On female characters in children’s books

I read Puss In Boots to J for the umpteenth time this weekend (he really likes the windmill and the giant ogre). As he was pointing out the essentials to me — bunny rabbip, puss-uh-boots, Marquis, King and, of course, the giant ogre — I realized that every interesting character in the story with any agency or power was male (there is no reference to the gender of the bunny rabbips). The only female character in the book is a princess, and she is only mentioned in association with her beauty and her love for the Marquis. This is hardly a revelation–we live in a male dominated world, yadda yadda yadda. But it feels quite different now that I’m reading these stories to my soft, little, wide-eyed boy. He’s going to become a man (I hope) and while he’s on his way there, I want him to have some literary associations with power and influence that are decidedly female.

The more stories I read after that one, the more insidious the dominant male character seemed to become. There was Goodnight Gorilla, which I figured would be benign at least, since its an animal book. But the zookeeper is a ginger-mustached man. And while we could call her “zookeeper lady” as I have been doing when I read this to J, it’s pretty clear that the nightgown-clad woman in the story is the zookeeper’s wife.

Next up: J’s other latest favorite, New Red Bike. A bought this in an attempt to have more bicycle media in our house, as J is a wheel-lover and we wanted him to read about more than just tractors and fire trucks. So it certainly does feature this less often celebrated mode of wheeled transport, but guess who the bike riders are? Sam and Tom. And they wear their helmets and share, but I just really wish at least one of them was a girl…

The most glaring instance of a male-centered children’s book on J’s shelf is one I’ve had some issues with for a while: The Truck Book. Once I finally learned that this book isn’t really meant to be read per se, in the same way that an encyclopedia isn’t meant to be read, things were much better. But I still can’t get over the last page.
I mean, sure, I can live with the fact that there is a bell curve of behaviors associated with gender and that liking trucks a lot tends to fall more on the boy side. But can’t we dress up a girl as a builder or a farmer? Among other things, it would make this page of the book look a lot less like a toddler version of The Village People.

After all this, I took some time to sift through his bookshelf to find some stories that feature girls, women, a heroine. Here’s what I came up with:

This was depressing, since 1) female main characters (influential, powerful or not) were only in 2 books out of, say, 100 and 2) the female main characters I did find were a pig and a goat.

So I’m on a hunt, people. I need some toddler books that have human females featured in them. A girl riding a bike, perhaps. Or a woman firefighter or helicopter pilot. We could get really crazy and hope for a children’s book featuring a female land owner. Or crazier still, a book about the town veterinarian and her husband.

Please send me any recommendations you have. I’m determined to gift Jonah with a female book or two for his 2nd birthday this week! I’ll keep you posted on any sweet finds.

41 thoughts on “On female characters in children’s books

  1. Hey Stephanie, thanks for writing about this! Theo has the truck book too and I felt the same thing…and have noticed similar trends in his other books, which I’m sure is gonna get worse as he gets older. Would love to hear of more gender balanced books if you get any!

  2. Stephanie,

    Yes, thanks for your post. I’ve often contemplated gender presentation in picture-book shopping for my nephews. Several titles that I have selected or considered are:

    Burningham, John. _It’s a Secret_. Candlewick, 2009.
    Croza, Laurel. _I Know Here_. Matt James, illustrator. Groundwood, 2010.
    Isaacs, Anne. _Swamp Angel_. Paul Zelinsky, illustrator. Dutton, 1994.
    LeGuin, Ursula K. _A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back_. Julie Downing, illustrator. Orchard, 1992.
    Moss, Thylias. _I Want to Be_. Jerry Pinkney, illustrator. Dial, 1993.
    Steig, William. _Brave Irene_. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1986.

    Many of these were found through Kay E. Vandergrift, “Female Protagonists and Beyond: Picture Books for Future Feminists,” _Feminist Teacher_ 9, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 1995): 61–69. http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/professional-development/childlit/books/fempic.pdf

    Vandergrift also has an extensive bibliography, “Picture Books with Female Voices,” on her web site:
    http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/professional-development/childlit/Feminist/fempic.html

  3. Hey Steph, I’ve been struggling with this question when looking for gifts for the little ones in my life. I don’t have a whole lot to offer beyond these two links, and I haven’t vetted the recommendations in them, but could be a good place to start?
    Joe says he’ll ask his bookdork (an affectionate term) friends tomorrow. Will check back to see what others come up with!

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/dec/04/feminist-books-five-year-olds
    http://www.firsttheegg.com/reading/for-babieschildren/

  4. Most exciting fairy tale book ever:
    “Tatterhood and Other Tales” put out by the Feminist Press.
    Sad that we have to turn to something so egregious as “the Feminist Press” for some equality, in this day and age. There’s plenty of resourceful, brave, heroic, smart and strong female characters in this book–not just princesses! I love it. It’s a little old for our toddlers, but soon enough…

  5. So all of these comments have me up to my eyeballs in fantastic books. I’m finding that most of them are for the age 3 and older demographic. I’d love some titles of board books and anything for the 0-3 age range!! Thank you everyone. Your comments have made my day.

  6. Great post! This is definitely a problem.

    Some books I remember from my own childhood that might fit the bill:

    – Each Peach Pear Plum and The Jolly Postman, both by Janet Ahlberg. There’s multiple characters in each, and from memory, at least half of them are women.

    – The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack. An early feminist story about a mother rabbit who becomes an Easter bunny, this book invariably brings me to tears as an adult, though it never did as a child. (Funny how that happens!)

    – Absolutely anything written by Alison Lester, but particularly Imagine and the Rosie Sips Spiders series.

    – Possum Magic by Mem Fox – a great Australian classic! Admittedly, both the female characters are possums, but even so, it’s a great book.

    There’s probably more, but those are all ones I remember (and probably still own somewhere) from when I was little 🙂

  7. My just four year old has previously enjoyed:

    John Burningham’s Mrs Armitage stories in which the elderly female protagonist drives, rides motorbikes and surfs.

    Quentin Blake’s “Angel Pavement” which features two hilarious angels that buck the whole fairy / witch / princess trend.

    “Meggie Moon” by Elizabeth Baguley and Gregoire Mabire in which a super cool girl leads a gang of little lads in exciting pretend adventures on a junk yard.

    Neil Gaiman’s “Blueberry Girl” – lovely poem and illustrations.

    Milli, Jack and the Dancing Cat by Stephen Michael King which is about Milli the cobbler who learns to let her creativity run wild.

    I’m afraid that the books we had about farms and vehicles were pretty gender specific :o/

    1. Yes yes, the farm and vehicle books get me every time. I was thrilled to see yesterday on The Cat in the Hat on PBS that the farmer they consulted about worms was a woman!! Mrs. Armitage sounds perfect…

  8. Know what is kinda sad on this? Puss in Puss in Boots was originally a female. Puss was even the old fashioned name for a female cat so, at one point, it was always understood that it was a female. Some versions still refer to her that way.

    I am sure it changed before Shrek, but it still bums me out that we had a female in for a while at least!

    Other books with good female characters: The Practical Princess and the Zen Shorts series by Jon Muth.

    When they hit kindergarten and older: Junie B. Jones. An onery girl but the real deal. And even BOYS like her. 🙂

  9. My mom and I are always kicking around ideas for children’s books. This could be the perfect thing – a book for 0-3 that features women. I really can’t think of many for that age bracket but will look into it and get back to you!

  10. Two book series featuring female doctor animals, both from the UK!
    Dr Meow’s Big Emergency!
    She is a female doctor (cat) in the Whoops a Daisy World. Nice book.
    http://amzn.to/nOlWar
    There is also the Urgency Emergency series, where Dr Glenda and Nurse Percy tackle all sorts of problems:
    http://bit.ly/o4ve2e
    Hope you can get ahold of them, recommended.

  11. I love the Katie Morag books, all about a little girl in the Scottish Highlands having all sorts of adventures & mischief, and spending lots of time with her equally adventurous & mischievious Grandmothers.

    1. YES! After writing this post, I actually found a Katie Morag book that a dear friend of ours had given Jonah knowing it was a bit over his age level yet. She does have some seriously awesome grandmothers.

  12. Some great, fun ones that my kids have loved…

    PIRATE MOM by Cornelia Funke

    PRINCESSES ARE NOT QUITTERS! by Kate Lum

    GRACE FOR PRESIDENT by Kelly Dipucchio

    A fantastic board book on “Noah’s wife” i.e. Noah from the bible and her (big, untold) role in the story of the flood. Very cool and unusual and beautiful book.

    NAAMA, NOAH’S WIFE by Sandy Sasso

    Will let you know if I think of any more specifically for the under 3 range.

  13. Hi, I just stumbled on your blog, and I was immediately reminded of a series that a number of kids here in NZ love (but I think it’s actually a UK book). It’s called Charlie & Lola by Lauren Child. Although I’m not exactly sure how it fits your bill of feminist material, it certainly has a strong female personality (Lola) that is valued and celebrated. When I was teaching, these books were eaten up by all the kids.

    And besides that, its a pretty awesome and funny series. I totally love reading them myself.

    1. Thanks, Bethany. I’ll add this to my list. When I was in NZ during my college days (Akaroa) the 2 year old whose family I stayed with introduced me to Ant and Bee…I couldn’t find it here, so his family copied and bound a copy for me…its not great for female characters, but so lovely. And your NZ reference reminded me!

  14. You’ve gotten some great suggestions so far! 🙂 I’ll just add a couple that my 3 year old likes:

    Shoe-la-la by Karen Beaumont is pretty girly, but in the end the girls in the book decide to decorate their own shoes rather than buy them from a store. I love the DIY theme and my kiddo likes the bouncy rhymes that read-aloud well.

    If I Were a Lion by Sarah Weeks is another great read-aloud. It is about a little girl in time-out who compares her behavior to various wild animals. It can be a good discussion opener about behavior with little ones.

    Follow Me by Tricia Tusa follows an imaginative girl as she plays. It’s lovely and poetic.

    Ladybug Girl by David Soman is a fun book about a girl in a ladybug costume. There are several books in the series, including one with a boy character who is her friend.

    Hope this helps! Happy reading 🙂

  15. Thank you. I have EXACTLY the same concerns. Lately the one that’s hardest for me is Arnold Lobel, because I love, love his books, and they are so male-populated. A world of 100% male people. Frog & Toad… Owl at Home (how I love that owl)… Mouse Tales, where Father Mouse tells his NINE SONS stories. At least one of the stories told has a female character, so at least there’s that. Also the Grasshopper story – the one where Grasshopper goes wandering – I just read that one as a “she,” because I mean, come on.

    Anyway – here’s my beef. I don’t just want books with “strong female characters.” I want books with “varied female characters.” And, I want female SECONDARY characters. In other words, I don’t want one strong propaganda-piece for female empowerment leading a show that’s populated by an all-male supporting cast, over and over and over. The thing is, as long as we’re stuck with “strong female characters,” we’re still putting females in a box – a propaganda box – and we’re still making the story about “femaleness” to some extent. People say boys don’t want to read books about female characters; I think the answer to that is to make the stories big, to include (in addition) a healthy number of female-led stories whose scope goes beyond patriarchy, stories that deal with issues other than gender identity. How about neutral female characters? How about “regular people” female characters? Until we have balance in the stories – by which I mean, an undeniable female presence that isn’t calling attention to itself – we’re going to be raising girls and boys to look at “female” as “other.”

    So, here’s my mission (and I have NO idea how to find this) – books that have a variety of female types – not just “strong,” and not just “stereotypical,” but varied – and which include a neutral cast of 50/50 male/female secondary characters. (Why do all the friendly insects on the pages need to be male?)

    Meantime, obviously I’m going to start with the female protagonist books I’ve been finding as I do my research on this, but if you have any pointers for me toward the more general questions, I’m all ears.

    1. YES YES and YES, Elisabeth. I love your distinction here: “Until we have balance in the stories – by which I mean, an undeniable female presence that isn’t calling attention to itself – we’re going to be raising girls and boys to look at “female” as “other.” ”

      I couldn’t agree more! I also find myself she-ing characters in J’s books that are angry or mean. Because these characters are always made male–the angry puffer-fish, the insensitive dump truck…

      Would you keep me posted on what you find? I’ll be writing a post soon on how I’ve been more permanently feminizing J’s books so his library has varied female characters.

      1. Sure! I’m curious what you mean by “permanently”… I’ve been tempted to type up a whole lot of tiny “she”s and “her”s and actually paste them into some of our books. I’ll check back to see where you go with it, and will keep in touch in case I stumble on anything brilliant.

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