Are you a huge fan of reading with children? There’s just about nothing better, is there, than cuddling on a sofa with small people, watching them learn to love the world of books.
Every parent and teacher wants the best for children, and for them to grow up able to navigate through the world by being able to read and write well. One key part of early literacy is reading picture books with young children, and in one sense, any book will do! We’ve all gritted our teeth and read a book we loathe, for the 473rd time, because a child adores it, right?
What’s most important is that a child has a warm experience of engaging with books, turning pages, beginning to get the idea that the squiggles on the page correspond to words that their adult is saying out loud.
But if our goals for our children go beyond literacy, and include becoming great citizens, who will make the world a better place, just by being in it, there are some other things to think about when we’re choosing books for our home collection or for the bookshelves of an early childhood learning centre.
In this new series we’re going to look at a few different kinds of books that you might like to add to your collection – and some you might want to remove – to help your small people grow into wonderful bigger people.
Today we’re looking at gender. Did you know that if you do a survey of the picture books in a library or bookshop, there are far more male characters in them than female? What does that tell our children?
(Representation in movies and television shows is even worse, but that’s a story for another day.)
Here’s an exercise if you’re curious about how bad this problem is. Think about your children’s favourite books, the ones that are on high rotate, and always finish with ‘Read it again!’ Jot down a quick list of ten or twenty of those, and have a look at how many of them star male or female characters. In the otherwise wonderful Dear Zoo, for instance, every single animal is male, for no particular reason. Children’s publishing sends the subtle but strong message that male is the default, the norm.
Now ask yourself – are the female and male characters in these books doing similar kinds of things? Do girls get to have adventures and save the day, and do boys get to have good friendships and practise caring behaviour? Surveys show that even books for very young children start to box them in by their gender.
In my experience, getting a healthy mix in our children’s reading takes a bit of thought and work. I’m keen to save you some of that work, though, so there’s a list of recommended books at the end of this article.
Here are some reasons why in books as we help form young minds:
Reason #1: Our children are growing up in a sexist world, and we’ll need them to change it
Around the world, women own one per cent of titled property. Yes, 1%. Women and girls are much more likely to be victims of violence, and have much lower rates of literacy. About four per cent of companies have a woman as a CEO, and only 22 per cent of members of parliaments around the world are women.
One great thing we can do to help our children really believe that women and men are equally valuable is to show them girls and boys in equal numbers in the books they read.
Reason #2: Reading about people different from you helps develop empathy
All children need to read two kinds of books: stories that reflect their own lives; and stories that show them different kinds of lives. So boys need to read stories about girls and vice versa. At the moment, many girls are getting this opportunity, with plenty of exposure to male heroes, but boys are missing out.
Reading about other people’s lives helps develop empathy – but what if we limit this to one gender? We don’t want to be raising boys who think girls are incomprehensible, do we?
We’ll talk about issues of ethnicity, economics, disability and family structure in upcoming articles, too.
Reason #3: If you can’t see it, you can’t be it
It’s not just about numbers, of course. All children need to see characters like them who can do all sorts of different things: boys who are adventurers and boys who are caring, girls who do ballet and girls who solve problems. Do the books in your collection reflect a range of possibilities?
The Marble Maker features a red-headed Māori girl who is a champion marble player and also a scientific inventor!
Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley is a lovely depiction of a friendship between two very different children: Pearl is a loud go-getter and Charlie is a quiet carer.
Ada Twist: Scientist features a curious girl who wants to know how things work. There are also companion books, Rosie Revere: Engineer and Iggy Peck: Architect.
Last Stop on Market Street is the story of a boy and his grandmother taking the bus across town to help at a soup kitchen, practising gratitude along the way. A lovely book!
The Longest Breakfast is a fun story where a Dad (the only adult present) sleepily gets breakfast ready for a posse of kids and neighbours. One girl is inspired by her astronomy book to ask for doughnuts, and there’s some lovely big brother affection towards a frustrated baby, among all sorts of other enjoyable interactions.
For a great story about a boy who shows lovely generosity and hospitality, check out Mama Panya’s Pancakes. Adika and his mother are going to market to get ingredients for their meal of pancakes. Adika invites everyone they see to join them – which worries his mother, as she might not have enough food. But generosity breeds generosity, and it all works out beautifully.
Reason #4: It’s not true that boys prefer books about boys
People often explain the huge imbalance in publishing by saying we are worried about boys’ literacy, and boys are drawn to books about boys, but girls will happily read about either boys or girls.
In fact, there is no research to back this idea up at all. If we only give boys books about other boys, we make this a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that’s our fault, not anything to do with how boys are inside.
Here are some books featuring girls that young boys I know adore:
The Watcher is the story of ape scientist Jane Goodall discovering new things about chimpanzees.
The Maisy books by Lucy Cousins star a mouse and her other animal friends doing everyday pre-schooler activities, from getting ready for bed to visiting a museum. They’re bright, matter-of-fact and much loved by most children.
Splash! Anna Hibiscus, stars a charismatic little girl, living in an unnamed African city, and her enormous family.
Here’s someone reading it: https://youtu.be/0DHtR1dMZ74
Oh Hogwash, Sweet Pea! introduces a girl with a big, hilarious imagination, particularly when explaining how she has lost her shoes – every day of the week. Here’s a preview:
In Say Hello! we follow a little girl and her grandmother as they walk along a busy, colourful city street, and say hello to all their friends and neighbours, in their own languages.
Full Book List
The Marble Maker, by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan
Oh Hogwash, Sweet Pea! by Ngāreta Gabel, translated by Hannah Rainforth, illustrated by Ali Teo and Astrid Jensen
Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora.
Splash! Anna Hibiscus, by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia
Maisy series, by Lucy Cousins
Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley, by Aaron Blabey
Ada Twist: Scientist, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Rosie Revere: Engineer, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña
The Longest Breakfast, by Jenny Bornholdt, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins
The Watcher, by Jeanette Winter.
Mama Panya’s Pancakes, by Mary and Rich Chamberlin, illustrated by Julia Cairns.