Why Gender Matters in Kids’ Books

I was reading a new kids’ book called Crafty Chloe.  It’s pretty good.  I was a bit disappointed that Chloe only seems to like crafting and her only idea for her friend’s birthday gift is a doll, but still, there was enough to keep me reading until I turned a page and WHAM.  This slapped me in the face:

Notice, if you will, that while the mother is serving dinner (which she made, as evidenced by the apron), on the phone AND trying to take her daughter’s temperature, the father is reading the newspaper.  READING.  THE.  NEWSPAPER.  And check out the look on his face!  What is that — distaste?!  Is he irritated by the chaos over on his wife’s side of the table?  Might he, oh, I don’t know, help out?! 

Am I overreacting?  No.  Because I know that this picture is one of so, so very many in kids’ books that reflect the same backwards ideas about “normal” roles for men and women.

Take, for example, this picture from Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride, published in 2006:

Or this one, from The Train to Glasgow, published in 2004:

And here’s one from Something Wonderful, published in 2001:

And yet another, this time from McDuff Comes Home, published in 1998:

I think it’s a big problem that we’re raising our children with representations like this, that reinforce the notion that it’s normal and natural for men to sit at the dining table while women (usually in aprons) serve them.    And this is only a small slice of a giant problematic pie.  What about all those books that show mothers with kids but the dads are largely absent?  Are we teaching kids that boys are somehow less nurturing than girls?  That it’s not normal for fathers to take as large a role in their kids’ lives as mothers?  Etc.  Big fat et cetera.

The topic of gender in pop culture has been a major focus for me in my education, research, and teaching, and it’s spilled over into my ideas about raising children.  It’s a massive field of study, and none of the ideas I’m expressing here are all that original, but they should explain the underpinnings of the ideas that have guided my choices in this blog.  In other words:  if you wonder why Pinkalicious and Good Night, Good Night Construction Site — both hugely popular — aren’t included, this will explain it.

Most of the classic kids’ books we grew up reading were about male characters.  Peter Rabbit, Paddington Bear, The Velveteen Rabbit, Toad, Rat, Mole and Badger from The Wind in the Willows, Corduroy, Babar, Max from Where the Wild Things Are,  Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon, Winnie the Pooh, Leo the Late Bloomer, Harry the Dirty Dog, Curious George, Frog and Toad, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, The Cat in the Hat, Ferdinand, Thomas the Tank Engine, Franklin the turtle, Clifford the big red dog…even The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a boy.

As kid culture moved into TV, even progressive shows like Sesame Street shut out girls.  It took two years for them to come up with even one female character (Prairie Dawn — ho hum), and the next year they only added one more (Betty Lou — yawn).  The really stunning thing about this is that both of these boring female muppets were almost exactly alike:  diminutive size, blonde hair, blue eyes, pink skin.  Compare that to the outstanding range of ways there were to male on Sesame Street:  Grover, Big Bird, Oscar, Bert, Ernie, the Count….  Similarly, Winnie the Pooh is one of several male characters (Christopher Robin, Piglet, Roo, Owl, Tigger, Rabbit, and Eyore), joined only occasionally by Kanga, Roo’s mother.  Lots of ways of being male, but only one way of being female?  That same paradigm is repeated over and over again.  There are scads of male Smurfs, but only one (blonde) Smurfette, who’s main job is to be the object of all the other Smurfs’ affections (except Papa Smurf, thank God).  Think of all the male muppets in The Muppet Show — Kermit, Fozzie, Rolf, Gonzo, Beaker, the Swedish Chef, Animal, those old guys in the balcony….  And who’s the girl?  Miss Piggy, who spends most of her time obsessing with her beloved Kermit.

If I was a girl reading and watching these texts (and I was), what would I learn from them about gender roles?  First, that boys are usually at the center of the story, so the more important and noteworthy things must happen to them.  Second, that there’s a huge range of personalities and appearances and roles available to boys, while girls are usually small and blonde.  Third, that there seem to be two main ways of getting into the story for girls:  mother or love interest.  Either way, it’s all down to our ovaries.

I think it’s arguable that kids today have seen more movies than they’ve read books, and Disney is now the world’s biggest producer of children’s texts.  Every animated Disney movie put out by Disney’s film companies has male central characters.  The apex of this was the film Up, in which the two protagonists, their dog, the bad guy, and a large pack of dogs, were all male.  The only female character in the entire film was the Dodo bird.  And she was also a mother.  Hmmm.  The only Disney films that center on a female protagonist are princess movies, which only adds to the sense that there is an incredibly narrow range of choices available to girls as they decide what kind of identities make a woman.  Let’s recap:  blonde, mother, love interest, princess.   An almost dizzying array.  A veritable panoply.

And the stories about these princesses can be, frankly, downright misogynist.  In Beauty and the Beast, for example, Belle is taken away from her family through brute force, imprisoned, and dominated right down to when she’s allowed to eat and come out of her room.  Belle’s behaviour in response to this abuse is to take pity on the unhappy, damaged Beast and stay with him.  Her sweetness and kindness reward her when her unconditional love turn him into a prince.  Is this what we want our children to learn?  That it’s okay for boys to dominate girls, and that it’s the girls’ job to humanize boys?  That girls, in the face of awful abuse, should stay with their abuser and try to fix him with extreme kindness?

For boys, the danger is in restricting their gender roles to the likes of construction sites, battlegrounds, and sports fields.  Little boy culture today is all about Spider-Man and Iron Man and the Transformers, which repeat male-dominated narratives of violence and hatred.  What is going on?  We buy them the action figures, the t-shirts, the books, the video games….  When we surround them with all these accoutrements we teach them that it’s their province, this land of risk and danger and aggression and dominance.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that boys are far, far more likely than girls to die a young death as the result of binge drinking, drug overdose, or reckless driving.  In Canada, 95% of the prison population is male.

It’s very difficult to criticize things like beloved childhood books and films — they are often wrapped up in very fond memories and rituals that many of us are reinvigorating with our own children.  But, strange as it may seem, this reinvigoration on a cultural level is much, much more pervasive and extreme than anything we experienced as kids.  Today, it’s virtually impossible to find girls’ clothing that isn’t pink, purple, or decorated with some kind of ultra-feminine symbol (a butterfly, a flower, a heart, a bow, some glitter…); that wasn’t the case in the 1970s.  Again:  what is going on?

So, since this is a blog about kids’ books, my point is that when we pick texts for our children, I believe that we should present more of a range of identities to our children, so that their ideas about what they can be aren’t so limited.  This means choosing stories with girl protagonists that have nothing to do with princesses, fairies, dresses or the colour pink.  And if I really had my druthers, a story about a boy who loves dancing that doesn’t spend so much time highlighting how unusual it is! 

A lot of the books I’ve mentioned in other posts feature girls, but since it can be tricky to find picture books with female protagonists, here are some options that we’ve enjoyed at our house:

I’ve got three here from Bill Peet, who churned out picture book after picture book for many years, as author and illustrator.  Pamela Camel is about a camel who’s fed up with the disrespect she receives as a circus animal.  She leaves, and a subsequent act of heroism changes her fate.

In The Caboose Who Got Loose, Katy Caboose tries to make peace with her lot in life, but the heart wants what the heart wants.  How will she get loose?  It’s all done in verse, and done well, too.



 Jennifer and Josephine are a cat and a car.  Or a car and a cat.  I can never remember.  Anyhow, they’ve become comfortable friends over the years in the scrap yard, until a travelling salesman (who has absolutely no respect for basic safety or any kind of speed limit) decides to drag the car back out onto the road.

Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton, is about a red crawler tractor who digs out an entire city after a storm.  Yep.  That’s the plot.  But for some reason my kids like it.  The pages are full of details like numbered trucks and a map of the city with a compass rose and a legend to mark all the different buildings and landmarks.  It’s useful for teaching north, south, east and west, since this is how Katy deals with her job — one quadrant at a time.


From Australia’s Jackie French, Diary of a Wombat is funny and clever.  The wombat’s schedule is mostly “slept” and “ate grass” until she figures out how to train a nearby human family into giving her some excitement.


From Germany’s Anu Stohner comes Brave Charlotte, about a sheep who would much rather explore than be herded from one grazing pasture to another.  She runs, climbs, and even swims, and she doesn’t give the sheep dog much thought.  The other sheep disapprove, of course, but their minds are changed when Charlotte proves that her adventuring nature can come in handy for the shepherd and the entire flock.

Come Away From the Water, Shirley is a classic children’s book from Britain’s John Burningham.  Shirley and her parents go to the beach, and while her parents on the left side pages sit idly, reading the paper, knitting, and sipping from a thermos, they don’t notice that Shirley is on the right side pages taking on a ship of pirates and finding treasure.  The contrast between the parents’ clueless remarks (“Mind you don’t get any of that filthy tar on your nice new shoes”) and Shirley’s adventures (walking the plank) are not only funny, they’re a pointed commentary on the difference between childhood and adulthood.  As with The Bear’s Bicycle, there’s an opportunity here to ask your child whether the action is real or going on in Shirley’s imagination, and have a wee chat about it.

We love Rechenka’s Eggs!  Patricia Polacco’s Russian tale tells the story of old Rechenka, who paints the finest pysanka eggs in the country and always wins first prize at the festival in Moscow.  When she rescues a (Canadian) goose that’s been hurt by a hunter, the animal gives her two miracles.  In fact, the matter of miracles is central to the story, as Rechenka’s wide open heart considers even the snow falling on her dacha miraculous.  But are her eggs little miracles too?  What miracle brought the goose and Rechenka together?  (My pictures of the illustrations below do NOT do the book justice!  The colours are much richer.)