Sex and the Picture Book Universe (or where have all the little girls gone?)

This piece was originally published in The Bookseller trade magazine in February 2014

What have the following in common? ‘The Gruffalo’, ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, ‘Guess How Much I Love You’, ‘Where’s Spot’, ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Elmer’? Well yes, they are all amongst the most loved and most successful picture books of the last 50 years. But as well as that they all feature a main character that is male. There is strong bias in picture books towards male protagonists. It is so prevalent and has been with us for so long that, as a book trade, I don’t believe we even notice it let alone wonder if it might be worth redressing the balance somewhat.

You may say these are books from an earlier era and that today’s new titles will be different. But no. Sue Hendra’s brilliantly colourful and wacky stories may not feature boy heroes but her ‘slug with the silly shell’ is Norman and the amazing ‘fish with fingers’ is Barry. The latest of Oliver Jeffers’ quirky, sophisticated and original stories, 2013’s bestseller, ‘The Day the Crayons Quit’ features crayons belonging to Duncan. And David Walliams, the latest big hitter in children’s books produced his first picture book last year – ‘The Slightly Annoying Elephant’. Well yes, you’ve guessed, the elephant is a he (aren’t they all). And it is at Sam’s house he makes his unexpected appearance on the doorstep. It is as if little girls only make up 10% of children in the picture book universe. And it’s the same story with non human characters. Nearly every animal, dinosaur, robot and alien also seems to be male! If you still doubt this then booksellers go through your picture book shelves and publishers check your most recent catalogue. Furthermore, in those picture books where we do find a girl as the main character she is mostly typecast as the pretty princess/ballet dancer/fairy in books where the covers are uniformly pink and glittery and the content mostly predictable. Of course, there are some notable exceptions, but the trend is undeniable.

The question then is does this matter and and if so what can we do about it?

Well, we think it does matter. Gender stereotyping in children’s toys has hit the news recently with Elizabeth Truss, Minister for Education and Childcare, condemning the segregation in children’s toy departments. Picture books an important way in which we introduce our very young children to the world around them and surely they must pick up the subtext alongside the story. And the shortage of girl characters must mean that we are encouraging a more passive role for girls in which the expectation is that they will sit and read about the boys doing all the exciting and adventurous stuff. Over 50 years have passed since the start of women’s liberation movement. The book trade would generally characterise itself as being forward looking and a champion of equality and liberal values yet here we are reinforcing the same stereotypes two generations later. So yes, it does matter.

And so what can we do about this? Well over to you children’s publishers and authors – only you can make a difference…… unless other booksellers like us start employing a little reverse discrimination and only buy in new picture books featuring female lead characters!