Category Archives: Writing

Where Are All the Girls? How The Underrepresentation of Females in Children’s Books Continues in the 21st Century and How It Affects All Children

classic picture book collage

     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.

Sources:

https://www.fsu.edu/news/2011/05/06/gender.bias/

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.

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/issue/best-of-2017/section/picture-books/

https://best-books.publishersweekly.com/pw/best-books/2017/picture-books

https://www.goodreads.com/choiceawards/best-picture-books-2017

Resources:

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

Kidlit Women Logo Box

Theme: Insightful Looks at Inspiring People

Before She Was Harriet

by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Before She Was Harriet

Drawing on the amazing life of the woman most commonly known as Harriet Tubman, Cline-Ransome helps readers see this American hero as more than a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In free verse that takes us back, back, back to Tubman’s earliest days and introduces us in reverse chronology to Tubman in all of her roles and by all of her names, Before She Was Harriet allows us to see her lifetime of transformation while highlighting her spirit of bravery and endurance. Detailed watercolor illustrations by James E. Ransome add depth to Tubman’s story as readers journey back in time.

Falling Water: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece

by Marc Harshman and Anna Egan Smucker

Falling Water

An inspiring look at Wright’s creative design process for perhaps his most famous structure, Fallingwater, a home built in rural Pennsylvania in 1937 for an important client. While the text shows how the older Wright visited the site, pondered the client’s wants and needs, and ultimately designed this home to incorporate the lovely natural surroundings into its heart and essence, LeUyen Pham’s gentle illustrations flow from page to page to highlight the story as well as the beauty of the home’s backdrop. Notes from the authors and illustrator provide additional insights, making Fallingwater both enjoyable and educational for grades 2-6.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark

Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist

by Jess Keating

Shark Lady

A colorfully-illustrated story about Eugenie Clark and her dedication to “studying, protecting, and loving” sharks, as well as a look at her journey to becoming a scientist in the age of discrimination against females in the field. Shark Lady encompasses not only Clark’s lifelong fascination with sharks, plus her efforts to study sharks and show the world that sharks are neither dumb nor mean, but also paints her as a leader in the acceptance of women scientists. Backmatter delves into further information on sharks, and offers a nice timeline of Clark’s life and achievements plus an author’s note.

 

I, Tania

As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I spend a good portion of my time researching unfamiliar topics and reading in a variety of genres. Over the past several years during these efforts, I’ve noticed an unsettling trend emerge – writers of books, movies, and TV shows creating a seedy and sad cast of characters named, um, “Tanya”.

First, researching a picture book I was writing in 2015, I found this gem: Presenting Tanya, the Ugly Duckling, whose description on Amazon states: “After being assigned the lead role in her spring dance recital of The Ugly Duckling, clumsy Tanya wonders if she will be able to live up to the part and truly be able to dance like a swan.”

tanya ugly duckling

Then, this popped up: The Saga of Tanya the Evil, Vol. 1 (light novel), wherein “high above the blood- and mud-soaked trenches, a young girl pits herself against army mages in high stakes aerial duels with bullets, spells, and bayonets. Her name is Tanya Degurechaff and she is the Devil of the Rhine…”

tanya the evil

Next: the confusing Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Kidney Disease… by author Helen Fitzsimons (huh?).

tanya's guide to cat disease

And now, I’ve discovered: Dancing is for Everyone, a picture book for (oh-so-impressionable) children, whose plot is described as such: “An alligator dancing ballet? When the reptile takes her place at the barre, Mrs. Iraina and her dancers are very surprised. But since they can’t communicate with the alligator–and she is able to follow along–they just decide to name her Tanya and let her stay. (Would YOU say no to a 450-pound alligator?).”

dancing is for everyone

450 pounds? Hmmph!

Now, I want to blame this Tanya hate-fest on the notorious Tonya Harding. I mean, who can forget this face:

tonya harding

Or this one:

t harding

And of course, the new movie I, Tonya serves to bring even greater attention to the frizz-haired bad-girl ice skater of the early 90’s.

i tonya

But then I also found this 1976, uh, quality comedy:

Tanya the movie

And this:

hbo hungHBO’s Hung, starring Jane Adams as Tanya Skagle, pimp.

And, who can forget the over-sexed Tanya on Mamma Mia!?

mamma mia tanya

Notice the spelling? I soon realized that “Tanya” and “Tonya” exist on different planes.
And I did what I do best: research.

  • On namestatistics.com, I discovered that Tonya is the 209th most popular girls’ name in the U.S., while Tanya lags behind at 237th.
  • “Tonya” and “Tanya” are both Russian names, but the former means Praiseworthy and the latter is usually listed as a Roman clan name.
  • Tonya is rarely mispronounced as Tony-a, whereas Tanya is often mispronounced (or pronounced differently) as Tan-ya.

Yeah, yeah, I discovered other things too, but you get the idea. And now that I’ve brought this important issue out into the open, I wanted to beg, implore, and plead with writers in all genres to P-L-E-A-S-E (with double cherries on top) get those creative juices flowing in the character naming department. Don’t fall into the I’ll-just-name-the-crazy-lady-Tanya trap! Branch out a bit. Mix it up. Try, say, “Tonya” for your next freaky female. NO! Just Kidding. Try Olive or Becca or Carly instead.

Meanwhile, I’ll be downtown filling out some forms. Starting today, I plan to answer to the oh-so-lovely name of Tania.

 

 

Picture Book Weekly: Fun Animal-Themed Fiction

I enjoy reading picture books on a daily basis – which is good, since I’m passionate about writing them! I also study them in-depth. Below are short reviews (50-ish words) of some picture books I recommend, which I will update weekly. Follow my blog – add your email address to the right – to discover great fiction and nonfiction picture books throughout the year.

A Loud Winter’s Nap

by Katy Hudson

Charming and bright illustrations highlight this story of a turtle whose body is telling him to sleep in winter, but whose surroundings have other – loud – ideas of winter fun. After several misses, he discovers some of the joys of winter might just make the season okay after all.

 

Shake a Leg, Egg!

by Kurt Cyrus

A cute rhyming entreaty to an unhatched egg to come on out and experience all the joys of pond living as a Canadian Goose in the springtime. The illustrations are vivid and colorful, putting the reader up-close with the egg, its siblings, and other residents of the pond.

 

I Won’t Eat That

by Christopher Silas Neal

A fun, cumulative story of a cat in search of something a bit more exciting to eat. Until, that is, he realizes some culinary choices of the animals he meets might be a bit TOO exciting. In the end, he finds the perfect possibility. Simple text and illustrations make this a great read-aloud.

Favorite: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

bigmagic_gilbert

Is Creativity (with a capital “C”) an innate trait for a select few of us, or can it be welcomed and nourished as an almost living entity by anyone open to receiving it? This is one of the questions Elizabeth Gilbert asks and answers in her new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

big magic defn

Gilbert mines her own experiences as she explores what she calls the Big Magic that happens when we open ourselves up to any and every form of creativity – from writing, dancing, and art to knitting, cooking, photography, inventing, and gardening – and embrace these efforts fully. “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you” is a theme throughout the book. She looks in-depth at the areas of courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust, and divinity as key components of living the creative life we are meant to live. And she weaves it all together with examples from her own and others’ creative struggles to drive each point home.

Inspiring? Definitely. Of fear of failure, she says it’s just part of the creative life. “It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip…but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to…do anything interesting,” she states.

big magic fear

Encouraging? Absolutely. “You will fail. It sucks, and I hate to say it, but it’s true…I have come to understand what part of me is suffering when I fail: It’s just my ego…My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul…My soul desires only one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost…”

big magic revolution

Motivating? Undeniably. Gilbert stresses that “you have treasures hidden within you…and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.”

big magic treasures

With Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert has given us a gift, one we can all use no matter our age, vocation, or passion. Big Magic can help anyone looking to welcome more Creativity into his or her life. And as Gilbert states: “It’s what we all want.”

A Year of Lame Excuses

Dear readers, forgive me for not recognizing the International Day of Slowness on June 21st…I know I am a little slow in getting around to it. In fact, it’s been a few months since I’ve written anything because I got caught up in all the excitement going on around me on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis!

However, I know you’ll forgive me when you realize I was busy celebrating during my lapse. You see, in Febuary, right after my last post, I discovered it was Pull Your Sofa off the Wall Month and I couldn’t let that one slip me by. Soon, Texas Cowboy Poetry Week lassoed me in. And though Read in the Bathtub Day and Laugh and Get Rich Day seemed too good to be true, I had to give them a try too. Oh, and I could not diss Pluto is a Planet Day! either, because I’m still smarting from that misguided announcement.

Then March came along and promised Bell Peppers and Broccoli Month (two of my favorites), so no slowing down to write there. In fact, Root Canal Awareness Week was a gas, I got stuck on Nametag Day, and I was saddened to realize it might be the last Landline Telephone Day, so I recognized it twice just to be nice. But, really, what kept me busy the rest of the month was my overworked brain – it froze up from What if Cats and Dogs Had Opposable Thumbs? Day!

When April arrived, I vowed to hunker down and get back to my computer. International Tongue Twister Day sidetracked me a bit, as did No Housework Day, which I lobbied to become No Housework Year – to no avail. Plus, Tweed Day and Tartan Day tripped me up because I didn’t own any of either so I had to find a good pub to visit to get the full effect. Finally, National Scoop the Poop Week fouled things up for good.

I knew my writing skills were slipping away, but I just couldn’t help it. May promised National Vinegar Month and Bread Pudding Recipe Exchange Week. No Pants Day, Eat What You Want Day, and Eliza Doolittle Day didn’t help either. But finally June rolled around, and I was sure my excitement would wane. After all, I don’t skateboard any more, so Go Skateboarding Day was out. And I work from home, so Take Your Dog to Work Day was a mutt, I mean, moot, point. Then, in the past few days, it happened: Pink Flamingo Day, International Fairy Day, and Color TV Day all in a row! Not to mention Old Time Fiddler’s Week, Watermelon Seed Spitting Week, and Carpenter Ant Awareness Week! Oh, and I realized it is Corn & Cucumber Month, International Surf Music Month, Cataract Awareness Month, Potty Training Awareness Month, World Naked Bike Ride Month, Okra & Pluot and Aprium Month, and National Bathroom Reading Month too! What can I do, but give myself over to the rush and the thrill!

So, you see, it’s not like I’ve been slacking off here. I just can’t seem to focus on the task of writing when there are so many exciting people, places, and events to celebrate! Now if you’ll excuse me, I must gear up for National Handshake Day (tomorrow!) and Beans and Bacon Days, which start tomorrow and go through the first of July. But don’t worry, Simplify Your Life Day is just around the corner in August, and if all else fails, October 23rd is a National Day on Writing and I just know I’ll be able to get back to it by then!