Girls Aren't Wimps and Not all Boys "Kick Butt" -- Choosing Children's Books

by R.J. Nimmo

Try this exercise: next time you're browsing the shelves of children's and young adult's literature at the school library or local bookstore, consciously tally up the number of boy character names versus girl character names on the dust jacket synopses. You might be surprised -- and not in a good way!

Ideally, all children's books used in the classroom and read at home should have proportionate numbers of well-rounded male and female characters. However, educators in particular seldom have much control over the children's books they use, as their selection is often restricted to what is cheap, easily available, or contributed by parents and well-wishers. As well -- and this is not meant as a rebuke -- another reason why choice is skewed is that librarians and teachers often have little respect for what boys like because most of them are women, and guys' tastes don't appeal to them.

Despite these constraints, it is possible to take active steps to ensure the use of books that promote gender equity among the sexes.

Gender bias exists in the content, language and illustrations of a large number of children's books. (You only have to scan those dust jackets again!) This bias may be seen in the extent to which a gender is represented as the main character in books aimed at children and young adults and how that gender is depicted.

Many researchers and authors argue that readers identify with characters of their own gender in books. Usually, therefore, books with female leads are marketed for the 'girly' market only. However, this limitation is to diminish the craft of the fiction (and, to a lesser extent, non-fiction) writer whose primary goal is to create sympathetic characters that appeal to as wide an audience as possible, independent of the protagonist's gender.

With this in mind, parents and educators need to question why it is that so few books with female heroes are considered to be appropriate reading for boys. Numerous studies analyzing children's literature find the majority of books dominated by male figures. Analysis of titles of children's books has found male names represented nearly twice as often as female names. Worse, even books with female or gender-neutral names in their titles frequently actually revolve around a male character.

Unintentional exposure to explicit and implicit gender bias from an early age through set literature is something that needs to be addressed, both at home and in the classroom. Parents and educators, striving to provide children with a liberal, unbiased environment that is in tune with gender equity, should approach this issue with sensitivity.

One of the best ways to do this on a practical level, both at home and in the classroom, is by actively looking for books portraying girls/women in a positive light with active, dynamic roles. Another way is to look for books and stories that do not portray either gender in a stereotypical manner.

The following 7 tips are a useful guide to follow when choosing. Try identifying books where:

  1. Individuals are portrayed with distinctive personalities irrespective of their gender
  2. Achievements are not evaluated on the basis of gender
  3. Occupations are represented as gender-free
  4. Clothing is described in functional rather than gender-based terms
  5. Females are not always weaker and more delicate than males. Males are not always more confident and assertive than females
  6. Individuals are logical or emotional depending upon the situation
  7. The language used in the text is gender-free

Parents and educators can also choose books that have counter-sexist attitudes embedded in them, such as texts that can help children recognize gender-stereotypical messages. Combining traditional and non-traditional books can also spark discussion of how genders are portrayed in different books.

Regardless of the type of book chosen, the message of respect for both genders should be subtly embodied in the texts. It is important to avoid books with strident messages on gender equity, as children (understandably) tend to reject books that preach.

In the words of the noted Australian children's author, Mem Fox: "laboring the point kills the point of the laboring."

Young adult and children's entertainment expert, R.J. Nimmo is the author of The Ancient Egyptian Ennead, the latest young adult fantasy novel to be published in the 6-book Mustard Twins series. He has been featured in national and daily newspapers articles, discussing the influences of popular entertainment on children and young adults. He is currently living in London, England.

Copyright © R. J. Nimmo. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.