Who Forgot the Girls? The Lack of Strong Female Heroines in Children’s Literature


Millie from PINK FIRE TRUCKS who says “I’m going to be the first girl president of the United States.” Illustration by Lina Safar

The study, Gender Bias Uncovered in Children’s Books With Male Characters, Including Male Animals, Leading the Fictional Pack, headed by Janice McCabe,  looked at almost 6000 books from 1900 to 2000 and found that “males are central characters in 57 percent of children’s books published per year, while only 31 percent have female central characters” (May, 2011). Even male animals are more present in children’s literature compared to female animal characters.  Twenty three percent of children’s books published per year had a male character versus females fairing a dismal 7.5 percent.

Surprised by the numbers, I ransacked my classroom library to see the types of books I had. Sadly, while I did have books with multicultural themes, I only found seven children’s books where the central character was a strong and free thinking female.  And while I consider myself a pretty progressive educator, I was proving to be in the dark about gender biases in children’s books.  Curious to see how gender roles and beliefs about them affected the perspectives of my first graders I started the 2012-2013 school year with deliberate conversations about the topic.  We spoke about various careers and occupations, how gender doesn’t dictate one’s ability to do a job well and how the color pink can be for both girls and boys. I even read to them the manuscript for my own picture book, Pink Fire Trucks before it was published.  At the end of the school year I designed a simple survey and gave it to 50 first graders.  Needless to say, while I know that the research design was not the best, the results do raise some important questions on how young children see themselves in relation to the world.

Here are some of the results:

1.  Can boys and girls have the same types of jobs?

86 percent answered YES

12 percent answered NO

2 percent answered I DON’T KNOW

2.  Can men and women have the same types of jobs?

70 percent answered YES

24 percent answered NO

6 percent answered I DON’T KNOW

Right about now I’m thinking my on-going conversations on gender roles has truly paid off, until I kept tabulating the results. Interestingly enough, when asked about specific types of jobs, their answers left me dumbfounded.

For example, when asked:

5. Is a carpenter a man job or a woman job?

56 percent answered MAN JOB

12 percent answered WOMAN JOB

10 percent answered I DON’T KNOW

22 percent answered IT DOESN’T MATTER

6. Is a librarian a man job or a woman job?

6 percent answered MAN JOB

50 percent answered WOMAN JOB

2 percent answered I DON’T KNOW

42 percent answered IT DOESN’T MATTER

Questions 7 and 8 listed a group of careers and occupations and these responses only got my alarm bells to ring even louder.

7.   Ballet dancer, hair stylist, model, teacher, housekeeper

8 percent answered ONLY MEN

72 percent answered ONLY WOMEN

10 percent answered I DON’T KNOW

10 percent answered IT DOESN’T MATTER

8.  Astronaut, scientist, gardener, basketball player, veterinarian

66 percent answered ONLY MEN

2 percent answered ONLY WOMEN

4 percent answered I DON’T KNOW

28 percent answered IT DOESN’T MATTER

I was disappointed that after daily conversations about gender roles using the exact careers and occupations mentioned in the survey that my students overwhelmingly answered what has historically been the case, further perpetuating gender stereotypes.  Could these old paradigms be so deeply entrenched in our society that little girls don’t even bother pursing higher-level education and career paths in math and science?  Do little girls, women, and myself on some subconscious level believe that our female brains are not intrinsically hardwired for being an astronaut, a scientist or a veterinarian?

After contemplating the findings of my small exploratory study, the following statements from the article rang even more true:

Since children’s books are a dominant blueprint of shared cultural values, meanings, and expectations, the disparity between male and female characters is sending children a message that women and girls occupy a less important role in society then men or boys.  Books contribute to how children understand what is expected of women and men, and shape the way children will think about their own place in the world.

The Amelia Bloomer Project has recently announced the 2014 reading list for feminist literature for girls for birth to age eighteen. This is an important resource for parents and educators who are looking for books that empower and highlight the accomplishments of girls and women. Because if the books that I read to my first graders don’t equally depict strong female characters, much less a girl of color, how will girls ever see themselves in such a leading role? No doubt we need to do better. We ought to take a cue from Franny B. Kranny, a spunky red haired girl with unruly curls who refuses to give in to other’s perceptions about herself.  She teaches young and old alike that being the leading heroine in one’s personal story has its rewards.

*This was presented at the 6th Annual Upstanders Children’s Literature Conference in June of 2013 in a breakout workshop*

For more information on The Upstanders Children’s Literature Conference hosted by Antioch University in Los Angeles, please visit:http://upstandersaward.org

Lina Safar – A Project For Syrian Children

A Project For Syria: Illustrations by Lina Safar

A Project For Syria: Illustrations by Lina Safar

“Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate.”   Anonymous

When I sat down tonight to read my emails I was awe-struck by the inspirational humanitarian work that Lina Safar is involved with. I have shared intimate life stories with her over the years as we collaborated with two picture books, Rubber Shoes & Pink Fire Trucks. And while I haven’t met her face to face, I’ve gotten a glimpse into her soul. Simply put, she is an amazing and talented lady with an enormous heart.

Lina Safar is involved with a very important and life changing project: Comfort For Kids- A Project for Syria. As Lina writes on her blog, “According to the UN, more than half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. The youngest are confused and scared by their experiences, lacking the sense of safety and home they need. The older children are forced to grow up too fast, finding work and taking care of their family in desperate circumstances.”

Comfort For Kids (C4K) is a Mercy Corps Psychosocial Support methodology that has been used to help children recover after traumatic events.  It is currently being used in Jordan and Lebanon (2013) in response to the Syrian Crisis.

I invite you to please read her blog post and to share with your friends and family.   Any donations, form of support or prayers are greatly appreciated in this effort to comfort the lives of innocent children lost to the ill effects of war.
Thank you for your time and prayers.