Why are the animals always male in children’s books?
Frances the badger, Olivia the pig and Lilly the mouse are very much the exception to the rule in children's literature. Does it matter? And what would be the impact on young girls of reading more stories with female characters?
Every night, my daughter picks out bedtime stories from the picture books on her shelf. She doesn’t know how to read yet, so she can’t know that my husband and I are deviating from the text when we gender-swap Pete the cat or Elliot the elephant, and there’s nothing in the books’ illustrations or plots to suggest that these characters need to be male.
It took me a while to notice the disparity, but I soon realised I’d have to do on-the-fly editing if I didn’t want my daughter to think that the non-human world is predominantly the province of males.
A 2011 Florida State University study found that just 7.5 per cent of nearly 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 depict female animal protagonists; male animals were the central characters in more than 23 per cent each year. (For books in which characters were not assigned a gender, researchers noted, parents reading to their children tended to assign one: male.) No more than 33 per cent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal, but adult men and male animals appeared in all the books.
While there are a handful of exceptions, like Frances the badger, Olivia the pig and Lilly the mouse, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Of the 69 Caldecott Medal and Honor winners since 2000, just four – Kitten's First Full Moon, Interrupting Chicken, Olivia and A Ball for Daisy (which has no text but identifies Daisy as “she” on the jacket copy) – have animal protagonists that are clearly identified as female.
Recent bestseller lists are topped by books starring crayons, fish and a snow plough: all male or non-gendered. Lists from Scholastic and Time magazine of the best 100 picture books include fewer than 10 female non-human characters.
Does it really matter if the fish or the skyscraper is a boy? And do kids even notice? “Anthropomorphised characters have always been in the forefront of children's books because they enable the creator to not have to make decisions about is this a tall or short, black or white . . . character,” says Marcia Wernick, aliterary agent who represents Mo Willems, creator of the Pigeon, Piggie and Gerald the elephant characters. “When kids aren't looking for that resemblance to themselves, there can be a universality, and the characters can express all the internal emotions.”
Which, I would argue, is exactly why these books are so influential. When I read my daughter Where the Wild Things Are or Madeline, she is hearing the story of a specific boy or girl. But when she hears story after story in which everything from the skyscraper to the very hungry caterpillar is called “he,” how can she help internalising the idea that to be male is the rule and to be female is the exception?
Even children's books that seem radical in other ways reinforce a male-dominated universe. The current bestsellers The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home have been praised as parables of inclusion and celebrations of diversity. Yet not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun.
“There is an unspoken understanding in children's books that a boy won’t read about a girl, which I think is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Betsy Bird, collection development manager at a US public library who blogs about children's literature.
The idea that boys won’t read books about girls, even if the girl is a duck or a moose, ties into another assumption: that boys aren’t into books. Concerns about the literacy gap between the genders create a kind of pandering to young male readers. “The winners of recent Caldecott medals often seem to be the kinds of books that have been thought of as having appeal for boys,” says book historian Leonard Marcus. “It could be that librarians know that they lose boys much more often than they lose girls as they get into the middle grades.”
The good news is that beyond the animal world, there are more options. Several recent books, such as Andrea Beaty’s Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ashley Spires’s The Most Magnificent Thing, depict complex human females who like maths and science. (Of course there are classic human girls, too, such as Madeline and Eloise.) And, despite conventional wisdom about what boys will and won’t read, children may be far more open-minded than adults assume. Kevin Henkes, creator of a world of fantastic animal characters of both genders, says he hears from librarians and teachers that his fearless, resourceful Lilly the mouse appeals to boys and girls equally, topping lists of kids’ favourite characters from his books.
Lucia Monfried, who edits the Skippyjon Jones series at Penguin Random House, says, “When we read our children picture books, we're saying, ‘There's a world here that will give and give and give for the rest of your life’. We should want to show our children that anybody can do anything.”
To which I’d add, we should want to show our children that girls can be anything – and anything can be a girl.