Summer reading: Good books don’t come in pink and blue
By Leah Persky • Family Life Education Manager
It is hard to ignore the fact that summer is slowly coming to an end: back-to-school sales are everywhere, the sun is setting earlier each evening, and the countdown to the first day of school has begun for many of us. While it is easy to get swept away in all of the planning and thoughts of fall, many of us are not quite ready to let go of summer and the slower pace of life with the kids.
In an effort to enjoy the last weeks of summer, I have focused on exploring new books with my kids and seeing where their interests take them. With trips to the library and bookstore and seeing the books my son and daughter are drawn to, I started to ask myself – why does my son never pick a book with a girl on the cover? Why does it seem most books are about boys or have boys as the main character? Why is my daughter drawn to the pink, purple and glittery books? And most importantly, what are the messages my children are receiving from the books they read? Anne Fine, a former children’s laureate and Carnegie Medal winner, noted that books today are too gender-specific and argued specifically that good books don’t come in pink or blue. This got me thinking.
In order to get a bit of insight into these questions, I started to do a bit of digging and found some surprising information. Janice McCabe, a professor at the University of Florida, found that after sampling 10,000 children’s books written between 1900 and 2000, 57 percent of books feature a male central character and only 31 percent have central female characters. This research was published in 2011. Only one Caldecott-winning book has a standalone female character since the award began in 1938. In case you are interested, that book features a female duck who is looking for her ducklings – Have You Seen My Duckling?, published in 1985.
Small children are encouraged to avoid screen time and read with caregivers and parents. Books send powerful messages and present imagery that significantly impacts how children view the world, their place in it, and the roles they should aspire to. We often hear of the potential negative impacts that too much or the wrong type of screen time can have on children, but what about the impact of books? These too present powerful images and words about how children should act, and the gender norms they should aspire to. Books also often indirectly reinforce the idea of a gender dichotomy, rather than a spectrum of gender identity, which further limits the expression of who each one of is and aspires to be.
Children’s books can send subtle and not-so-subtle messages that reinforce many traditional gender norms, including the traditional norm that men/boys should take on leadership positions and women/girls should remain in the wings. The invisibility of women and girls (even female animals) in children’s books can introduce or reinforce norms that encourage girls and women to be in narrow caretaking roles. Some have dubbed this the “pinkification” of girls. Role-widening in children’s books is needed so that girls and boys can open books and see people of all genders in a variety of different roles in equal measure.
One challenge that some authors have noted is that boys prefer books that have males as central characters while many girls are happy to read books with either boys or girls taking a lead. I found that boys tend to be offered a very narrow view of the world, with books focused on fantasy and often violence and very little in the way of humor or family life. Anne Fine writes: “If you offer boys such a narrow view of the world, and don’t offer them novels that show them dealing with normal family feelings, they will begin to think this sort of stuff is not for them.”
All of this leads me back to summer reading with the kids and the collective desire as parents and grandparents to raise empathic, thoughtful children who value equity and who can follow their dreams and goals, no matter their gender identity. I want my children to be empowered to be whoever they want to be, and to do that, I need to take a closer look at the reading material they are exposed to. While this seems like just another thing to pile on the to-do list of parents, it is a powerful opportunity. Just as we cultivate and monitor screen time due to its power over developing minds, we also need to recognize the power of books and the written word to open the potential of the world and empower our children to follow their dreams.
So, put down some of those old fairy tales that highlight women and girls as passive caregivers waiting for prince charming or those adventure hero books with few if any female characters. Here are some new and old favorites (in both fiction and non-fiction) for children in elementary school onwards.
- Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo
- I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy
- Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz & Miriam Klein Stahl (recommended for children ages 10 and older)
- Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
- Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh and Melissa Sweet
- Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters by Kathleen Ragan and Jane Yolen (great for older elementary, middle school and beyond)
- Thunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen
- The Emperor and the Kite by Jane Yolen
- Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope and Giselle Potter
- Not One Damsel in Distress: Heroic Girls from World Folklore by Jane Yolen and Susan Guevara (recommended for children ages 10 and older)
- Brave Girl by Michelle Markel (available through PJ Library)
- Jodie’s First Dig by Anna Levine (available through PJ Library)
- Engineer Arielle and the Israel Independence Day Surprise by Deborah Bodin Cohen (available through PJ Library)
I hope you enjoy these books as much as much as my children and I have! If you are interested in learning about more great children’s books, check out PJ Library, an international award-winning program designed to strengthen Jewish identity by sending free Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to children from age 6 months through 8 years. PJ Library also hosts regular community events for families. Any family with a Jewish connection is invited to enroll and receive these beautiful, age-appropriate books. Sign up today at www.pjlibrary.org or visit PJ Library’s Facebook page.
In addition to supporting PJ Library, JFCS also works to inspire early learning and wellness activities through the Parent-Child Home Program, an evidence-based, early literacy, parenting, and school readiness program that promotes creative ways to learn through play. Committed to closing the achievement gap by providing low-income families the skills they need to prepare their children for school and life success, the vision of PCHP is that every child enters school ready to succeed because every parent has the knowledge and resources to build school readiness where it starts: the home.
- Flood, Alison. (2011) https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/06/gender-imbalance-children-s-literature
- Gienapp, Rebekah. (2018). http://www.thebarefootmommy.com/2018/07/feminist-fairy-tales/
- Furness, Hannah. (2014). https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10704156/Good-books-dont-come-in-pink-and-blue-Anne-Fine-argues.html