Are children's books just for boys? New research finds worrying bias

·6-min read

Harry Potter, Young James Bond, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas...all great children's books, and all featuring boys as the main character.

They're not the only ones either, as a new analysis of thousands of children's books, published over the last 60 years, suggest that boys have long been 'persistently' over-represented. Though the research originates in America, the significant cross-over means that the bias has almost certainly existed in UK publishing too.

Study lead author Doctor Stella Lourenco said: "A large body of evidence points to a bias in male versus female representation among protagonists in children’s books published prior to 2000.

The findings were published by the journal PLOS One.

Children together at modern school
Should there be more books about girls? (Getty Images)

"However, evidence is lacking as to whether that bias has persisted. In addition, it has been unclear which factors, such as author gender, may be associated with male versus female protagonists."

To help clarify whether gender bias still exists in American children’s literature, the research team conducted a statistical analysis of the frequency of male compared to female lead characters in 3,280 books, aimed at audiences up to the age of 16 and published between 1960 and 2020.

They selected books that can be bought online in the United States, either as hard copies or as digital books, and primarily written in English.

Watch: Woman obtains world's largest Harry Potter collection

To allow for direct comparison, they focused on books featuring a single central lead character and also only included books where the gender of the book author was identifiable.

Dr Lourenco, Associate Professor of Psychology at Emory University in the US, found that, since 1960, the number of female lead characters has increased - and is still increasing - but books published since 2000 still feature a "disproportionate number" of male characters.

The much loved series has been read for generations and filmed several times. (Getty Images)
The much loved series has been read for generations and filmed several times. (Getty Images)

The researchers also found that gender bias is higher for fiction featuring non-human characters.

Dr Lourenco said: "Non-fiction books have a greater degree of gender bias than fiction books, especially when the characters are human.

She added: “Although male protagonists remain overrepresented in books written for children - even post-2000, the present study found that the male-to-female ratio varied according to author gender, age of the target audience, character type, and book genre.

"In other words, some authors and types of books were more equitable in the gender representation.

The researchers hope the findings could help direct efforts toward more balanced representation in children’s books, "which could impact child development and social attitudes."

Read more: 10 Diverse And Heartwarming Christmas Books For Kids Of All Ages

Boston, MA - The Hunger Games, one of the good summer books on display at Trident Booksellers & Cafe on Newbury St. Boston Herald staff photo by John Wilcox. (Photo by John Wilcox/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)
The trilogy has been a huge hit, and a prequel was recently released. Getty Images)

It's long been a truism - backed up by studies- that girls will read books 'for boys' whereas boys are much less likely to read books marketed at girls, which might explain the discrepancy.

In the past, too, sexist ideas that boys were more 'adventurous' may have guided authors' choices.

Fortunately, things are changing - and while girls can and do read books featuring boys,. they can now see themselves represented more often.

Here's some classic books with feisty, female lead characters - buy them as Christmas gifts for your favourite girls.

Read more: The 40 best books to read before you die

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

The delightful story (with many sequels, stretching into Anne's adulthood) of red-haired orphan Anne Shirley, who is taken in by Canadian farmers, siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Marilla needs a great deal of convincing to support this dreamy, imaginative child when she hoped for a sturdy boy farmhand - but gradually, Anne wins over the whole of Avonlea with her charm, mishaps - and temper. Few can read the scene where shy Matthew buys Anne the dress of her dreams without weeping.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

First published in the 1940s, these Swedish books about another little redhead prone to mishaps and telling wild stories were hugely popular. Pippi is a nine year old girl who is brave, funny, and incredibly strong. She can lift a horse with one hand, and lives with her monkey while her pirate father is away at sea.

Though the books are less well known than they once were, both boys and girls will still love reading about Pippi's mad adventures and kind heart.

Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr

A series of short stories (with sequels), this was first published in 1955 but its messages are just as relevant to girls today. Clever Polly sets herself against a proud, rather foolish wolf, who is determined to eat her - but at every stage, she uses her immense brain to outwit him. The wolf is too charming to be truly frightening, and the feminist theme of empowerment and wit is far ahead of its time.

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

A beautifully sinister book, this tale stars Marianne, a little girl who becomes mysteriously ill on her tenth birthday. her mother brings her a sketchbook and Marianne draws with a thick, black pencil. When she falls asleep, she dreams of the house she drew. Each time she adds to the drawing, her dreams become more intense. And then she finds there's somebody else in the house...This is a perfect story for girls who like a bit of darkness in their light reading.

Ramona by Beverly Cleary

Ramona Quimby is a small, funny American girl, who loves her Mom and Dad and her big sister Beezus. She makes terrible mistakes and causes havoc - luckily, it tends to work out for her. Loveable, funny, and very relatable, every little girl should make friends with Ramona.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

A stone-cold '60s classic about a very clever and curious girl of 11, who takes to detective work around her neighbourhood and school, noting down everything she sees. When her notebook is discovered by her angry classmates, they vow to take revenge - but Harriet has other plans. A brilliant read on friendship, mental health, and why being unusual can be a very good thing, this is an ideal book for anyone who feels like a misfit.

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli

This hugely popular set of 100 stories featuring inspiring women and illustrated by female artists has spawned several sequels. Told in bite-sized sections, girls (and boys) can read about astonishing women, from Elizabeth 1 to Malala Yousafzai. Each little biography is told as a story, and features all the greatest heroines of history, right up to the present day.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Turned into a hugely successful film franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence, the books make perfect YA reading. Set in a future dystopia, in a nation divided into 13 districts, it features a yearly televised battle to the death between the children of rival districts. Enter heroine Katniss Everdeen, who takes her younger sister's place as a 'tribute.' Scary, adventurous and smart, the books make it very clear just how strong and brave a girl can be.

Watch: Is there a 'Hunger Games' group chat? Josh Hutcherson says...

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