturalists through my leadership with Girl Scouts for their various troops. As they entered middle school, I helped them find female coaches for sports and artistic endeavors. And now that my daughters are in their middle- to late-teens and early twenties, I still strive to help them find the female role models who can inspire them to be their best selves in learning and life.
As a writer of picture books, I am also keeping an eye toward strong female role models for readers of both sexes, creating believable female protagonists who explore, imagine, learn, discover, and dream whenever possible. For young female readers, this allows them the opportunity to see themselves in the world and all its situations and possibilities. For young male readers, it shows them a new perspective which can counter the messages they face daily in other areas of their lives, including the media and society in general, that puts men and boys at the top of most lists.
Yet, I sometimes feel I am struggling uphill with my efforts, and there’s good reason why. A 2011 study (by FSU’s Janice McCabe and four other university researchers) of almost 6,000 children’s books published in the U.S. during the 20th Century found that males were represented in 57% of the books while females were central characters in only 31%. This kind of disparity carried over into representation of: adult males or male animal characters (up to 100%) vs. adult women or female animal characters (33%) and males (36.5%) vs. females (17.5%) in children book titles.
What kind of effect can this have on young readers? According to McCabe, “The widespread pattern of underrepresentation of females that we find supports the belief that female characters are less important and interesting than male characters. This may contribute to a sense of unimportance among girls and privilege among boys. The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children’s media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games and even coloring books.” McCabe also pointed out that even animal characters portrayed as gender neutral are usually perceived as male by both children and parent readers, contributing to furthering this pattern.
Now, seven years on from this study and 17+ years into the new century, have we made any progress in the writing and publishing community to fix these inequities? Well, not much. While I do not have numbers for the breakdown of male-character vs. female-character books so far this century, I do have information showing which are getting the most attention, which often leads to publisher interest; success in the children’s book market; and availability in libraries, bookstores, and classrooms.
The esteemed Kirkus Reviews listed The Best Picture Books of 2017 online. Of these 75 books:
- 25 featured a male main character (33%)
- 16 featured a female main character (21%)
- 11 featured both male and female main characters (14.5%)
- 11 featured no character (such as concept books) or an ambiguous main character (14.5%)
- 12 featured only gender-neutral animals as main characters (16%)
Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2017 (Children’s) included:
- 9 books with male main characters (53%)
- 4 books with female main characters (23.5%)
- 3 books with both male and female main characters (17.5%)
- 1 book with an ambiguous main character (.6%)
Goodread’s 2017 Choice Awards for 2017 listed these children’s books:
- 11 with male main characters (55%)
- 5 with female main characters (25%)
- 1 with both male and female main characters (5%)
- 2 with ambiguous main characters (10%)
- 1 with a gender-neutral animal as a main character (5%)
From these lists, we can see the disparities remain today. In a culture of greater female empowerment and a strong move toward gender equality in pay and other areas, it’s time for the children’s book industry — including writers, agents, editors, publishers, professional organizations, media outlets, sellers, and buyers — to catch up and step forward. It’s time for all young girls and boys to see in the books they read what I have wanted my daughters to see for nearly a quarter of a century: that girls can be — and are — smart, brave, kind, funny, talented, confident, strong, and oh-so-amazing.
McCabe, J., Fairchild, E., Grauerholz, L., Pescosolido, B. A., & Tope, D. “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters.” Gender & Society, vol. 25(2), 2011, pp. 197-226.
Want to find great children’s books featuring smart, confident, and courageous girls? Be sure to check out A Mighty Girl at https://www.amightygirl.com/books/fiction/picture-books (the website also showcases movies, toys, music, and clothing for girls along with other great resources for parents and teachers).
Find further insights and details on this issue in this excellent 2016 Washington Post article by Jennie Yabroff: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/08/why-are-there-so-few-girls-in-childrens-books/?utm_term=.1b9e460c4621