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Reclaiming Space for Our Girls or How We Read Books in Our House

The night Jas returned from an extended business trip, Cookie wanted him to read a new book before bed. “Jas,” I said poking my head out of the kitchen “the moose is a she.” He rolled his eyes.

Changing the gender of characters in books started for our family with Little Blue Truck Leads the Way. Our girl, 18 months at the time had loved the first Little Blue Truck so much that we naturally picked up the second one in which Little Blue Truck goes to the city and encounters the mayor, who incidentally, is a man. The first time I read it to her I stumbled over the line, “His Honor, the mayor….” Why is the mayor a man? I wondered. Gender had no relevance to the story, no relevance to the mayor’s title, position, or character. (Really, does it ever?)

I began to pay closer and closer attention to the literature we read our girl looking mainly at gender. Children’s literature overall is more inclusive of females today … there are delightful, strong female characters such as Lady Bug Girl and The Paper Bag Princess. But males continue to dominate particularly in books for the toddler set. Lady Bug Girl and its ilk are written for girls specifically. Other books deemed “gender-neutral” continue to focus on and emphasize boys. Indeed, if gender is not central to the story, the default is to turn the bear, cat, moose, crocodile or bunny, male. If a female does show up (as Katha Pollitt points out in “The Smurfette Principle”), she is lone or a woeful minority.

The amount of female authors that take part in this male-centered writing is alarming. It’s as though they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a little girl wondering about her place in the world, bombarded with stories of boys and their heroics.

My daughter learns much from books and stories. They helped me to potty train her, to introduce sibling relationships when I was pregnant with Bean, even to teach lessons about positive behavior–what manners are, what sharing means. If the books we read to our girls predominately feature males, what else are they learning? Nothing good.

Adventure is for boys, not girls. Girls are never the center of a story and therefore they are not the center of life but rather accessories, there to help boys achieve greatness and glory. They also take away the idea that there is no space for them or if there is space, it is limited. This creates enmity in girls not only towards themselves, but towards other females as well. If there is only space for one, then all other females are a threat, competition, a rival to be taken down. Rather than encouraging a band of sisters, the literature we are reading to our girls, subliminally sends the message that they must be the one or the few. The competitive, jealous “nature” that women are stereotypically labeled with is planted and nourished in many ways, not least of which can be found in the literature read in most American nurseries.

And it’s for these reasons, that I will continue to change the genders in my daughters’ books, wielding a black marker to the pages  to ensure they’re read with a female bend. Jas can roll his eyes all he wants. I won’t let our girls grow up thinking the world is his.

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