Why is “Children’s” Literature Still (Mostly) About the Boys?

Ms. Magazine blogger Adriane Allan recently blogged about the relative lack of female protagonists in children’s literature.

Nancy Drew is unsettled by this news. (Image courtesy of The Sleuth, a fun ezine about Nancy Drew - click the photo to visit!)

The situation has not, apparently, improved much since Ms. Allan and I pulled all-nighters reading under the covers by flashlight.  A recent study published  in the March 31, 2011 issue of Gender & Society reviewed approximately 5,000 children’s books.  The books, published between 1900 and 2000 and aimed at K-3 audiences, were chosen from the list of Caldecott winners, the
Children’s Catalog, and the ever-expanding list of Little Golden Books.

One might expect that the number of heroines in these books might rise over the course of this particular century, which saw such landmarks as women’s suffrage, all three “waves” of feminism, gains of women’s rights to own property and receive credit cards in their own names, and the increasing participation of women in the professional, legal, and political spheres.

One might also be disappointed:

  • Male characters headed up 56.9 percent of the books, while female characters took the lead in only 30.9 percent of the titles.  (The remaining protagonists were animals.)
  • Animal protagonists were male in 23.2 percent of the books.  They were female in 7.9 percent.

Trends toward equal levels of male and female children’s book protagonists appeared in the first two decades of the 20th century and again in the 1970s, during the first and second waves of feminism, respectively.  They skewed male again in the 1930s and again in the 1980s, possibly as a result of the anti-feminist “backlash” of the period (Susan Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash explains in far more detail than I can fit between these parentheses).

The post at Ms. details what further work ought to be done, and what it might reveal about gender disparity in children’s literature, which makes it well worth a read. As I was reading it this morning, I kept recalling favorite female children’s book characters from my own childhood.  Anecdotally, I agree that the pickings were slimmer than the choices for male protagonists – but I don’t recall feeling the gap so strongly, perhaps because my own mother, who was herself raised on strong female protagonists, exposed me to them in the books she had loved herself as a child.

My question is this: Who were (are) your favorite female children’s book characters?  If you were choosing books with specifically female protagonists, which would you choose, and why?

Some of my favorites:

Ramona Quimby.  As I may have mentioned previously, Ramona the Pest was my introduction to “chapter books.”  I still look up to Ramona on those days when I feel like I can’t do anything right and growing up is hard work that takes forever.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace.  I still have my Little House books and cannot imagine giving them up anytime soon.  The Ingalls girls taught me the value of getting to work, never wasting energy on complaining, and making something from nothing.

Anne Shirley.  I still have not made it all the way through the works of Lucy Maud Montgomery, though I suspect it’s past time I gave them another shot.  One thing I love about Anne Shirley is that her series of books grows with the reader – I didn’t appreciate Anne’s time in college until I had been there myself, nor her dilemma over marrying Gilbert until I was considering marriage myself.

In no particular order: Harriet Tubman, Jane Addams, Sacajawea, Elizabeth Fry, Margaret Mead, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nellie Bly.  Okay, so these women are real people, not fictional children’s book characters.  But my first introduction to them was through the ValueTales series I had as a child (where did my parents even get these things?  No one can recall), so they were practically fiction to me.  Then I got older and learned that they’re not fictional people at all, but real ones.  So now they’re among my non-literary heroes.

Mamsie, Polly, and Phronsie Pepper.  My mother introduced me to Five Little Peppers and How They Grew when I was just beginning to believe I was too old to have my parents read to me before bed each night.  Mom proved me wrong.  I love these women for their ability to handle adversity and to love one another (and Ben, Joel, and Davie) no matter what.

Nancy Drew.  But of course!  Another point for Mom; I wasn’t a huge Nancy Drew fan until Mom started buying me the Applewood reprints of the original 1930s series books.  Which I love and still buy today whenever I run across one.  (I am still unable to afford originals, but the Applewoods are relatively cheap and somewhat more durable, being printed on better paper.)

The Baby-sitters Club.  My cousin Amy pulled me into this series, and I didn’t stop reading it until middle school.  At the time I felt like the girls were personal friends.  These books also helped me understand that true friends would love me because of my quirks, not in spite of them.  And also that women who run their own businesses are made of awesome.

…I could go on.  Who were your best-beloved female literary leads?

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer, book critic, and full-time radical intersectionalist who works under the disapproving but adorable supervision of a deaf, epileptic Turkish Angora. She got a law degree once, but it didn't take.
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5 Responses to Why is “Children’s” Literature Still (Mostly) About the Boys?

  1. I like the Cam Jansen mysteries a lot as a series and I really liked Abilene Tucker -the main character in Moon Over Manifest -I would like to read another story about her and her life.

    • Dani Alexis says:

      I completely forgot about Cam Jansen! My elementary-school librarian got me hooked on Cam’s books after I read every single Encyclopedia Brown mystery in the school library. I always wanted a photographic memory. Mine’s not bad, but I think total recall in pictures would be a cool ability to have.

  2. I actually really like Bella Swan from the Twilight saga. I know, I know, the books have a million problems, but what kept me reading them was how Bella was on a journey and her choice (to me, and I’m not alone here) wasn’t so much between two boys, but between the life she was EXPECTED to lead and the life she really wanted. I can relate to that a lot. I understand all the objections to these books (and I can probably come up with more than people who haven’t read them) but at their core, I see a young woman finding what she truly wants in life (and it’s not just a guy, it’s a family and a way of life that is apart from what’s expected from her) and I find a lot of value in that.

    When I was a teenager, I read every Joan Lowry Nixon mystery I could get my hands on. I don’t remember any of the characters names specifically, but they were all young women who were strong and solved murders and took care of themselves, and I loved that.

    I lovelovelove Amanda from the book “Maniac Magee” by Jerry Spinelli, and everyone who hasn’t should read this book immediately because it’s SO GOOD. Amanda is tough, she doesn’t take shit from anyone, and she loves Maniac like a brother regardless of what color he is.

    I was in college when Laure Halse Anderson’s “Speak” came out, but I adore that book anyway. Melinda is a wonderful character and I want to buy this book for every teenage girl I know.

    Og course, I also loved Nancy Drew and the Babysitters Club.

    • Dani Alexis says:

      I adore Speak too. In fact, I loved it so much I loaned my copy to Jason, who loaned it to his mother, and God-of-Books only knows where it is now. :) Actually, I’m pretty sure his mother knows where it is, and if she doesn’t, I’m going to buy two or three more copies anyway so I can give them to people. It’s on my ever-expanding list of OMG THINGS EVERYONE SHOULD READ.

      Come to think of it, that list would make a good blog post. :D

  3. Og? Me Tarzan, me talk the good English.

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