Him, Her, Hen? Gender Equality in Children's Books

Image by Elias Ericson

The other night I was listening to Q with Jian Ghomeshi during which guests discussed the topic Does English Need a Gender Neutral Pronoun? Sweden has recently included the word "hen," a middle ground between the Swedish words "han" and "hon" ("he" and "she" in English) in its National Encyclopedia as an alternative to the gender specific pronouns. I went to a small liberal arts college and wrote a thesis on the poetry of Sylvia Plath, so I consider myself pretty hip to the various forms of gender inequality out there. I try to use the clumsy "s/he" or "her/him" in my writing whenever I can. And I find myself becoming outraged when watching a commercial for Disneyland where boys get to meet their heroes (who they will become) while girls get to meet their Prince Charming (who they will marry.) But, ultimately I feel mostly helpless to effect any change beyond buying my daughter toy trucks and encouraging her to do anything boys do, like play water polo or learn archery. 

When Robert Neubecker's new picture book, What Little Boys Are Made Of, showed up in my mailbox, I dismissed it immediately, sure that the world didn't need to read another book about boys. This seemed especially so when, a few days later, I came across an article in The Guardian by Alison Flood discussing an extensive study of gender in children's books. Gender in Twentieth Century Chidlren's Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters by Janice McCabe, Emily Fairchild, Liz Grauerholz, Bernice A Pescosolido and Daniel Tope that was published in Gender & Society in 2011. While their findings were far from surprising, the disparity was a bit shocking - at first. The team studied 6,000 picture books published from 1900 to 2000, such as Caldecott winners and titles form the catalog of Little Golden Books. Of course the majority of books published between 1900 and 1970 are going to be dominated by boys, men and masculine animals despite women getting the vote and other milestones. The bottom line is, during those years, the industry and society's worldview was still largely male. However, I was shocked to learn that only ONE Caldecott winner since the awards were first given in 1938 features a female main character, and that book is Nancy Tafuri's Have You Seen My Duckling?, the honor winner from 1985. And, while this summation is definitely disappointing, it seems to bolster the prevailing assumption (regardless of any current gender equality amongst people working in the industry) that girls will read books about boys while boys are less likely to be as liberally generous in their preferences, thus the market demands that male characters dominate children's books. 

I was actually buying into my own line of thinking, then I went to work and had the good fortune to help a grandmother who as looking for "boy" picture books for her grandson. We combed the shelves but there were actually very few books that screamed "boy," despite my assumptions. While there were only a handful of dinosaur, truck or train books (to be stereotypical) the shelves of the picture book section seem to be overflowing with Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious,  Julie Andrews' three Very Fairy Princess books, and other pink-princess type titles. In fact, there are so many pink-princess books that there has been a bit of backlash. Jane Yolen's Not All Princesses Dress in Pink and Jean Reidy's Too Purpley! and Too Princessy! all counter this girlie-girl trend in picture books. Then, I did a very unscientific study and tallied the gender of the characters in the books currently on the shelves of the Barnes & Noble where I work. The stock roughly breaks down in this way: 70% titles published in the last 3 - 6 months, 20% classics, 10% non-classics that sell well and remain on the shelves despite being older (Knuffle Bunny, Pinkalicious, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, etc.) My tally showed that, out of about 400 titles, 100 had girls as the main character and 83 had boys. Interestingly, when animals were the main characters, the statistics flipped. 135 books featured boy animals as the main character while only 56 featured girl animals as the main character. Out of interest, I noted that there were 36 books with gender neutral animals as main characters, 23 books that featured a mother or female teacher as a secondary character and 8 that featured a father or male teacher as a secondary character. Clearly, things have changed in the last 10+ years of publishing which the study did not take into consideration. And, if you think about it, the whole Disney Princess phenomena started post 2000 (for more on this, check out the awesome Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontline of the New Girlie-Girl Culture) and, no doubt, influenced all areas of girlhood from then on. While the pendulum seems to have taken a swing in the favor of representing girls as characters in picture books, I'm not sure that the whole pink-princess thing is a direction those with gender equality in mind would be pleased with. 

I think that, more than reflecting a conscious, distinct change in gender representation in picture books, what I witnessed on the shelves of the bookstore the day I did my unscientific study was the representation of the diversity of interests. From a cynical perspective, the proliferation of books with girls as the main character can be accounted for by the current popularity of "pink princesses" in our culture and the basic fact that if one type of book sells well, there is a truckload of other authors ready to mimic it. (Case in point: Stephanie Meyer's sparkly vampires spawned a whole new category within the teen section at Barnes & Noble called "Paranormal Romance.") While there may be more books on the shelves representing girls, I think the more pertinent question is, "Are there more books with girls as the main character that boys will read or happily have read to them?" Whether or not boys should be tolerant of or interested in listening to Pinkalicious (which actually has quite a bit of boy appeal, especially with little brother Peter at the end) or Fancy Nancy or any of the "Do Princesses . . ." books by Carmela LaVigna Coyle (who has now started a "Do Superheroes . . ." series) or, equally, if girls should be intrigued by Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site or Dinotrux (which they usually are) is beside the point. What matters most is that these gender specific books make up only a fraction of the books on the shelves. In stories where gender doesn't matter, I think that the default character has primarily been a boy, however, I hope that that is changing. One author who seems to be adept at writing gender neutral stories and giving equal representation to both girls and boys is Mac Barnett.

Since his debut in 2009, Barnett has authored seven picture books and his eighth will be released next month. Barnett is also the author of one of the best mystery/detective series for middle grade readers out there, The Brixton Brothers, with the fourth book in the series due out this fall.  Six out of Barnett's eight picture books have specific protagonists and four of the six are girls. And really, had Barnett made the main character of his book Mustache! a woman it would have been a very different kind of story  all together. However, Chloe and the Lion, Extra Yarn, OH NO! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) and OH NO! Not Again! all have girl protagonists and could just as easily have had boys. And, based on my story time experience, including one six hour period when I read OH NO! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) over and over to every single class in my son's K - 5 elementary school, as best I could tell, there were no boys who tuned out while I read the story because the main character was a girl. I was curious about how Mac Barnett chose the gender of the main characters in his picture books and he was kind enough to answer a few questions. One thing about Barnett and his collaborators, from Adam Rex to Dan Santat to Jon Klassen, whether working together or separately, these guys are fantastic, fantastical story tellers with senses of humor they are not afraid to unleash on young and old alike. This tends to result in picture books that stand out from the crowd and are a little bit quirky. Their books are not the norm and far from formulaic, so consider Mac's responses those of a genuine individual doing things differently.

While I spouted all that stuff at the top of this article about being sensitive to gender inequities, I am also very stereotypical in my thinking and my first question for Barnett was, "Why make the main character of OH NO! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) and OH NO! Not Again!, science themed stories, a girl? Barnett responded:

I deliberately specified Oh No!'s hero's gender in the notes of the manuscript. It was important to me that she be a girl inventor - Lawrence Summers (President of Harvard who said that the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem from the "innate" differences between men and women) had made his idiotic comments about women and science a couple of years earlier and I was (and am) still disgusted by them.

You hear a lot in the business that boys will not read books with female protagonists, but I certainly haven't found this true with Oh No!, whose jacket has a huge close-up shot of a girl's face, or for that matter, Extra Yarn, which shows a girl knitting on the cover. 

Again, with Chloe and the Lion, the gender of the main character is not a central part of the plot. I wondered if (or how) Barnett decided to make the protagonist a girl rather than a boy? Barnett answered, 

One of the things that's happening in Chloe and the Lion is that we're upending a traditional girl-lost-in-the-woods narrative, so Chloe's gender was determined by the conventions we set out to blow up. I think she escapes restrictions typically imposed on that kind of character, and really the formal restrictions imposed on most characters, what with her chiding of the story's creators and demanding an ending that satisfies her. 

I would have to agree with Barnett that Chloe does transcend the restrictions imposed on the "girl-lost-in-the-woods" type character and I stopped thinking that she was a little lost girl by the second or third page of the story. I choose my books very carefully when I read for story time at the bookstore - I hate losing anyone in the audience so I make sure that I have books that will appeal to the ages and interests of the crowd. Even though I love it, I won't read I Had a Favorite Dress by Boni Ashburn and Julia Denos if there are boys in the audience but I will read any of Barnett's books being discussed here. Ultimately, I have learned over the years that it's not (as Barnett says above) that boys will not read/listen to books with a female protagonist. It just depends on the kind of female protagonist they are being presented with. If the book seems to be exclusively about female concerns, like Fancy Nancy or Pinkalicious, then yes, many boys will lose interest. If, however, books like Barnett's employ female protagonists taking part in gender neutral activities (a science far, breaking up a fight between a squabbling author and illustrator) then they will listen, as I myself experience on a weekly basis with a revolving audience. Which brings me back to the idea of a gender neutral pronoun, neither he or she. What Mac Barnett writes are books with protagonists who have lots of "hen." Barnett's characters can be male or female (or, more importantly since we are trying to bring a bit of balance to the roles of protagonists in picture books here, they can be female without creating disinterest in male listeners) without necessarily changing the tone of the story. I hope readers and publishers take note of what Barnett and his collaborators are doing and that books with "hen" will become a trend - a meal - and princess books and truck books are served for dessert.

Speaking of protagonists of indeterminate gender-
I want to share one of my all-time favorite picture books. Komodo by Peter Sìs, besides just being a fascinating story, has alway stuck with me since I have never been able to tell the gender of the main character, no matter how many times I read it or pore over the text and illustrations for clues. This, to me, is true brilliance. Like Barnett's  OH NO! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) and OH NO! Not Again!, the gender of the protagonist is irrelevant to the story as it is believable that a boy or a girl might be as absorbed by this giant reptile as the main character of  Komodo is. 

And finally, I had to ask Mac about choosing a girl for the main character of his brilliant book Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Remember, I said I was prone to stereotypical thinking, so I asked Mac if he was concerned about gender and stereotypes when he chose Annabelle to be the star of the show. Mac responded,

I'd take issue with the notion that a girl knitting is prima facie stereotypical, especially since the last three decades have seen a real feminist reclamation of crafting, and knitting specifically. So many different people knit for so many different reasons that I think it's impossible to give knitting an easy gender label (and knitting's history - an activity restricted to men in the Renaissance and practiced for centuries by Scottish sailors and shepherds - is in itself enough fodder for an entire gender-studies seminar). But in any case: The story is based on a drawing by Jon Klassen and Annabelle's a girl because the character in that picture was a girl.

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