Where are all the leading ladies?

Male characters are twice as likely to take a leading role in picture books, The Observer revealed yesterday.

The newspaper analysed the 100 most popular books of 2017 and found a clear gender bias, with females missing from a fifth of stories.

The abundance of boys also tended to take stereotypical masculine roles, while there were few female villains other than a boot-stealing duck in a Peppa Pig story.

When characters were anthropomorphised animals, the bias was even stronger. Males were powerful, wild and strong creatures like tigers, females were smaller and weaker ones like rabbits.

Rather than children, it seems it is females who should be seen and not heard – these characters are 50 per cent less likely to having a speaking role.

For anyone who enjoys reading picture books with their child, this male dominance is unlikely to come as a surprise.

I’ve blogged before about the lack of relevant female characters in stories and how this worries me as the parent of a son.

Boys need good female role models as much as girls do. Maybe even more so, if we are really to see change in society.

Leading authors are certainly heeding the message.

Children’s laureate Lauren Child is regularly highlighting the issue and new talents like Rob Biddulph are making a conscious effort to put girls centre stage in books like Odd Dog Out.

Then we have the buzz around Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls and the Little People Big Dreams series.

Publishers are definitely trying to introduce new, more forward-thinking titles too, but the top sellers are often heavily weighted towards classics that parents and grandparents remember from their childhoods.

Commercial pressures will naturally play a huge role in what publishers will invest time and money in developing and promoting.

When I worked for a parenting magazine, we made a conscious effort to put images of dads as well as mums on the cover – and a mixture of races.

People applauded us, but the sales weren’t always so positive when we deviated from the ‘norm’.

I suppose the power to shift the balance lies with parents. We need to start actively looking for female focused books and showing there is a demand.

They don’t even need to feature all female casts. They just need to be realistic and reflect the world our children are (hopefully) growing up in, with both genders contributing and free to pursue the activities and interests they desire.

Picture books are your child’s first window on the world. Let’s make the view one we’d like them to see.

What do you think? Please share your views – and which female characters you love to read at bedtime.

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