If You Give a Child a Book… Female Representation in Children’s Books

My daughter loves to read! Well, at 17 months, she loves to have things read to her and she enjoys looking at pictures. Every night before bed, she runs to her shelves and pulls out books for us to read together. I don’t want to “spread the weary drearies all over the place,” but I certainly hope that we can soon retire The Pout Pout Fish, which she has selected every night for the last two months. The repetition aside, it warms my heart that this has become a part of our routine and I hope it leads to a lifelong love of reading.

I recently came across a video that made me think harder about our nightly reading routine, particularly as it relates to raising a girl. This video, entitled “The Ugly Truth of Children’s Books,” laments the lack of female characters in many of these stories. In a cute, though clearly staged clip, a mom and her daughter go to a bookstore and remove all the books that have no female characters, or only female characters that are secondary to the storyline. By the time they are done, the bookshelves look pretty empty. The video made me wonder: would my daughter, the daughter of an academic, have bookshelves that resemble those in the video? I decided to find out.

One recent afternoon, I pulled my daughter’s books off the shelves, spread them out across her bedroom floor and categorized them in stacks. Since she has quite a few books, I decided that I would only look at books that were “new” – purchased specifically for her – not those hand-me-down books that had once belonged to my husband and me. As my daughter is still quite young, several of the books she has are basic learning books that aim to teach about counting, colors, animals and the like. Gender is not mentioned, so these too were pushed aside. I also discounted “song” books, nursery rhymes, and her assortment of Italian and German-language books (hey, her mother is an academic). Religious books/children’s Bibles were also put aside, though a gifted copy of Bible Stories for Girls caught my eye – I had never noticed that the only thing girl-centric about it seemed to be its pink cover.

Taking into account only the story-driven books with gendered characters (generally people, but sometimes animals with human traits) I came to a total of 39 books. Somewhat to my surprise, my daughter’s books seemed to support the general idea of the video that male characters dominate. Forty-one percent of her books centered on a male figure. An additional 18% were stories about baby boys and their nurturing mothers. On the other hand, 7% of her books were about baby girls and their parents. (And I have to admit that one of these is Vader’s Little Princess, a spoof suggesting what it might have been like had Darth Vader raised Princess Leia. Truly an important work of literature.) Overall, I was surprised to find that only 18% of my daughter’s books were centered entirely on a stand-alone female character.

Now, I should say that a few of these female-centric books are really great and written specifically to encourage young girls to see unlimited possibilities. They offer the kind of role modeling that is incredibly important for young girls. One of my favorites, Rosie Revere Engineer, shows a young girl thriving in math, science and creativity. While my daughter is too young for it now, I look forward to reading it with her someday. A friend recently told me she too owned the book, and she was reading it with her young sons – an important reminder that boys, too, can benefit from reading books centered on female characters.

Another thing I noticed as I flipped through my daughter’s stacks of books is that many of them were by women authors. And yet, for whatever reason – be it the demands of the publishing industry or simply an internalized preference for male characters – many of these authors weren’t focusing their stories on women or girls. There were more examples of different races, ethnicities and cultures in the counting and vocabulary books I had excluded from my review than those that actually presented stories.

So what did I learn from this little experiment? Essentially, as I add to my daughter’s book collection and when I gift books to other children, I need to be more thoughtful and intentional about what I select. This is more important than many may think, as these are formative years, and reading can shape a child’s perspective. I intend to seek out books that highlight women and girls accomplishing their goals, challenging norms and telling their own stories. I will also select books that highlight different experiences, cultures and abilities in their characters. And I will give these books to both the little girls and the little boys I know.

Need some inspiration for your own book gift giving? A Mighty Girl offers some great reading lists for children of all ages.

What are some of the best books about girls or women that you’ve read?