International Children’s Book Day
Written by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Manager of Editorial Services
Today, April 2, 2014 is International Children’s Book Day. Established in 1967, the holiday falls on or near Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday, the 2nd of April. Ostensibly, it is meant to encourage a love of reading and highlight children’s books. It is also an opportunity to turn a critical eye towards children’s book and their representation of people.
When I look back at the books I loved most as a little kid, they included:
The Poky Little Puppy A Big Golden Book – representation male, animal
Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up by Shel Silverstein – I’m not going to go through the poems, but there were poems about boys and girls and animals, all the depictions in the illustrations seem to be white people
McElligot’s Pool by Dr. Suess – ‘young man’ main character, drawn as white
Giants Come in Different Sizes by Jolly Roger Bradfield – all main characters are male and apparently German, based upon umlaut usage, or British, based upon names. There are a few images of female characters.
Richard Scarry’s Peasant Pig and the Terrible Dragon – all the characters are animals, the cast seems fairly evenly split as male and female, but the major players are male.
Dr. Suess’s Sleep Book by Dr. Suess – a variety of genders in made-up species
According to my favorites, there was a slight advantage to the boys, and other groups of people were not so well represented. A study in 2011 looking at the representation of gender in books found that in children’s books written from 1900 to 2000, male characters had a central role in 57 percent of books published per year while female characters were at 31 percent. This value did not get better over the century, and in fact, it was worse mid-century. Another more recent study has found that in the literature children read in their school textbooks, male characters outnumber female characters in both text and visual representation. As I pointed out in the books I listed of my own interest, even when characters are female, they are doing stereotypically female things.
I didn’t go into my favorite books where the text outweighed the illustrations, such as Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe or The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But these books are characterized in the above studies as well, and also show the same gender disparities.
What about race or disabilities? What about sexual orientation? To address the latter, I found one study directly exploring the representation of sexualities other than heterosexual in children’s literature. Considering so many children’s stories actually have a romance or an arranged marriage between a male and a female character, I would expect that heteronormative experiences are the huge majority of any sexuality presented.
There have been studies of the representation of disabilities – and a wide range of disabilities in children’s books. You guessed it, they are hugely under-represented. And the disabilities shown do not reflect those that most children see in their peers in elementary schools. Sadly, children’s books are where the tropes of characters with disabilities start. These tropes include being support characters, inspirational, “pitiful or pathetic, or a burden and incapable of fully participating in the events of everyday life.” For those who are disabled reading this, this is not the reflection that is healthy. And for those who are able, seeing only these stories is also unhealthy for learning about others.
Studies of the representation of both disability and race have been done. In general, when you find children’s stories with disability represented, the percentage of those with non-white races depicted is very low. In fact, the percent of children’s books depicting any race that is not white is low.
As every single study or article linked above says, it is important for children to see representations of themselves, and positive representations of themselves in the literature they read.
Stellaluna by Janell Cannon was not a book of my childhood, but it is a book I read to my kids and have kept because I liked it so. The main bat character is female, but it does not live up to a fully diverse cast. Do you have some examples of inclusive children’s books?