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