Bookcase with children's books

Gender stereotypes in children’s books: Do we live happily ever after?

What’s the deal with gender stereotypes in children’s books?

Before I deep dive into complexities of gender stereotypes in children’s books, I want to talk about Natalie Portman.

Why? Because last week the Oscar winner announced she was entering the children’s book market with ‘Natalie Portman’s Fables’. Her re-telling of classic tales such as The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Three Little Pigs.

The reason? She wants to make these stories ‘gender safe’ and to ‘update them to be more reflective of the world in which we live’.

gender stereotypes tackled in natalie portmans' new book
Gender stereotypes tackled in Natalie Portman’s new children’s book.

In an open letter on her publisher’s website, she further describes how her daughter was given ‘feminist baby books’ when she was born, and how her son, born 5 years previous, didn’t receive these socially conscious books. Instead, he had ‘fun stories about caterpillars and rainy days’.

She did read ‘normal’ books to her daughter, but she was struck with how most of the characters, even the animals, were male. Is this experience with gender stereotypes in children’s books the norm?

What do the stats say?

Natalie Portman isn’t wrong, research into most popular children’s books in 2018, showed that male characters continue to dominate popular picture books.

In fact:

  • A child is 1.6 times more likely to read books with a male rather than a female lead.
  • A child is 7 times more likely to read a story that has a male villain in it than a female baddie.
  • Male characters outnumbered female characters in more than half the books, while females outnumber males less than a fifth of the time.

And sadly:

  • When these books did include the characters who were female, they were much less likely to speak than white, male characters.

Disability and same-sex relationships are also barely present in the most popular children’s books.

Diversity in children’s stories

The stats are even more worrying when we analyse people of colour in our children’s books.

In 2018, the first UK study looking at diversity in children’s literature was published. I know, only a couple of years ago.

There has been a further study published in 2019, and here are some of the findings.

  • 7% of the books feature a Black, Asian or minority ethnic character
  • 4% contained a Black, Asian or minority ethnic hero character

These have increased from the year before. However, to provide some context, the full report details that the proportion of Black, Asian or minority ethnic students in UK schools was sitting at 33.1% [1]. A huge gap.

We’ve not seen the latest figures for this study, but with COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, it may affect it. There is no doubt that more needs to be done here.

Do gender stereotypes in children’s books really matter?

Yes. Yes, they do.

I’m going to let research take over for a moment. Modern neuroscientists have previously identified that there are no decisive, category-defining differences between the brains of men and women [2]. However, we live in a heavily gendered world so our children absorb and take on what is expected of their gender over time.

Depressingly, studies have shown that even by age 7, children’s career aspirations appear to be shaped and restricted by gender-specific ideas about certain jobs [3].

It’s all manner of influences that cause this (which we’ve previously tried to unpick in an earlier blog), but the books our kids read also play a part.

Reading and story-telling can often be our children’s first portal into another world. It has truly amazing benefits. It can encourage imagination, build empathy and self-confidence, as well as helping improve their knowledge of the world. However, if our kids are reading books that they don’t recognise themselves in, or are not seeing anyone but themselves in these stories, then our children will learn limits.

Also, we are not all the same, we are nuanced. Not all boys want to be in front of the pack and have a sense of bravado. Some are more sensitive, emotional and don’t like physical activities. It shouldn’t be that they need to read ‘a girl’s book’ to recognise themselves. As our founder, Clare Willetts often says – ‘we aren’t all defined by one thing as adults – we can be rugby-loving, pint drinking, dress loving women all in one person. Kids are just as individual so shouldn’t be seen as one dimensional either’.

Are my children reading the right books?

It’s great to have a set of inclusive books, that show different genders, skin colours, disabilities, personalities and that don’t follow the expected stereotypes. However, there is no need to throw away all your kid’s books just yet.

Tips for parents

So, what is on your child’s bookshelf? What kind of books have friends and family been buying as presents? If you have some doubts about the content, we have some tips to readdress the bias:

  • Take a look through your books – are they all of one overriding theme/genre?
  • What is missing? Add to your collection over time to fill the gaps.
  • Consider libraries to plug the gap in content that you might be missing.
  • Book swap with other parents to widen your topic/character range.
  • For young kids, swap pronouns so that not everything is default male – which is particularly prevalent in animal books.
  • Use fairy tale books to discuss limitations and stereotypes – ask children how they would change the ending and which character they want to be and why?
  • Ask children if they see all of their friends and family in their books – if not, who is missing?
  • For older children, celebrate their individuality and let them choose the topic that interests them.
  • If you are listening to audiobooks, introduce stories that are reflective of our cultures, and that your voices are not always the same.

Books that not only pink and blue recommends

If you’re still worried about gender stereotypes in children’s books and the overall inclusivity of its content, then please see below for some of not only pink and blue’s favourite books.

Buster Finds His Beat

Age: 3 – 6 yrs.

Buster, a charming little boy who is autistic, struggles with everyday noises and has to wear ear defenders. This perfect picture story is for all kids – encouraging them to be inclusive, empathic, and understanding of others around them.  We recently interviewed Pam Aculey, the author and founder of Just Like Me Books for our Meet the Partner Q&A series.

Hot Air Balloon series

Age: 4 – 8 yrs.

This four-book series kicks off with ‘The Start of Something Big’ and sees Alice, Hannah and Rosie go on a series of big adventures in a patched-up hot air balloon. These beautifully illustrated books celebrate friendship, imagination, courage and determination.

‘My Mummy is …’ and ‘My Daddy is …’ series.

My Mummy is a Footballer book

Age: 3 – 7 yrs.

A series of beautifully illustrated books with rhyming stories about careers such as ‘My Daddy is a Nurse’ and ‘My Mummy is an Engineer’. Providing children with context about careers that they might not have seen as options previously.

Serious comedy books

Four books including Why Animals Can't Ride Scooters

Age: 3- 6 yrs.

A collection of educational books that are super fun, a bit silly, but that are still delivering important messages for kids. These fabulously illustrated books tackle topics such as road safety and environmental issues and make serious lessons fun for all children.

Peculiar powers of vegetables

Age 6 – 10 yrs.

A colourful, fun and poetic journey of discovery through all the different vegetables and fruits and their amazing powers. This book will engage any child to try different types of foods with amusing rhymes and wonderful illustrations. Go asparagus alien spotting or become a satsuma samurai – the whole family will be eating a rainbow of fruit and veg before you know it.

Dungeon Fun Comic

Dungeon Fun comic book

Age: 6 – 10 yrs.

A comic to get even the most lacklustre reader hooked on reading.  This adventure tale puts a girl called Fun Mudlifter and her sword at the forefront. The perfect escapism for your brave/creative/curious/funny/inquisitive adventurer to be.

Further sources:

[1] Reflecting Realities Report Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2018 – New Release 2019.pdf

[2] Rippon, G. (2019). The Gendered Brain, Bodley Head: London.

[3] Chambers, N., et al., (2018). Drawing the Future survey. Education for Employers.

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