Where the little girls aren't: Gender imbalance in board books

Board books have lots of mothers and sons. One “he” and one “she,” the self and the mother.

If they don’t feature a mother, they might not have a “she” at all. Maybe one hairbowed kitten among a pack of six or seven, or a long-eyelashed rabbit watching he-foxes and owls and bears get along with the main plot. 

It’s not an accident. It’s the beginning of the commercial logic that says Girl stories are for girls. Boy stories are for everyone. If you want to appeal to the widest audience, your protagonist should be male.

That dismissive math means girls have few peer role models in the stories they’re told starting from before they can even speak. And boys are taught young that “girl stories” have nothing to do with them.

This tendency is less prevalent in new releases. But it still exists. And because the children's literature market skews heavily toward tradition and nostalgia, the habits of the past die hard. 

I wanted to put numbers to the overwhelming impression I was getting while reading to my kid. So I tallied up the characters in 30 of the baby books already in our house. Not a scientific example, but it tells me where I've gotten by buying and borrowing books based on story, popularity, convenience, and snap judgments--as good a way as any to survey the market. 

The results are clear (Excel download). Twelve books have a first-person or second-person protagonist, so no gender. Of the books with a gendered protagonist, 14 are male and 4 are female

Total character count ran to 40 male characters to 24 female, of which 14 of the female characters were mothers. Only 3 of the male characters are fathers, and that’s counting the robin in Home For A Bunny. (Many people may read this as a mother robin, with its nest of babies, but the coloring identifies the male bird.) 

When we examine speaking roles, the slant is even worse. There are 29 male speaking roles total in the 30 books. Of the 18 female speaking roles, 11 go to mothers. So there are 7 non-mother feminine speaking roles in these 30 books. They are three daughters (Judy in Pat The Bunny, Stellaluna in Stellaluna, and Lisa in Corduroy), two female protagonists presented mostly outside a family setting (Baby Owl in Home Sweet Home and the Hippopotamus in But Not the Hippopotamus), the teacher in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and the old lady whispering “hush” in Goodnight Moon.

There’s nothing wrong with being a mother, or presenting motherhood in children's books. But teaching little kids that mother is the only kind of female role that’s important feels dangerously retrograde.

So what to do? Many of these books are amazing classics or lovable for reasons that have nothing to do with gender balance, and there are not so many great tools for entertaining, teaching, and engaging babies and toddlers that I’m willing to forego a good book because it isn't stopping a landslide of societal bias. I’m always on the lookout for books with better representation (please send suggestions!). Newer releases often have better dynamics: post-Excel acquisitions If Animals Kissed Good Night and All The Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep both feature (somewhat goofy) male and female characters in proportion. Sandra Boynton’s But Not The Hippopotamus is a fun female protagonist. Where’s Spot? stars a (presumed) mother searching for her child, in a reversal of the plot of Are You My Mother? or several other books. But we’re not quitting on the rest of the library.

Option one is to switch the pronouns—swap the he for a she. Systematically, consistently, so that more characters get remembered as female.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a girl in my house. She grows into beauty by eating whatever she wants, whenever she wants, without hesitation, and suffers no consequences worse than a fleeting stomachache. I haven't heard many other stories of the feminine appetite like that. 

Every other critter in Dear Zoo is a “she” now too, with flaws and moods and totally non-gendered characteristics: the too-tall giraffe, the grumpy camel, the naughty monkey, the perfect puppy.

In Little Owl’s Day, which actually has a preponderance of female characters but a shortage of on-stage time for them, I have switched Bear to a she. It’s only one word, on the last page! But now there’s a female force for agency too.

When there are no actual genders written into the page, sometimes I default to “he” to describe a character when I talk about what it’s doing. So I’ve made up an available-when-needed headcanon involving female identities for some of the more popular titles on our shelf.

Goodnight Gorilla stars a girl gorilla. Easy, and not a shred of evidence to the contrary--but the book's promo copy uses "he" all the same. We've named Joe the Zookeeper’s wife Peggy, after the author, and we talk about her by name instead of role.

We have embraced the choice of a daddy robin in Home for a Bunny, but the frog and groundhog are single grown animal-women living well. The groundhog's refusal to let Bunny in is a great example of setting limits.

Meanwhile, some of the animal parents in Il Sung Na's near-genderless A Book of Babies are two daddies or two mommies, because why not? 

None of this fixes the issue for anyone else who’s reading to your little sponge. I’m dreaming of a set of stickers that will let me paste a “s” to the “he” and make it official. But meanwhile, I’m also talking about the issue with other parents, babysitters, and grandparents. And I’m keeping my eyes open for books that don’t treat “being a girl” as a specialty condition.