Avoiding Gender-Sterotyping with Children’s Books

Do you tweet? When we became parents, we found it a quick way to read about interesting parenting ideas, really briefly, because we didn’t actually have time to sit down and read much any more. At first we tweeted individually as ourselves, but then after reading the brilliant book by Marianne Grabrucker There’s a Good Girl: Gender Stereotyping in the First Three Years – A Diary, it inspired us to keep a micro diary of our own on Twitter about our then 3-year-old girl and 4-month-old boy. We started tweeting over a year ago as @genderdiary because one of the most surprising things we’ve discovered on becoming parents is how very differently the world has treated our baby girl compared to our baby boy. Not only that, we felt other people denied these things that were happening under our noses. So many times we heard people tell us that girls just naturally liked pink and their boys just loved cars, but we didn’t believe it.

When you start to make a note of every small thing that happens in a child’s life that might influence their behaviour you’ll notice that boys and girls have very different experiences from the day they’re born. Cards, toys and clothes given to them are different, the language people use about them is different, and there’s the fact that adults handle children differently and direct them to different toys depending on their gender. As parents who would like to see our kids treated equally we’ve found this situation to suck ass. We tweet about this a lot, and the kinship we have found on Twitter with other like-minded people has been really wonderful.

One of the things we’ve enjoyed discussing on Twitter is how the culture around ours kids sends them strong messages about their gender. Books, for example, can be very unbalanced in their representation of the world around our kids. Here’s a run-down of some of the biggest problems we notice in books (and we’re mostly talking about pre-school/primary books of the kind our kids have seen, but a lot of the problems are the same for older children):

1. Male characters outweigh female characters significantly
Here’s a study from the US on the skewed ratios of male to female characters in picture books, which we can speculate gives children a view of the world that expects females to be less prominent but not just that, they also see…

2. Male characters partake in ‘action’, while female characters often do not
The original study mentioned above – Hamilton et al. (2006) noted,

“Modern children‘s picture books continue to provide nightly reinforcement of the idea that boys and men are more interesting and important than are girls and women”

This is a bad situation for the psychology of girls AND for the attitude boys will have to girls and themselves.

3. Animals are most often referred to as ‘he’
Seriously people, cows with udders are not male. It’s one that most of us find very hard not to do. Most people will be brought up to automatically call an animal ‘he’. Authors of kids’ picture books are no exception. Think it doesn’t matter? What does it tell your daughter about the significance of being female? (Hint: It tells your son the same thing).

4. The historical position of women is presented uncritically in fairytales
Yeah, we’re mostly talking princesses here. If you’ve never seen this deconstruction of Disney’s upsettingly successful Princess brand, then read it, weep, and consider what message it’s sending kids.

A great way of challenging these problems is to take the time to seek out books that contradict them. Here’s a few suggestions for you:

  • You want action? Ladybird do a simple line of superhero phonics readers with titles including Jumping Jade and Invisible Liz by Mady Ross.
  • Spot It! by Delphine Chedru is a simple but beautiful book where the reader has to find hidden animals – and some of them are female. Radical! If your kids love it, like ours do, you can get the sequel, Spot It Again!
  • In The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, a princess uses her wit to outsmart a dragon in order to rescue the prince. The prince, however isn’t grateful enough to run off into the sunset with someone wearing a paper bag. She tells him he “is a real bum” and they don’t get married. The classic anti-princess book, but not strictly a traditional fairytale, so how about Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborne. Kate climbs the beanstalk, outwits the giant and brings home riches to her mother. Woot.
  • Finally, a book you can use to discuss the way the world divides us by our gender with your kids. Horace And Morris But Mostly Dolores by James Howe. The three characters are great friends until Horace and Morris become part of an exclusive boys’ club and Dolores finds herself left out. Soon, she, too, finds her own club, where no boys are allowed and girls are supposed to have fun doing girl stuff. But after a while, Horace and Morris and Dolores realise they aren’t happy at all doing what everyone in their clubs seems to enjoy. They miss each other. Is it too late to be friends again? Nah!

That’s just a few ideas, take a look at the reading list below which has loads more suggestions for the kind of books that show kids there’s more than one way to live life and includes books up to age 14. Feel free to suggest more books for the list by tweeing @genderdiary your ideas.

And if you like these books but they’re not in your library? Suggest them to your librarian. This can really work, our council has an online form for making book suggestions.

You can also buy more books like this from Letterbox Library, a children’s booksellers celebrating equality and diversity. Even better, suggest to a school that they should use Letterbox as a supplier.

Fill your house with the books you want your children to read and give them as presents to others. If you believe in equality between the sexes, then it’s a small way you can help your children to learn that their gender isn’t a barrier to whatever they want to achieve in life.

Reading List for Kids Aged 0-14

This is a crowd-sourced list of books, so we haven’t read them all, but they’ve been recommended as suitable to show kids there is more than one way to live life.  It’s a loosely feminist list with a bit of other gender related reading thrown in. There are plenty of stories for those who prefer a princess who fights the dragon herself. We hope it’s helpful.

If you’d like to suggest books to add to the list then tweet us @GenderDiary. We’ve been given permission to include other small lists compiled by
@armyofdave and @treasuryislands (read the great Treasury Islands blog here) so thanks very much to them.

Fix It
FIX IT! illustrated by Georgie Birkett
A chatty, interactive text and merry illustrations encourage both girls and boys to engage in their first ‘real’ tasks.

The Shy Creatures
The Shy Creatures by David Mack
What does a shy girl want to be when she grows up? A doctor, but not just any doctor: this little girl wants to care for creatures who may seem intimidating, but are really very shy, just like she is.

Paper Bag princessThe Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
A princess uses her wit to outsmart a dragon in order to rescue the prince. The prince, seeing that the princess only has a paper bag for clothes, refuses to leave with her. The princess then tells the prince he “looks like a real bum” and they do not get married. The classic anti-princess book.

Princess Boy
My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis
Dyson loves the colour pink and sparkly things. Sometimes he wears dresses and sometimes he wears jeans. He likes to wear his princess tiara, even when climbing trees. He’s a Princess Boy.

KnittingThe Knitting Gorilla by Giles Andreae
After six daughters, the Big Gorilla had a son. “You will grow up to be BIG and FIERCE, just like your daddy!” he said proudly. But the Little Gorilla grew up to be…small…and gentle…and not like his daddy at all. And what he liked doing most…was knitting. And so begins a story about being.

Free to Be
Free to be…You and Me by Marlo Thomas
The original, innovative book that celebrates diversity, challenges stereotypes, and encourages kids to be themselves in a joyful, positive manner, through a collection of songs, poems, and stories to be read aloud.

My Name Is Not Isabella by Mike Litwin and Jennifer Fosberry
My name is not Isabella explores some of the amazing women who changed history including Rosa Parks (It’s from the US) and the reader’s Mum!

The Little Book Of Farmyard Tales by Heather Amery
Mrs Boot is a farmer. She lives on her farm with her two children, Poppy and Sam, and a dog called Rusty. A welcome alternative to the ‘farmer’s wife’ trope.  Features a little yellow duck to find on every page.

BusWhere’s The Bus? by Eileen Browne
I’m told this is the first ever animal picture book with all female characters.  Can it be true? We’re very happy for you to tell us otherwise because we’ll add the examples to the list. Young children will love to spot all the buses in the illustrations – which the animals miss because they are too busy doing something else

DragonDon’t You Dare, Dragon! by Annie Kubler
All Dragon wants to do is cool down and have a little fun, but every time she tries, she ruins it for everyone else! Thankfully, she finds some friends who need exactly what Dragon does best.  A book about a female dragon with an integral finger puppet for added fun.

ScaredI’m Not Scared! by Jonathan Allen
Baby Owl is out for a moonlight stroll through the woods but each animal he bumps into tells him not to be scared. Some of those animals are female, which is unusual, and baby owl’s carer is his dad, who puts him to bed.  You don’t often you see fathers in picture books.

DiggerBig Noisy Machines – Digger by Sue Hendra
Children will love imagining they are driving a big noisy digger with this fun interactive book. The bright, bold illustrations and simple text are accompanied with a noisy sound chip that allows readers to get involved with all the work on the busy building site. Women and men operate the machinery.

AGE 4-8 (Can be read to younger children)
HandyHandy Girls Can Fix it by Peggy Kahn
(Reading Age: 4+)
A group of girls form a club to fix things. Some paint, some build doghouses, and they get satisfaction helping people by working with their hands.

GraceAmazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
(Reading Age: 4+)
When her school decides to perform Peter Pan, Grace is longing to play Peter, but her classmates say that Peter was a boy, and besides, he wasn’t black…But Grace’s Ma and Nana tell her she can be anything she wants if she puts her mind to it…

GracePrincess Grace by Mary Hoffman
(Reading Age: 4+)
Grace has the chance to be a princess in a school parade. But what does a princess do, apart from wearing beautiful clothes and looking pretty? With the help of her teacher she learns about warrior princesses such as Pin-Yang of China who started a woman’s army, and Amina of Nigeria who led warriors into battle. Eventually Grace decides that she wants
to dress in West African Kente robes and says: “I feel like a proper princess – ready for an adventure”.

MiretteMirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully
(Reading Age: 4+)
Best summed up by the first reviewer on Amazon: “How many children’s books do you know where the girl (rather than a boy or an animal) saves the day by doing something heroic? Relatively few come to my mind. I was delighted to find this wonderful tale of 19th century entertainment fills that bill. Ms. McCully had originally set out to write a biography of the
famous tightrope walker Blondin, when she decided to write this book instead. The Mirette character is based on her own recollections of being a brave girl.”

ZogZog by Julia Donaldson
(Reading Age: 4+)
At Dragon School, Zog tries his best with all of his lessons, but he keeps having accidents. Luckily, every time he gets into a scrape a mysterious girl comes along and fixes him up. Finally, Zog has to attempt the hardest task of all – capturing a princess – and finds that he’s not very good at it. He’s feeling very sorry for himself when along comes the girl again – can she save the day this time?

KateKate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborne
(Reading Age: 4+)
A clever twist on a classic fairy tale.  A clever young girl climbs the beanstalk, outwits the giant and brings home riches to her mother.

HoraceHorace And Morris But Mostly Dolores by James Howe
(Reading Age: 4+)
Horace, Morris, and Dolores do everything together and know that they will be Friends Forever…until one day, when Horace and Morris become part of an exclusive boys’ club and Dolores finds herself left out. Soon, she, too, finds her own club, where no boys are allowed and girls are supposed to have fun doing girl stuff. But after a while, Horace and Morris and Dolores realize they aren’t happy at all doing what everyone in their clubs seems to enjoy. They miss each other. Is it too late to be friends again?

ChicksGirls Are Not Chicks Coloring Book by Julie Novak and Jacinta Bunnell
(Reading Age: 4+)
This book helps to “deconstruct the homogeneity of gender expression in children’s media by showing diverse pictures that reinforce positive gender roles for girls”. Girls are not chicks. Girls are thinkers, creators, fighters, healers and superheroes.

Cinder EdnaCinder Edna by Ellen Jackson
(Reading Age: 4+)
Cinder Edna was forced to work for her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, just like her neighbour, Cinderella. But while Cinderella had the good fortune to be rescued by her fairy godmother, Edna was strong, self-reliant, spunky–and she lived happier ever after.

PiggybookPiggybook By Anthony Browne
(Reading Age: 4+)
Mr Piggott and his two sons behave like pigs to Mrs Piggott until she walks out. Left to fend for themselves, the male Piggotts undergo some curious changes.

GirlsGirls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be…  By Jacinta Bunnell, Irit Reinheimer
(Reading Age: 4+ ?)
Girls Will be Boys Will be Girls pokes fun at the tired constraints of gender normativity, and makes it okay to step outside the lines.

SmartypantsPrincess Smartypants by Babette Cole
(Reading Age: 4+)
Princess Smartypants does NOT want to get MARRIED. She enjoys being a Ms. But being a rich and pretty princess means that all the princes want her to be their Mrs. Find out how Princess Smartypants fights to preserve her independence in this fairly-tale-witha-difference…

CindersPrince Cinders by Babette Cole
(Reading Age: 4+)
Prince Cinders leads a very hard life. Bullied by his three hairy brothers about his lessthan-perfect looks, he spends all his time cleaning and tidying up after them. One Saturday night Prince Cinders’ luck changes as a small, dirty fairy falls down the chimney and promises that his wishes shall come true. Not all the fairy’s spells turn out as planned.

The Tough Princess by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
(Reading Age: 4+)
This book turns the traditional fairytale rules on their heads and recreates the genre in a clear and clever way without confusing the young.

JaneJane and the Dragon by Martin Baynton
(Reading Age: 4+)
Jane longs to be a knight, but everyone laughs at her. Everyone, that is, except the court jester, who lends her a small suit of armour to help make her dream come true. And when an enormous dragon swoops in and steals the prince, Jane quickly gets the chance to prove herself!

RoommateDaddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite
(Reading Age: 4+)
This story’s narrator begins with his parent’s divorce and continues with the arrival of “someone new at Daddy’s house.” The new arrival is male. This new concept is explained to the child as “just one more kind of love.”

HeatrherHeather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
(Reading Age: 4+)
Heather’s favourite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet. Heather also has two mommies, Mama Jane and Mamma Kate.

PollyClever Polly And The Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr
(Reading Age: 5+)
Very popular classic. Polly continually outsmarts the wolf in his elaborate schemes. Polly has a plan that’s bound to foil the stupid wolf.

FamiliesThe Great Big Book Of Families by Mary Hoffman
(Reading Age: 5+)
What is a family? Once, it was said to be a father, mother, boy, girl, cat and dog living in a house with a garden. But as times have changed, families have changed too. An optimistic look at families of today.

Dresses10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert
(Reading Age: 5+)
Bailey dreams about beautiful dresses and longs to make them and wear them. “You’re a BOY!” Mother and Father tell Bailey. “You shouldn’t be thinking about dresses at all.” Bailey meets Laurel, an older girl who is touched and inspired by Bailey’s imagination and courage. In friendship, the two of them begin making dresses together.

PrincessThe Princess and the Dragon by Audrey Wood
(Reading Age: 5+)
When a princess who behaves like a dragon meets a dragon who behaves like a princess, they realise the best thing to do is change roles. The Princess enjoys her life playing devilish tricks upon unsuspecting old knights and the dragon enjoys ballet and playing the piano.

BrotherThe Big Brother by Stephanie Dagg
(Reading Age: 5+)
Will Dara know what to do when the new baby comes? If only he could have a doll to practise. A challenge to gendered ideas about children’s toys. Funny and heart-warming.

AbdulCaptain Abdul’s Pirate School By Colin McNaughton
(Reading Age: 5+)
This is the story (in diary form) of reluctant pirate pupil, Pickles. At Captain Abdul’s awful academy Pickles is taught essential pirate topics such as how to make cannon balls and the correct way to say, “Ooh arrgh!” Discovering a plot to kidnap the pupils and hold them to ransom, Pickles leads a daring mutiny. Pickles is revealed on the last page to be a girl
called Maisy.

The Princesses have a ball by Teresa Bateman
(Reading Age: 6+)
The king is puzzled. Why aren’t his 12 daughters dreaming of princes? Subversive (and rhyming) high jinks by sporty princesses with attitude. The ball they have is a baseball…

RickshawRickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
(Reading Age: 7+)
Saleem can drive a rickshaw and help earn money for his family. Naima longs to help but is forbidden as a girl. A wonderfully unique story set in rural Bangladesh exploring the challenges change brings.

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
(Reading Age: 7+)
At age five Matilda can do double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-read Dickens but what she would really like is parents who are loving and understanding, but hers are not. Matilda invents a game of punishing her parents when they treat her badly and she discovers that she has supernatural powers.

BillBill’s New Frock by Anne Fine
(Reading Age: 7+)
Bill’s New Frock offers young male readers insight into how people treat you differently when you’re female. Bill Simpson wakes up to find he’s a girl, and his mother makes him wear a pink dress to school. How on earth is he going to survive a whole day like this? Everything just seems to be different for girls.

PetronellaPetronella by Jay Williams
(Reading Age: 8+)
Princess Petronella challenges the mysterious enchanter Albion for a prince’s freedom. She attempts a daring escape – but is she rescuing the right man? A modern fantasy classic, full of wit and surpise, with an admirable heroine.

ThinkGirls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh
(Reading Age: 8+)
In kitchens and living rooms, in garages and labs and basements, even in converted chicken coops, women and girls have come up with ingenious innovations that have made our lives simpler and better. What inspired these women, and just how did they turn their ideas into realities?

WrestlingThe Wrestling Princess: and other stories by Judy Corbalis and Helen Craig
(Reading Age: 8+ Reading Aloud Age: 4+)
Six stories, each about a girl who pursues interests such as driving a forklift truck, fighting dragons, or piloting a helicopter as well as a hungry monster, a pink elephant and a magic parrot.

SisterMy Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards
(Reading Age: 8+ Reading Aloud Age: 4+)
My naughty little sister is full of mischief. She tries to cut off the cat’s tail, she bites Father Christmas’s hand, and eats all of the trifle with Bad Harry at his party.

RamonaRamona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Tracy Dockray
(Reading Age: 8+ Reading Aloud Age: 4+)
Ramona the Pest shows us a mischievous girl’s perspective on the trials and delights of beginning school. In this book Ramona is age 5, follow the series right through until the final book  Ramona’s World when she turns 10.

OrdinaryThe Ordinary Princess by M M Kaye
(Reading Age: 8+)
The youngest of seven princesses is given the gift of being ordinary. When her parents start turning to desperate measures to get her married, Amy runs away to live in the forest with her companions, a squirrel and a crow. This happy existence is interrupted by the deterioration of Amy’s clothes. In order to purchase new ones, Amy gets a job as a kitchen
maid at the castle in a neighbouring kingdom… and makes an unexpected friend.

PippiPippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
(Reading Age: 8+)
Children’s Classic. Pippi  lives without grown-ups in Villa Villekulla with a horse, a monkey, and a big suitcase full of gold coins. The grown-ups in her village try to make Pippi behave in ways that they think a little girl should, but Pippi has other ideas. She would much rather spend her days arranging wild, exciting adventures to enjoy with her neighbours, Tommy and Annika, or entertaining everyone she meets with her outrageous stories.

AGE 9-12
SeesawSeesaw Girl by Linda Sue Park
(Reading Age: 9+)
In 17th century Korea, girls from “good” families stay within the Inner Court until they are married. But Jade yearns to glimpse the world outside these walls. Will she realize her dream?

BestGirls are Best by Sandi Toksvig
(Reading Age: 9+)
Women gladiators, women in the Bayeaux Tapestry, women inventors – Sandi Toksvig uncovers them all in her light-hearted approach to the serious message of this book – women have always done amazing things but have mostly been overlooked by history.

DarkHis Dark Materials Trilogy: Northern Lights, Subtle Knife, Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
(Reading Age: 9+)
Beginning in Oxford, this story takes Lyra and her animal-daemon Pantalaimon on a dangerous rescue mission to the ice kingdoms of the far north, where she begins to learn about the mysterious particles they call Dust, a substance for which a terrible war between different worlds will be fought.  Has won the UK’s top awards for children’s literature.

TykeThe Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp
(Reading Age: 9+ Reading Aloud Age: 5+)
The book tells the story of its main characters’ final term at Cricklepit Combined School. It is principally narrated by ‘Tyke’ Tiler, a bold and athletic twelve-year-old with the reputation of being a troublemaker. Up to the end of the penultimate chapter the narrative is written without revealing the protagonist’s gender, and the daring nature of Tyke’s exploits often
leads readers to assume Tyke is a boy. The story ends with the revelation that Tyke is female and her full name Theodora.

BridgeBridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
(Reading Age: 9+)
Jess pushes himself to win the year’s first school-yard race but his victory is stolen by newcomer Leslie, a girl, who didn’t even know enough to stay on the girls’ side of the playground.  But she completely changes his worldview about what girls can and can’t do and how they’re “supposed” to be. It is Leslie who invents Terabithia, the secret country
on an island across the creek.

BeedleThe Tales of Beedle the Bard by JK Rowling
(Reading Age: 9+)
This is here as part of the alternative-princess meme. The Tales of Beedle the Bard are the fairy tales that witches & wizards read to their kids and which have a role in assist Harry Potter in his quests against Voldemort. “You won’t find any princesses sitting around waiting to be rescued in there.”

DealingDealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
(Reading Age: 10+)
Princess Cimerone and the dragon Kazul share a spirited adventure with an extraordinary cast of characters in this first book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles series.

HeroThe Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
(Reading Age: 10+)
There is no place in the country of Damar for Aerin, daughter of a witchwoman, who is also the king’s daughter; and so she befriends her father’s crippled war-horse, Talat, and teases her cousin Tor into teaching her to handle a sword. But it is Aerin who rediscovers the old recipe for dragonfire-proof kenet, and when the army is called away to the other side of the country, it is she who, alone but for Talat, rides out to confront Maur, the Black Dragon, the last of the Great Dragons, for centuries thought dead.

HatA Hat Full Of Sky by Terry Pratchett
(Reading Age: 12+)
Terry Pratchett’s 2nd Tiffany Aching novel. She previously saved the world from the Queen of the Elves and is about to discover that battling evil monarchs is child’s play compared to mortal combat with a Hiver. At eleven years old, she is the boldest heroine ever to have confronted the Forces of Darkness while armed with a frying pan.

ParrotfishParrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
(Reading Age: 12+)
Parrotfish can serve as an introduction to transgender issues for curious readers.  Angela changes her name to Grady, and begins to live as a boy, and though his family and friends initially have trouble accepting the change, he does find support from them and one particular teacher.

DolltopiaDolltopia by Abby Denson
(Reading Age: 12+ ?)
A Barbie-like doll suffers a crisis once she realizes her fate is to live in a dreamhouse and marry a boring, Ken-like doll. So what does she do? She breaks free, gets a punk haircut and makes her way to Dolltopia, a land full of rebel dolls who refuse to live lives that were planned out for them.

SpindleSpindle’s End by Robin McKinley
(Reading Age: 14+)
An inventive retelling of Sleeping Beauty but featuring a heroine who is anything but passive–she prefers leather breaches to ball gowns, can communicate with animals and saves herself and her village from the sleeping enchantment.

ShadowsShadows On The Moon by Zoe Marriott
(Reading Age: 14+)
Sixteen-year-old Suzume is able to recreate herself in any form. But who is she really?  A powerful tale of magic, love and revenge with a strong female lead, set in fairy-tale Japan. Zoe Williams is a follower of @genderdiary and picked out this one in particular for this list, but take a look at all her books here.

Marianne Grabrucker’s ‘There’s a Good Girl, Gender Stereotyping in the first three years of life: A Diary‘.
The Book that inspired @GenderDiary.

Links to many many more books (via our friends @pinksstinksuk)
A Mighty Girl is the world’s largest collection of books and movies for parents, teachers, and others dedicated to
raising smart, confident, and courageous girls
http://www.letterboxlibrary.com/acatalog/index.html A children’s booksellers celebrating equality and diversity

by @genderdiary: A Mother and Father tweeting about their son and daughter and how people treat them differently

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