Watch this video: The Ugly Truth of Children’s Books
In this video, a mother and daughter remove books from a shelf. They take away books that feature only boys, or have female characters who don’t speak. They also remove books that feature females who only exist to find a boy, a prince, a savior, etc. At the end of the video, very few books are left on the shelves.
When I think of my very favorite books from my childhood in the early 1980s, here’s what I come up with:
I’m so grateful that I gravitated toward these books. No one pointed them out to me or forced them into my hands. I just knew that I liked reading about girls and young women who went on adventures. What I liked best about each character:
Nancy Drew: A rebel under the guise of a “good girl.” People were constantly telling her to “be careful” or “don’t go in there” or basically, “don’t ask too many questions.” Did she listen? No! The quest for the truth kept her going.
Pippi Longstocking: A tremendous free spirit full of curiosity. The world was a grand place, ripe for exploration. The unknown shouldn’t scare us; instead, we should find out all we can.
Laura Ingalls: An observer, more adventurous than her sisters. Pa dragged the family from place to place in constant search of a better life. Laura approached these moves with optimism and excitement.
What all three have in common is the desire to explore. Every change, every mystery, was an opportunity to learn. All three would have made good journalists 🙂
As I got a little older, my favorite book became Bridge to Terabithia. In that book, we have both a boy and girl main characters, Jess and Leslie, though the book is told from Jess’ point of view. But it’s a lovely account of a boy-girl friendship in that magical time before puberty messes everything up. Leslie is a strong female character who isn’t afraid to have adventures and get dirty, and she’s the one with the exquisite imagination that shows Jess how to free himself and really live life.
Jess is a boy, but a boy in a family of females. He’s surrounded by sisters. And his relationship with his dad is tense because Dad doesn’t see Jess as a “typical” boy — he likes art, isn’t that great at sports, deeply admires his music teacher, and spends all his time with Leslie.
My point is, girls will find the books in which they are represented well. It doesn’t hurt to nudge them in that direction and place books like these directly in their hands. It’s also not going to hurt to encourage writers to create more stories with strong female characters. But books are like any media: if that’s the only way children get to know the world, that can be a danger. However, it’s up to us — parents, older siblings, teachers — to be strong role models for girls, to exhibit strength and curiosity and compassion. Any book about a boy, or about a girl seeking a boy, cannot compete with those major influences.