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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

“Are there any girl bears?”: Gender and the 21st Century Picture Book

Apparently I’m under the impression that it would be a good idea to write a potentially hot and toasty topic while I walk beneath the Spanish sun with limited access to the internet.  But this is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently, and it all came a head the other day as I was assigning various picture books to the branches of my library system.

In the course of my work I get a lot of books to consider for both purchase for NYPL and review for Fuse #8.  I was, on this day, handling some copies of 100 Animals on Parade by Masayuki Sebe.  Compared in some circles to Richard Scarry it received stellar reviews from Kirkus, PW, etc. and is a lot of fun to thumb through.  Unfortunately I noticed something that Kirkus had taken the time to note (well played, Kirkus).  In one spread we see a long line of marching bears.  The child reader is asked to find a lot of things, and must answer the question, “Are there any girl bears?”

Come again?  Seeing as how the bears are bereft of genitalia and boobs (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for) one has to assume that the book is asking kids to say that the bears with the long eyelashes, bows in their hair, and dresses are the girls.  Oh, how far we’ve sunk back down, eh?  Time was when folks got more than a bit peeved when you started limited girls in this way.  The most famous example of this involves the aforementioned Richard Scarry.  I’m sure you guys are familiar with the following comparison between Richard Scarry’s The Best Word Book Ever, 1963 and 1991.

This is a very fun and very systematic look at how Scarry was given a more open-minded outlook on the roles men and women play in everyday life.  And sure, the girls have dresses and bows and the men suits and sneakers, but at least their work in the home and occupations are a bit more interesting.  These days I’m noticing that some children’s books, particularly those of the mass market ilk, are going the way of our toy stores.  Which is to say, they’re getting VERY gendered.  Sometimes this is directly because of the gendering of toys (the “girl version” of LEGOs was kind of the last straw for me) but other times it’s just a reliance on the old sexist standbys.

The exception to all of this is our 21st century Scarry, Brian Biggs.  I’m consistently impressed with his Everything Goes series, and Mr. Biggs takes special care to challenge your assumptions.  Everything Goes In the Air, notably, makes the pilot of the airplane a woman without blowing it up into a great big deal.  Women fly planes.  It happens.  Deal with it.

Fair play too to books like Guinea P.I.G.: Pet Shop Detective series where the guinea pig in question is female (Sasspants is her name, solving crimes her game) and doesn’t walk around with four foot eyelashes and loads of pink accoutrements.

I’d be interested in what other folks have seen as well.  Naturally there are some books out there for girls that don’t want to be fairy princesses and boys who like reading a pink book (like Babymouse) once in a while for fun (though admittedly the amoeba spin-off was ostensibly aimed at the boy folks).  Still, is it just me or are things getting frighteningly boys-do-this / girls-do-this these days in our children’s literature?

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. My children’s book, The Tale of Eartha the Sea Turtle, is about a female sea turtle. Even though the main character is a girl, the book is still popular among boys. Eartha has some ocean friends that are gender neutral in the story. When she is found tangled in fishing line, we see a man on a boat. But after she is lifted onto the boat, she hears a female voice, and we see a female hand comforting her.

    My second book, Steven the Vegan, is about a boy and his classmates. Two of the classmates are girls who are very outspoken through out the book.

    The trend of male characters has gone way back. Quickly, name the female character in Winnie the Pooh? Still thinking? Kanga is the only female character.

    It’s time to break the mold, let the girls storm the castle to save the prince 🙂

  2. Betsy, I’ve defintiely noticed it in publicity–a “great book for boys!” is transportation or machines. I certainly don’t remember toys being so gender segregated as they are now–and good luck shopping for infant clothes if you don’t know the gender of the baby before he/she is born!

  3. Time to open our eyes (and minds) again. Who would’a thunk it? Reminders are necessary. Thanks!

  4. Elizabeth Burns says:

    I find too much for my liking. “too much” = any. There was the gus & grandpa one, where the men had fun swimming etc on a hot day while mom stayed home and cooked. Or some siblings early reader (amanda pig maybe?), were the boys made a clubhouse and the girls got to use it (boys make, girls take & decorate.)

  5. Elizabeth Burns says:

    Just to add: here is the link to my review of the 06 Geisel Award books, and it was there that i read those 2 books with similar, unchallenged, “no girls allowed” plots

  6. Hi Betsy,
    Did you read the comments to them? I haven’t done a count or analysis but it seems to me that commenters really dislike the changes on the Indian pages. Scarry has Indians in several of his books, and he did a lot of work for Little Golden Books, too. I’ve got a compilation of their “Indian” books. It confirms what I saw in my dissertation… males are shown more often than females.

    Getting a bit off your topic… lot of the books in the Little Golden series I focused on have boys playing with guns. As I revisited that page this morning, I thought about current national discussion of guns, and how many times I’ve seen/heard women saying they want/need guns to protect themselves. Guns, the message is, are for everyone. They’re not gendered.

    I haven’t seen any studies that do a content analysis of recent children’s books, but I’ll see what I find.

  7. We seemed to have come so far through the 80s and 90s, and we are definitely seeing it swing back. Why can’t a great story be a great story, without the need to market to one gender or the other? The favorite books of my childhood either had un-defined gender characters, or the story was good enough that I didn’t care if it was a boy or girl in the protagonist role. And don’t get me started on the toy aisles labeled BOYS and GIRLS… as if we are required to shop in one or the other depending on the gender of our child, and wouldn’t figure out where to go if the signs were absent??

  8. I had an experience recently that really bugged me. I read two new board books by the same author/publisher, clearly meant as companion books. The first book focused on all of the things that mommies do for their kids (read to them, cook for them, etc.). The second book focused on all of the great attributes that daddies have (brave, strong, good at finding things, etc.). The message that I read in this? Moms are loved for the things they do for you, dads are loved for who they are. I was quite saddened.

  9. Hooray! The gender ratio as skewered on the balance scale is all over the media and society. Glad we can recognize it in the scope of our profession, expand the boundaries for our next generations. The boys love making mermaid tails as well as the girls when I do MERMAIDS ON PARADE programs. The girls love creating neptune crowns as well as the boys. The world is not a one-size-fits-all place to live.

  10. I think a lot of this has to do with the marketing of the books. Publishers and distributors seem to advertise them this way. I recently reviewed a book titled Breadcrumbs which features a male and female character. The female protagonist is a lot stronger, She is the rescuer rebelling against her mom’s wishes that she act more like a girl and associate more with girls. The book is on amazon; I have a book review on my blog http://bamauthor,wordpress,com

  11. Yes, sadly, I have noticed it…especially in the pinkafication of the middle grade girls books. The real tragedy is that they’re marketed this way because they sell this way.

    And who is doing the buying? Mostly women. My first job out of college was in a bookstore and I was STUNNED to find that the most sexist people I waited on were women! Example: couple comes into bookstore to buy book for little girl. Him: “Oh, look, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel….I LOVED Mike Mulligan, let’s get her this!”. Her: “Are you crazy, put that down, we can’t get Mike Mulligan for a girl”.

    It was a recurring pattern…men didn’t shop alone often, but when they did, they bought books they had read and liked, regardless of the gender of the main character or that of the child who was receiving the book. Women always bought books that were gender specific….no boy characters for girls, no girl characters for boys.

    The nuttiest objection I ever heard raised was by a woman who wouldn’t buy a copy of Aesop’s Fables for a girl because it had a male lion on the cover. Sigh……..

    • I’ve noticed this trend at my public library too. Dads will let their kids of either gender pick out whatever they want… Moms, not so much.

      Also, when I’m giving out nametags at preschool storytime, I usually have 8 colors available (ROYGBP, Pink & White)… Dads, and Moms with daughters, will let them pick any color they want. 9 out of 10 Moms with sons will not let them pick pink or purple, even to the point of snatching the paper out of their hands. If they are “helping” their son pick a color, they won’t even point out those 2 colors. And that’s just for a small square of paper with their son’s name on it for 30 minutes. It’s crazy. That said, most girls pick pink or purple exclusively, so they’ve bought into that too. If for some reason I don’t have either color available, they will sometimes refuse to get one at all.

  12. Meghan M. says:

    Great point Betsy! Working in the bookstore… and now in the toy dept of the bookstore as well (kind of sad that they now have one but whatever), I notice that there is a HUGE: girls must buy this one buys must buy that one thing going on. It really irritates me. Even coloring books! There’s the “boys” coloring book and the “girls” coloring book. Can’t we just have cool coloring books? I don’t understand why there has to be this insistence in girls having certain interests and boys having others. Girls can’t like bugs? Boys can’t have fun playing house once in a while? If there’s anything I’d like to slowly do it’s break those barriers. It’s hard to do when there are the pink legos and the blue ones. Ugh.

  13. Michelle L. says:

    Great post. As a teacher, mother, and writer, this is so incredibly relevant. I am proud to say that my mother-in-law, who is a mother to only boys, wrote to Mr. Scarry is the 70s and posed the question about his placement of women in his books. It had already been brought to his attention and he promised changes were on the way. I love the direct comparison you have here. Well done.
    To answer your questions about books, one of my favorite new picture books with deals with a strong female in a matter of fact way is The Three Ninjas Pigs. The 3rd pig, the one who saves the day, is the sister. And she saves the day because she worked harder. A great message no matter your gender.
    I know of at least one great new publisher focusing on this. In This Together Media ( publishes great books for real girls. Currently, they focus on middle grade works but I cannot wait to see what they put forth when and if they turn to picture books.

  14. I don’t usually want to respond in a post where I’m called out, for good or bad (good in this case!). But in this case I’ll go ahead and throw my hat.
    Since I began working in books, about ten years now, publishers and librarians have said to me in many ways and in many forms that finding books for boys to read is important. With Shredderman, Roscoe Riley, and now Everything Goes, I’ve been a part of this, and I’m thrilled if these “boy books” I’ve illustrated and written got boys to get off their Nintendos and into a book. It’s kind of a different situation than the toy gender thing. Making a book that boys will be interested in and will love is commendable, on its face.
    But we walk a fine line in doing so, in potentially telling the sisters of these boys that this book isn’t for them, that they have Fancy Nancy and the pink section that is theirs.
    Everything Goes was aimed squarely at boys in many ways. This is mostly because, frankly, I was a boy, now I’m a dad, and the voices of Henry and his dad are my voices, 30 years apart. In spite of this, I hope that I was successful in making the book interesting to girls. My daughter tells me that her 3-year-old half-sister loves books about diggers and firetrucks, so I can’t imagine that the females out there are naturally disinvited by the subject matter. If a HarperCollins rep told a bookstore owner that this book is great for boys, it’s because, as I alluded to, at some point good books for boys were hard to find and, possibly, publishers have spent a decade overcompensating.

    All this said, the world in which my son and daughter are growing up is one where maybe half of the cops we see in our neighborhood are women, many of their teachers are dudes, and the voice of the airline captain very well may be a feminine one. As Betsy so wonderfully said, women fly planes. Deal with it.

    • “Since I began working in books, about ten years now, publishers and librarians have said to me in many ways and in many forms that finding books for boys to read is important. ”

      (and finding books for girls is not?)

      I suspect they say this because they have the impression that boys are not doing as well in reading, but they are wrong if they think that. White boys, the boys overwhelming featured when human boys are featured in books, are doing just fine, as far as reading goes.* The kids who aren’t doing well at reading are black and hispanic kids (and others) – both boys AND girls. The girls are doing better than they boys in these groups, but all are doing significantly worse than the white kids. And yet you don’t hear people talk about marketing easy readers to “inner city” black kids nearly as much as you hear people go on and on about books for boys.

      Which is why, as a librarian, when I was recently given money to spend on kids paperbacks, I was a lot more worried about getting more chapter and middle grade books in that featured kids from a variety of backgrounds than I was about making sure I had plenty of “boy” books.

      It may be true that even if they still score just fine on tests, boys in general don’t read as much for leisure, but I honestly don’t think more books “for boys” is going to improve that. I think more video games “for girls” will.

      *If I remember the stats right. among the upper classes, white boys score better on reading tests than white boys. Among the middle classes it’s even or there is a slight gap in favor of girls. Among poorer kids there is a noticeable gap between boys and girls in favor of girls, but it’s still small compared to the gap between white kids and non-white kids.

  15. I’m very confused, and with not having the book in hand perhaps my comment is premature. But why is it sexist if the lady bears are wearing bows and dresses? (I agree with all the other comments and examples of sexism, but only portraying women as cleaning or cooking seems very different than portraying them with bows and dresses).
    I have a 17 month old daughter and see a lot of stuff i wouldn’t notice before, but I don’t see this and I really do want too! (I see many, many infant girl babies with bows on their head because their parents desperately want everyone to know they are girl babies…so this portrayal seems relevant to me without seeming overtly sexist – or even covertly sexist).

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I too had a baby girl and found that when I put her into general colors (green, orange, etc.) the assumption made by the general populace was that I had a boy on my hands. It was infuriating! So I too caved to the bows and the dresses, though I had awesome overalls that I’d break out from time to time that sported fire trucks. I think that’s probably why it’s a problem for me. I wanted to have the choice of giving my gal every possible option but I felt hemmed in by the assumption that the only thing girls could wear is bows and dresses. So when I see a book just reinforcing that idea it chaps me hide. Just my $0.02.

      • Genevieve says:

        To me, the problem isn’t that some of the girls in a book might wear bows and dresses; the problem is that the reader is asked to find the girl bears, and the only thing they can use to figure that out is the fact that some bears have bows and dresses. Therefore, according to the book, girls ONLY wear bows and dresses, and those have become the distinguishing characteristics of girls.

  16. This is a wonderful post to come across. As a children’s author, I will be more aware of characteristics I attribute to my boy and girl characters. However, for every story, there are critics everywhere who will find fault with the way authors handle this sensitive issue no matter how hard we try to do right by our readers.

  17. OH the GIRL Legos!! I just went to a Toys R Us for the first time in an eternity the other day and I just stared at the pink princessy Legos in open mouthed horror. I think there is still a good variety in literature and that the kids who love the cliches shouldn’t be neglected… but girl specific Legos are too far!

    • I absolutely love the colors in the new Friends line (I will refrain from commenting on the minifigs), and I want to buy them up for that reason. I also own two sets of the very girly science lab because it makes me that happy.

      But! I hate that it has to be a special line just for girls. Can we not just have the colors incorporated into “regular” sets? Also, while we are at it, can we get some cool neon colors, some more yellow and orange, and several shades of green and blue? And as much as I would have loved that lab when I was 10, I also would have run screaming from the condescension that just drips off the design and marketing for that line of Legos. Even at age 10. Aside from the lab, I just would have asked for castle Legos instead.

  18. Destinee Sutton says:

    Have you seen the Feminist Frequency videos? She does a great history of Lego and gender here:
    The crazy thing is that Lego started out pretty gender neutral and has become more and more gender stereotyped over time.

  19. Take a look at this photo series of kids in their rooms with their stuff. Overwhelmingly pink or blue.

  20. My new picture book PHOEBE AND DIGGER is about a small girl whose alter ego is her beloved toy digger. It’s tickled me to see reviewers compare it to MULLIGAN, which was one of my favorite books as a (girl) kid. By the way, Phoebe favors mis-matched patters in red and green.

  21. patterns!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Just want to note that I LOVE Phoebe and Digger for many reasons. I was particularly taken with the fact that the bully was another girl. Not a common theme in the least.

  22. I guess the word’s caregivers, when it’s kids instead of grass and flowers. Our funny language.

  23. Claudia Pearson says:

    I actually like the idea of asking the reader the question – maybe the readers will stop and think about what makes a girl different from a boy, is it just a bow? Maybe a boy will wonder why boys can’t wear bows. And I agree with a number of the posts that a lot of what is going on is based on assumptions about marketing. Jon Scieszka pointed out that books for boys should not be just for boys and visa versa, and Grace Lin gave a great presentation at the CBF in Mississippi last week that challenged assumptions about who would read what. IMO, boys (and girls) will be readers if they see their adult role models (parents, teachers, etc.) reading – this is the real key. As for a favorite that challenges some of the assumptions/stereotypes, I think I would put FRANKLIN DELANO DONUTHEAD up near the top.

  24. A great book by Brian Floca: Five Trucks. Portrays men and women as drivers of trucks at an airport with the focus on the surprise ending. No big deal that the mechanic is a woman!


  1. […] alarming trend in picture books: “Are there any girl bears?” (Article from a School Library Journal […]