Posted on

Gender in children’s books

Mum and child reading together

There’s much to say on the topic of gender in children’s books, I wanted to just briefly mention it here with the promise of returning to the issue via experts in the coming months. Suffice to say, I think given the prominence of gender in the media now, children’s publishing has an important opportunity to participate in the conversation.

The importance of reading

Lots of us read to our children every single day. We have these little windows of time when we get the chance to talk to them about the world, through the stories we choose. Reading is essential to their development, not only helping them as they learn to read and write but also increasing their likelihood of success in later life. They are learning all the time, they pick up things from how we live, what we talk to them about, what they see and most definitely what they read.

The statistics

According to a Florida State University study in 2011, out of 6000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, a quarter had no female characters.

In Time Magazine’s 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time, 53 of them featured female characters who didn’t even speak.

In recent research by the Observer and Nielsen, they found that out of the 100 most popular picture books of 2017 the majority were dominated by male characters, and female characters were completely absent from 20% of the books.

These statistics make it quite likely that when we’re randomly picking books we could unwittingly choose selections for our children that have no female characters speaking in them at all.

Lack of diversity

The lack of diversity in gender roles has become quite evident as we have looked for books for our boxes. We’ve seen animal characters who are mostly male, a lack of girl baddies or females with no negative characteristics, women often only being portrayed as Mums, or in other nurturing or caring roles, but rarely working and boys showing anger but very few other emotions.

But so what? They’re children’s books, what harm could this possibly do?

If children are soaking up everything around them, making sense of relationships, understanding boundaries, learning from their adult role models and then we repeatedly take them inside stories where they see a replica of the world but one without strong women or in some cases any women at all, it starts to look normal to them. The more books they read like that, the more it starts to stick.

How can children’s books make a difference?

Children’s books have the most amazing opportunity to show the world in all its beautiful diversity and that includes gender roles. For children to see women working and achieving through all kinds of professions and lifestyle choices, it helps them to understand the diversity of real women. It helps young girls appreciate all the options open to them. Stories have the power to undo the narrow definition of what ‘female’ traits and characteristics are and those that are perceived to be male. For women to be shown as flawed and multi-faceted, helps young girls to accept all parts of their characters. For boys to see women participating as equals alongside men helps them to understand that relationship dynamic outside the world of books. Seeing boys in books being caring, nurturing and expressing the full spectrum of human emotions supports them to not be hemmed in by gender stereotypes.

I want to be bringing up a sensitive, empathetic child, able to express his emotions who expects gender equality, for his own benefit as well as that of society around him. Books are a great place to start and we have some great ones coming up in our boxes….we need so many more, publishers, over to you.