When I was in my last year of high school, I had never heard the word feminist and I knew nothing of the women’s movement. However, I did have a strong, if largely un-nuanced, sense of right and wrong, and I knew there was something very wrong with my grade 13 English reading list: It contained no books by women.
The next year, I discovered that the only mandatory course in my English literature program at university was one of Shakespeare’s plays – something I have, no doubt unfairly, held against the unsuspecting playwright ever since. I started to think there was some kind of conspiracy to keep me from reading works written by women. It took me quite awhile to realize that conspiracy was called misogyny.
By the time my daughter was in high school, I was a feminist and part of the women’s movement. Every fall, I looked at her English class reading lists. Every fall, I would subject her to my rant: Where are the women? Even almost 20 years later, the absence of women authors in high school English curriculum was glaring.
More than female authors are missing
The absence of female characters from children’s books is at least equally alarming, as a Youtube video demonstrates powerfully.
It provides a dramatic image of how empty the bookstore shelves of children’s books become when the books without strong female characters are removed.
According to the video, of 5,000 books reviewed, 100% had male characters of varying levels of importance to the plot, while 25% had no female characters at all. When female characters were present, a preponderance of them did not have a speaking role and/or were princesses. Fewer than 20% of them had jobs or even aspirations to careers, while more than 80% of the male characters had one or the other.
A 2011 study conducted in the United States looked at children’s books published between 1900 and 2000. It found that male characters were central in 57% of those books and female characters in just 31%. The disparity was even more marked in the titles of the books, where male characters were explicitly featured in 36.5% and female characters in a mere 17.5%.
The same study looked at non-human “characters” in 6,000 picture books published in the same time period. These included animal characters, but also buildings, trains, trucks, tools, crayons and the like.
Will boys read about girls?
There has long been a belief that boys won’t read books about girls while girls will happily read books about boys. If this is true, it is time to change the dynamic.
It is important for all of us, children and adults alike, to read about people and situations that are completely unfamiliar to us, so we can broaden our horizons and avoid thinking the whole world is just like we are. This is especially true for those of us living lives of relative privilege, comfort and equity.
But, we also need to read books with characters “like us.” That is part of how we learn about who we are and where we fit in the world. It is how we learn that we can dream and have aspirations to be all kinds of things; how we learn to have confidence in ourselves.
If a girl never sees female characters in the books she reads – be that a girl, woman, crayon or truck – doing interesting and independent things with their lives, that girl may reach the conclusion that her only lot in life is to be a passive observer. The same is true for boys, who need to see strong female characters in some of the books they read.
While the Youtube video carries the banner “If you have a daughter,” it is just as important for boys to watch. Boys need to read books with strong female characters so they don’t move into male adulthood assuming that the women they know will always play the supporting role to their starring place in the world.
Check out the Guardian’s list of 10 children’s books with empowering female characters, if you don’t know any good kids’ books with positive female characters. Talk to your (hopefully local and independent) bookstore and library about stocking these and other books that feature female characters.
And, whatever your role in raising or educating children, consider having a copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Volumes One and Two, on hand, so those kids can see and read about women who have made contributions to our world.
While increasing the presence and visibility of female characters in children’s books is important, we have to do more than that. Let’s not forget in this discussion that increasing numbers of children and young people are rejecting binary gender identities – children’s literature needs to make room for trans and gender fluid characters, too. After all, whatever future a kid is looking to build, it has to include some images that look and feel familiar.