Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Things that make you go hmmmmm

This week readers are challenged to consider gender bias in children’s literature with some useful starting points to assess you own bookshelves, and buying habits – is there a gap in your library? 

I recently watched the following video clip that appeared in my Facebook feed. It really got me thinking…

While its ultimate purpose is to spruik the authors' book, it still remains a thought-provoking watch. The clip is about gender bias in books. It presents a mother and daughter surveying a book case of books on display at a bookshop or similar. They start out by removing books that have only females in them and then books with only males in them with a startling difference in numbers weighted to the males. The first time I watched it, this was as far as I got because my immediate reaction was “No, it’s not that bad… surely?”

I mulled this over for a few days. Then I went back and watched the clip all the way through. I thought that, while it does seem that there are certainly a lot of males represented in books, surely there were plenty of females too? Are library staff gender biased or maybe gender blind towards their collections? Did I need to make more of an effort to present a balanced view? Am I unwittingly contributing to this?

I decided to take a quick poll of a section of my collection. I will admit, due to time constraints (hey, we all know about that, don’t we?) I just concentrated on my picture book collection and surveyed all the books that were currently on display and all the picture book returns for that day. I chose these two subsets because the display books are the ones promoted to the children and the returns indicate the student’s preferred selections. These provided me with a total sample of 51 books.
The result were:

  • Male only characters - 14
  • Female characters only – 3
  • A mix of female and male characters – 14
  • Female characters who don’t speak – 8
  • No male or female gender indicated – 12

So what did I learn from my admittedly small experiment? Yes, gender bias does appear to exist in picture books, even when there’s no immediate reason for it to be. For example, the main character is a bear or a rabbit (i.e.: genderless) but the text still refers to “he/him/his”, even though there is no reason why “she” couldn’t have been substituted. There were very disappointingly few female only books. I was quite surprised. I was also surprised at books I thought would have female only characters or which had a female main character, how often they would have male characters too. And hardly any of them have male characters who don’t contribute to dialogue, while many of the books with both female and male characters, the female characters are referred to but don’t have any dialogue. Hmm, food for thought.

I was also surprised to see how many picture books had no gender, a subset that the video ignored completely. And how popular this subset is with children (they account for nearly a quarter of the sample).

The video does narrow down the categories to things like
  • Books that show females with hope and dreams
  • Books in which the females are princesses

And I’ll freely admit I didn’t get that nit-picky, mostly because I found the initial results so startling and the time factor. The clip then goes on to direct you to the website Rebel Girls, which includes a blog that you can join that will keep you updated on books with a strong female base this has a strong American slant.

I did join this group and have found the emails interesting and it helps to keep the subject current and something to consider when I’m purchasing new books.

With that in mind, here are some recent purchases.
The Book of Heroines: Tales of History’s Gutsiest Gals includes well known favourites such as Helen Keller and Joan of Arc but it also has great examples of more contemporary women including Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai and Emma Watson. With its great photos and a layout that makes the information easily accessible, I’m sure it will be a much borrowed addition to our library.

Similarly, Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World written by Kate
Pankhurst, a descendant of the suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, details the contribution of various women through history. It’s a more cartoonish style book, which should appeal to younger readers.

Also, I Wanna be a Pretty Princess made me laugh in relation to the clip. One of the comments made in the clip is that lots of books with female characters are only about princesses. While this is certainly evident, this particular book does take a cheeky look at being a princess. The wannabe princess does it her way, in no uncertain terms!

So, where to now? Perhaps you might like to take your own mini poll? Maybe you can share really positive examples of strong female centred books? Maybe it’s something to keep in mind when next purchasing? Or maybe you think it doesn’t matter at all?

What are your thoughts?

Tania Cooper
Library Technician and devourer of books
Ulverstone Primary School.

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