Presented in partnership with The Longest Shortest Time podcast.
The story I always requested at bedtime as a child was Princess Smartypants (2005) by Babette Cole, a picture book about a princess who doesn't want to get married. She's more interested in adventure than boys, and ends up turning the prince her parents force upon her into a toad, flipping the traditional princess tale on its head. The story is a disciple of Robert Munsch's Paper Bag Princess (1980), in which a princess saves her prince from a dragon using her wits and then dumps the prince when he's ungrateful for the rescue. Gender-flipped stories and stereotype-busting characters abound in children's books in recent history, but an analysis of the gender makeup of children's books for the past years reveals a trend toward the old system order.
There are sizable gender gaps in today's children's books, both in the texts themselves and in the authorship. A report by the Australian Broadcasting Commission on the 100 top-selling kid's picture books in Australia from 2017 found that male characters outnumbered female characters three to two, and the gap was even higher among animal characters. Further, male characters were given more dominant roles than female characters, speaking more than their female counterparts. There were five times as many books with only male characters as with solely female characters; characters with no gender at all were more likely to be featured than female characters. The authors were almost twice as likely to be male than female.
The gender disparities in children's books don't make good business sense, especially when you note that the audience tends toward female readers. Research show that girls enjoy reading for pleasure more than boys; a 2009 study from the UK Department of Education found that a much higher portion (58 percent) of girls enjoy reading for pleasure than boys (43 percent). Even though girls are the largest audience for kids' books, the industry produces an outsized number of tales about male characters, inadvertently teaching young girls that male is the default and that stories about boys will always be more important than those about girls.
So how does the U.S. stack up? To find out, I did an analysis of critics' picks and consumer habits in American children's lit and found a similar trend, breaking out the top-selling and most recommended books by the gender of the author and key protagonist.
Gender Equity In The Critics' List
First, let's look at the children's canon. I used Time's list of the 100 Best Children's Books Of All Time, which consisted only of children's picture books, to see if critics would be any more inclusive of female stories and writers.
Sixty-eight percent of the books on the list featured a male protagonist, while only 19 percent starred a female (13 percent focused on both a male and female protagonist or the gender or the protagonist was not identified). In simple terms, not even a quarter of the "best children's books of all time" are about a female character, let alone a non-binary character. The number of female authors was slightly higher, at 35 percent, for a 16 percentage-point discrepancy between the number of female authors and the number of female protagonists.
This matters. If these stories are considered the best kid's books ever, people are going to keep reading them to their kids, reinforcing the notion that narratives about boys are the norm to a whole new generation.
The centering of male characters is common across genres, as any good English major will tell you. The English canon is full of stories written by and about DWM's: "Dead White Men." As The Guardian points out, there isn't anything inherently wrong with stories about or by DWM's, but it is problematic that tales about and by them are the only stories being told, as it leaves out anyone who isn't a white man, which is a large portion of the world's population. The ongoing celebration of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, and Jack Ezra, among others, as the greats in children's literature means that today's kids will inherit a canon that is similarly skewed towards male authors and characters.
The Time piece calls attention to the problematic history of children's books in the U.S., but how do current market trends fare? Are consumers more savvy when it comes to gender diversity?
Gender Equity In Bestsellers
To get a sense for how a more contemporary look at the books our kids consume stack up, I investigated the Amazon Children's Bestsellers List, a real time list that's updated every hour, and the results (skewed slightly toward new releases and recent classics in both the children's and YA categories), along with the greatest hits, replicated the trend.
When I looked at the list, only 18 percent of the bestsellers featured a female protagonist, which was almost more disappointing because of the increase in the number of female authors on the list: 50 percent of the bestselling authors were women, but the gender makeup of the protagonists in the books themselves was nowhere near equitable with that of the male characters.
Take the top four books for example: The Wonky Donkey (2009) by Craig Smith, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Meltdown (2018) by Jeff Kinney, Room on the Broom (2001) by Julia Donaldson, and Duck on a Disco Ball (A Duck in the Fridge Book) (2018) by Jeff Mack. Of the top four, three were written by men about male characters, and all three of those authors all but exclusively write male protagonists. Kinney's wildly successful Wimpy Kid series focuses exclusively on boys, as does Smith's Wonkey books. A few of Mack's children's books have characters with no explicit genders, but those that do contain exclusively male characters.
Donaldson, on the other hand, has a more inclusive (and expansive) history. In her more than 50 books, Donaldson doesn't lean one way or the other on gender, writing about male and female characters with ease. Room on the Broom is about a female witch, while a male monster stars in The Gruffalo (2010); Rosie's Hat (2005) tells the story of a girl who lost her favorite accessory, while The Smartest Giant In Town (2002) introduces readers to a male giant trying to fit in. The list goes on, and Donaldson's commitment to writing tales that boys and girls can identify with becomes only more apparent. Female writers aren't inherently better at creating equitable gender landscapes in their books, though we don't always give them credit when they are — Margaret Wise Brown didn't specify that the bunny be male in her beloved Goodnight Moon (1947), but the character is still widely assumed to be male, with descriptions of the book using he/him pronouns, for no reason other than a pair of blue pajamas.
Takeaway 1: Non-Human Characters Are More Often Male
Most of the books on the list tell wonderful and inspiring stories, but don't include girls the same way they do boys. The Day the Crayons Quit (2013) by Drew Daywalt sends a strong message of racial diversity to readers through a clever narrative in which the rainbow-colored crayons are talking to the little boy coloring with them, but girls are only mentioned in the story in reference to the color pink as a "girl's," and are applauded for having the ability to color inside the lines. As theWashington Post points out in a critique of the tendency to assign male genders to objects and anthropomorphized animals, in doing so the author subtly reinforces the message that girls should follow typical gender norms by not offering any alternatives for female expressions of creativity in the text, despite his intention of being inclusive.
Another example is Mo Willems, who's known for his anthropomorphic narratives about an elephant named Gerald and a pig named Piggie Biggie. Willem's stories make reading fun and offer an endless number of surprises, but he deals almost exclusively in male characters, aside from Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (2004). The same can be said for A.A. Milne's beloved Winnie the Pooh books (first published 1926). The tales of the Hundred Acre Wood are filled with positive messages about friendship and being yourself, but of the nine main characters in the series, only one is female, Kanga. What's more, she's depicted solely as a traditional mother figure and is relegated to the domestic sphere for much of the series. Both of these authors have the opportunity to include female animal characters in dynamic and engaging ways, but choose not to.
Female Protagonists Tend To Be Multifaceted And Strong
The lists did show some positive changes in the industry. Although the number of books about female characters was small on the Time list, the stories about girls were progressive. The opening page of Olivia (2000), Ian Falconer's picture book about a little pig, states, "This is Olivia./ She is good at lots of things," immediately sending the message that girls have talents, and they are allowed to be aware of them. The entire book becomes a catalogue of Olivia's skills and interests, repeatedly showing a positive image of a female character expressing herself.
Similarly, Madeline (1939) by Ludwig Bemelmans is beloved because its star is a little girl who isn't afraid of anything, subverting the stereotype of the damsel in distress by giving girls an alternative model for how to be.
There are also male illustrators creating positive and strong depictions of female characters, like William Steig who wrote and illustrated Brave Irene (1986). Steig shows Irene trudging through the snow to deliver a package for her sick mother, focusing on her actions and selflessness rather than her appearance. Similarly, Peter H. Reynolds shows Vashti, a budding artist, exploring her creative talent in The Dot (2003). Both of these texts highlight a female protagonists' abilities over their looks, taking them out of the context of the male gaze and handing them back the control over their own stories.
Male Protagonists Are Pushing Ideas About Masculinity
Another positive development in the genre is stories about male protagonists that don't rely on traditional depictions of masculinity, giving men room to have feelings and express them. Mother Bruce (2015) by Ryan T. Higgins tells the story of a bear who becomes an unlikely maternal figure for a group of goslings, providing a positive model of a male parent. Also of note is Leslie Newman's breakdown of gender norms in Sparkle Boy (2017), in which the protagonist likes wearing a sparkly tutu as much as he enjoys playing with trucks. Newman explains that someone's preference on toys, clothes, or any other thing doesn't have to be determined by their gender in a way kids can understand. Tough Guys Have Feelings Too (2015) by Keith Negley is similarly oriented, as it shows male characters expressing a multitude of feelings in different scenarios, most notably normalizing men who cry. And of course this year, Julián Is A Mermaid (2018) offered children space to explore their identities.
Each of these texts addresses a toxic aspect of masculinity head on and gives more space for expression to the next generation of men. Some classic picture books have given male characters alternate options for masculinity, though not in as direct of a fashion as these modern iterations. There's an argument to be made that Harold and The Purple Crayon (1955) by Crockett Johnson is progressive, as the plot of the story is about a little boy exploring his love of art, a skill set often deemed feminine. But at the same time, Johnson reinforces the notion of males as the creators of the universe with his tale; Harold conjures a new world with a flick of his wrist, and it's worth noting that no female characters exist in his fantasy.
The same can be said of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are (1963); the main character Max escapes a domestic environment where his mother sends him to his bedroom as punishment, and he enters into a wild world of his making where he has total control and there are no girls. Both stories show the male dream to be a land devoid of females.
The modern takes on masculinity in kid lit are encouraging, but again, the treatment of stories like Johnson's and Sendak's as top tier reinforces women's place as secondary for another generation of readers.
YA Is Leading The Way For Representation
Almost every book about a teenager on the Amazon list was written by a female author about a female character, which, again, included YA — and reflects the impact of recent campaigns intended to diversify YA, like #pitchwars, a mentorship program for new authors, and #keepYAweird, an effort by YA author Andrew Smith to encourage experimentation and diversity in YA. Plus, the protagonists in these books were active agents in their lives, and finding a boyfriend wasn't their main concern. In The Hunger Games (first published 2008) by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen fights to protect her sister and becomes the leader of a rebellion against an unjust government, while the boys around her play the role of sidekick that female characters are so often forced into. Katniss is a a character copy-pasted over into the Divergent series' (first published 2011) Tris, with her origins in Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) (starring her namesake Bathsheba Everdene), Little Women's (1869) Jo March, and the headstrong Lizzie Bennet.
Laurie Halse Anderson pioneered a different kind of strong female character in her novel Speak (1999), echoed in Starr Carter of Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give (2017). These bestsellers aren't currently on the list, but each was wildly successful upon its release and all have been made into equally popular films.
Likewise, Lara Jean Covey, the protagonist of To All The Boys I've Loved Before series (first published 2014) by Jenny Han (two out of the three books are on the Amazon list right now after the success of the Netflix film adaptation), flips the narrative of a girl pining away for a boy, as we see her fall in love in a way that doesn't rely on the superficial tropes of love that are common in teenage depictions of romance, like love at first sight or "forever feelings," as Vivian Parkin DeRosa notes in the Huffington Post; rather, Lara Jean's relationship proves to be based on friendship, mutual respect, and trust. Plus, Han gives Lara Jean's love interest, Peter Kavinsky, room to be emotional too, pushing against messages of toxic masculinity that say boys aren't supposed to have feelings. It's encouraging that the most popular young adult books today are about about strong female characters to whom the strong girls reading them can relate, especially because it's more likely girls are picking these books themselves since they are for an older audience.
Female Empowerment Extends Into Non-Fiction
Two of the books on the Amazon list were from American Girl's The Care and Keeping Of You series (first published 1998), books that are designed to help girls understand puberty and normalize the changes that happen to their bodies. There are two versions of the book, one for girls 8 and up and another for girls 10 and up, and they're both on the Amazon list. The popularity of these guides, which cover everything from armpit hair to periods, indicates that Americans are making strides to empower young girls to own their womanhood, rather than making them feel ashamed for their natural bodily functions like we did for so many years.
There has also been a recent trend towards picture books about historical female figures, many of which are like little anthologies of trailblazing women throughout history, while others are illustrated biographies or autobiographies like Sonia Sotomayor's Turning Pages: My Life Story (2018). Books in this vein have become more popular since the 2016 election, and it doesn't seem like the trend is going to go away any time soon, with recent additions from Senator Kristen Gillibrand (Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women The Right To Vote, 2018) and Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve (Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge, (2019), a story about a slave who ran away from George Washington, coming out soon).
Children's literature isn't where it needs to be yet in terms of gender diversity, but there are reasons to be hopeful. Female readers choose stories about empowered girl when they are given the chance to choose, so if we provide young girls, and boys and non-binary kids for that matter, with more stories about gender-diverse characters, we'll eventually see a more equal gender distribution in bestseller lists.
With any luck, heroes like Princess Smartypants won't be so rare.
Related post: The Children's Books That Defined 2018