gender

Pink or Blue

There’s been much talk of sexism this week, thanks mainly to Nobel scientist Sir Tim Hunt. Gender issues in children’s books are not a new topic though. Much has been written on this, campaigns have been fought, including Let Books be Books, and various lobbyists have asked publishers to refrain from branding books as being for one gender or the other, such as ‘Adventure Stories for Boys’. They have largely been successful – Usborne and Scholastic have stopped this practice, although someone needs to have a word with Ferrero about their Kinder eggs (currently packaged in either blue or pink).

But looking at the statistics of the type of books borrowed by boys and girls in school libraries, there is definitely a trend that cannot be ignored. Boys read books styled for boys, and girls read pretty much anything. What do I mean by that? Let’s have a look.

Archie Hates Pink

Packaging
This definitely influences children’s choice. I tried to find a book with a pink background cover without a girl’s name on the title, and without featuring a girl protagonist. I found just one! It’s a picture book and it’s all about a male cat who hates pink (although he changes his mind at the end). All the chapter books that had pink covers featured a female protagonist, usually with her name in the title – see the images.

wendy quill Princess Disgrace

These books are very rarely borrowed by boys in my library (if at all!).

Wilf the Mighty WarriorHamish and the Worldstoppers

Books which seem to imply from their colour scheme or image that they are for boys, see images above, have been borrowed by girls (but are favoured by boys). How about completely gender neutral covers – they get borrowed by both genders right? No! These other factors come into play too:

Pippi LongstockingSophie Hits Sixslime squad

Title
The boys wouldn’t choose Pippi Longstocking or the Dick King Smith Sophie books – because the title implied they were about girls. Likewise, The Worst Witch – the boys needed persuading. However, girls quite happily borrow Horrid Henry, Claude, and others. The title doesn’t matter to them. This is really the same as my next criteria, which is lead character. Boys tell me they prefer to read about a boy, whereas girls will read about either gender, although The World of Norm and Slime Squad are more typically borrowed by boys, as is any fiction containing dinosaurs! And the girls do tend to gravitate towards stories about schools, girl friendships, animals, and theatre. Fantasy tends to be a more mixed genre.
How about the gender of the author? I’ve mentioned before how JK Rowling was asked to be JK rather than Joanne for the dual appeal, even though her book is predominantly about a boy. Does it matter to library users? The children are very happy to receive author visits from men and women authors equally, and don’t seem to pay too much attention to the gender of the author. Of course, a separate issue is whether women authors write more female protagonists and male authors more male protagonists.
With non-fiction it is difficult to tell whether publishers package some non-fiction for girls as they perceive it to be a girly subject, or whether they did research on it, and so package the non-fiction girls tend to read with more girly covers. (Chicken and egg!) The girls lean towards non-fiction on gymnastics and horses. The boys: geography and football. This is not exclusive and there is far more overlap in non-fiction than fiction.

Pony Care

Exceptions to the rule. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. There are girls who only want to read Tom Palmer football books. There are boys who are obsessed with fairy tales, in which the protagonist is quite often a girl: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea, The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Goldilocks.

Does it matter?

It matters to me if gender choices preclude children from reading a really great book that they might enjoy. This is why many adults join book clubs – to be introduced to books that they wouldn’t otherwise choose themselves. And this is where school librarians come in – to enable the children’s choices, but also to widen their horizon to include books they otherwise might not have picked up. No matter the cover, title, author, or main character!
What I have noticed is the current trend in middle grade fiction (8-13years) for the main character to be accompanied by a strong sidekick of the opposite sex, so that often the protagonist becomes two or three people with different genders. Eg. Phoenix by SF Said (Lucky and Bixa), The Last Wild Trilogy by Piers Torday (Kester and Polly), The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn (Jinx and Tommy), Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty (Finn and Emmy), my book of the week: The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan (Kenny and Kiyomi), and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Sophie and Matteo). There are countless other examples.
Is this a shift from what’s gone before? In 2011 Professor McCabe of Florida State University conducted a study of children’s literature published between 1900 and 2000 and found that males are central characters in 57% of the books, compared with only 31% female. Male animals in 23%, and female animals the central star in 7.5%. What’s more they found that it’s the readers’ fault too – gender-neutral animal characters were frequently referred to as male by parents reading to their children. Since 2000 are authors changing who they write about? Are we becoming gradually more inclusive?
I have also found that the female protagonists or accompanying sidekicks portrayed are changing their dynamic to become bolder, braver, feistier, and more independent and often more worldly wise than the male protagonists. In my examples above, it is often the female characters who outshine the boys, even if they don’t start out as the main character. The question remains though – is it because our authors want boys to be equally enamoured by these feisty females as they are by the male leads, and read books that portray females, or is it because our girls are growing up more independent, gutsier and more capable, and our writers are simply reflecting that? I think, a bit of both!
If it matters to you, then one strategy for widening your child’s reading habits, is to probe exactly what it is about the book that they like. They may like The Worst Witch for the fact that it is about friendship, schools and magic, more than that it is about a girl. They may like Football Academy because it is about teams and friendship more than the fact that it is about a boy. More often than not, once they are halfway through the book, the cover itself doesn’t matter. Nor the title, nor the author. It’s about being immersed in the narrative. I recently saw a couple of ten year old boys devour Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls, and The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff (all featuring female protagonists). The boys also loved Alice in Wonderland. It can be done – sometimes their choices just need a little guidance.

 

Brave Girls

rosie revere engineerzog  pearl power

I know many successful women. They work hard, are intelligent, interesting and skilled people. Yet, often a theme that resurfaces time and again is women’s lack of confidence. It often manifests itself in a barrier to then pushing forward and getting to where they want to be, or a crisis of confidence in appearance. Much has been written about this, one of my favourite articles being this one from May 2014.

One way to bust through this perpetual wobble is to instil a sense of confidence in our littlest readers from early on. Three books to help you do this, and which are in NO WAY just for girls, are:

rosie revere engineer

Rose Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
A picture book, but not for pre-schoolers. It’s one of those titles I point towards as lasting throughout primary school and even beyond as a learning tool, as well as an enjoyable read. I even use it as a pep talk for myself on low days. Rosie Revere dreams of being an engineer. But what I love most about this book is that it doesn’t contrast Rosie with ‘boys’ in order to make the point that girls can be engineers. In fact, for me, gender isn’t really the issue here at all – Rosie could be gender neutral – it’s about building confidence and persevering with something –for me it just suits my purpose in featuring a girl. Rosie is shy, but secretly likes to build and make models out of junk materials. The genius also lies in the fact that it mentions when she was smaller she didn’t have a lack of confidence but almost reveled in her fine inventions. As many toddlers grow into little girls, they do also start to lose that bravado. In the story, she makes her uncle, the zookeeper, a snake-deterrent hat, but sadly, he laughs at it, and by default, her.

“And when it was finished, young Rosie was proud,
But Fred slapped his knee and he chuckled out loud.
He laughed till he wheezed and his eyes filled with tears,
all to the horror of Rosie Revere,”

At this point, she decides to keep her dreams simply as dreams. Then her great, great Aunt Rose visits and inspires her to build a flying contraption. It also fails, and her aunt Rose has the same reaction as her uncle. This comes as a surprise to the reader, who is obviously expecting better from her aunt. Rosie thinks that she will never be an engineer, but her great, great Aunt explains to her:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!
Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!….
….Life might have its failures, but this was not it.
The only true failure can come if you quit.”

Her great great Aunt teaches her perseverance and pursuing of dreams, and Rosie stands proud next to her inventions.

There are a couple of other things to point out here. In the last page, Rosie’s whole class are shown with their crazy inventions, boys and girls of all races, which is refreshing to see. On the final back page, barely noticeable, but there is a historical note, referencing the women who provided the workforce during the war effort – especially in the US represented by Rosie the Riveter, the fictional character whose slogan was ‘We can do it!’. I love that the author has referenced the time in which women really started to come to the forefront of the workforce – being indispensable and doing jobs that had previously been deemed suitable only for men.

The vocabulary throughout is enriching and bold – from words such as perplexed to dismayed, and swooping and lingered. The illustrations are detailed and wondrous – there is lots to look at and inspect on each page – from the different patterns worn by the children, to the mass of material Rosie uses for her inspiration in building. This is a page to linger on for quite some time. And the text rhymes! This is a gem of a book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. See the Amazon side bar or purchase from Waterstones here.

zog

Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
I don’t always like to recommend books by this pairing – not because I don’t love their books – I do, and could write a whole blog about them, but I often feel everyone already knows them, and some bookshops devote so much space to them, it can be hard to find all the other picture book gems hidden away at the back.

Zog tells the story of a school of dragons learning their different skills year on year, from flying to breathing fire to rescuing princesses. Zog is the biggest dragon, and the keenest to learn. However, although keen, he often fails and hurts himself, and happens to be ‘rescued’ and tended to by a small girl called Pearl. The subversive ending is that Pearl is a princess who wishes to be a doctor, and doesn’t want to be saved by a prince, the prince wants to train to be a doctor too, and Zog chooses to be part of the ‘flying doctors’ crew, which Madame Dragon, the school teacher, regards as an excellent career choice.

Zog stands out for me as a particularly interesting picture book. I love to use it when talking about girls and confidence for two reasons. Although Zog is the title of the story, there are two characters within who represent ‘girl power’ for me, and whom the children I read it with love more than Zog himself. Madame Dragon, who runs the dragon school, and Princess Pearl, who not only rescues Zog, and shrugs off her princess fripperies to be a doctor, but also in the end, hires the dragon as her transport, and trains the prince to be her junior doctor.

Of course, as with all Julia and Axel’s books – the rhyming is pitch perfect, the illustrations are familiar, funny, friendly and detailed, and children love them. You can buy from Waterstones here.

pearl power

Pearl Power by Mel Elliott
Another Pearl, but this one written with a clear agenda in mind. For this reason, I think it fails a little where the others succeed. It is not quite as polished – the rhymes don’t always scan perfectly. However, it is a useful and rather fun addition to this canon, particularly if like me, the advert Drive Like a Girl, tends to make you hit the steering wheel in frustration – no matter how they wish to spin it.

Pearl moves to a new school, in which there’s a particularly irritating little boy called Sebastian who keeps trying to insult Pearl by saying she does things “like a girl”. Pearl’s response is to take the intended insult as a compliment and prove that she is very skilful indeed. By the end she is hugging him ‘like a girl’. It’s a simple story, with simple illustrations, yet wins me over with the expressive Pearl and the stylised tonal colours. I particularly liked:

“The new school was huge and Pearl was afraid,
but she had to be tough, it was time to be brave.
Most of the kids were bigger than Pearl,
but she knew that she was a clever strong girl.”

This is one girl whose sense of self-confidence has already been instilled by her recently promoted Mum (the reason for Pearl’s moving and attending her new school).
With thanks to @pbooksblogger for the suggestion. You can purchase Pearl Power here or through the Amazon sidebar.

I’d also like to say, when choosing picture books look carefully at what’s being represented. You will want to aim for a subtle message for your children – they aren’t stupid! For instance, How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens, a book I’ve mentioned before, luckily isn’t promoted in any way as being ‘girl power’, and yet it features a brave little girl who embraces difference when no one else will. I wouldn’t promote buying a picture book specifically with a gender agenda in mind, but as well as looking at whether you like the pictures, the text, whether the rhymes works and the story is good – have a look to see if your protagonist is a boy or a girl, and whether the picture books you have portray a different mix of genders, races and religions. See if you can spot those brave girls lurking out there somewhere…