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What’s Missing from Your Child’s Picture Books?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Most of us vividly remember certain picture books from our own childhoods or from the early years of our own children. If you’re like many parents,  your favorites include many beloved older classics, like Where the Wild Things Are, Curious George, and Green Eggs and Ham. While we may add newer books to our list, too (I love Mo Willems’ funny books about Knuffle Bunny and the excitable pigeon), these old favorites are memorable and lovable.

But there’s something about these older books that you might not have noticed: they tend to lack diversity in terms of the children and families they portray. While this is true across many dimensions of diversity, one recent study focused on gender imbalance in children’s picture books and early readers.

Many More Male Than Female Characters

This study analyzed 5600 children’s books published from 1900 through 2000, including Caldecott Award winners, Little Golden Books, and thousands of others. Researchers wanted to know whether and by how much boy characters outnumbered girl characters in picture books. When boys are featured more often than girls (and often as more active, daring, and exciting characters), it gives girls few role models to identify with, and may even reinforce the idea that women are less important to society than men.

Frustratingly, the study did indeed find that male characters appeared significantly more often than female characters–in all decades and in all categories of books.

Some Changes Over the Decades

The situation has changed over time, but not always as much you might expect. In fact, girl and woman characters were quite common in the 1910s: the first wave of feminism, when women were striving for the right to vote. Meanwhile, the 1930s through the 1960s showed the greatest inequality, with the fewest female characters. After women’s rights advanced in the 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s saw more girl characters appearing. By the 1990s, child characters were about even in numbers, gender-wise.

…But Not Enough

However, at no point over this hundred-year period has there ever been an equal number of female and male names in book titles overall. In fact, overall, there were twice as many males named in book titles as females. There has also never been an equal number of female and male central characters.

The situation with animal characters is the worst, with male animals consistently and significantly outnumbering females. And sadly, when it comes to the famous and critically acclaimed Caldecott Medal books, few central female characters have been featured over time. (Post-2000, more Caldecott winners have shown girls.) These are disappointing findings.

Alternatives

Fortunately, once you become aware of the issue, it’s pretty easy to find picture books depicting female characters. (Although this study focused on gender, diversity in race, religion, family makeup, and ability is also generally lacking in children’s books, so be aware of this concern, too!)  The links in Further Reading feature some great book lists with old and new favorites to inspire you and your child. With the help of these resources, boys and girls can see themselves represented in the stories they enjoy.

Further Reading

A Mighty Girl: Picture Books

Empowering Books for Preschool Girls

Interracial Themes in Picture Books

Books Inclusive of LGBT Family Members and Characters

Toddler Books with Strong Female Characters

20 Children’s Books Featuring Black Characters Every Child Should Read

Picture Books with Diverse Characters

Picture Books About Strong Girls

References:

McCabe, J., et al. (2011).  Gender in twentieth-century children’s books: Patterns of disparity in titles and central characters. Gender and society, 25(2), 197-226. DOI: 10.1177/0891243211398358

 Photo Credits: nemke/iStock/Thinkstock