Female animal characters in picture books

It has been a couple of weeks since I posted about the lack of female animal main characters in children’s picture books. Since then, I have been pondering the impact that gap might have on children. I’m beginning to think that portraying an overwhelming majority of animal main characters as male is more damaging than the more explicit gendered marketing of picture books. At least when books are explicitly marketed at a particular gender you are going into that book with open eyes and the awareness that you are being marketed to as a girl or boy. With animal characters the gender is often not visually obvious and relies on the text. The gendering here is more insidious. The overwhelming majority of animal main characters are male so children are subconsciously learning that male characters are more frequent, more normal, more important. Am I reading too much into this? Possibly. But take any child to the zoo or the farm. Do they automatically call the animals she or he? If they spot a mini-beast or bird in the park do they assume it is a girl or a boy? And is their reaction different depending on the type of animal? Are cats girls and dogs boys? Are all mini beasts male apart from ladybirds who are all female? Do you unconsciously confirm those gender associations with your use of language? Try it, it’s an eye opener.

In this respect, picture books are (unconsciously) reinforcing dated social stereotypes about gender roles and values. But it doesn’t have to be like this and things are slowly changing. There are great books with female animal leads out there. It is possible to even it out a bit by being aware of what you are reading to children and ensuring you include some books with female main characters. And not books that have an animal’s mum or sister in, or a female main character that reinforces negative gender stereotypes, but books that really celebrate their female characters and portray them in a positive light. Over the last two weeks I have been collecting examples of great books that put female animal characters in the limelight or play with traditional gender stereotypes. Here are a few of my favourites.

Ella by Alex T. Smith

Ella is a strong and self assured ladybird who knows how to rock her dots and stand up for herself. Ella is a feminist twist on the traditional Cinderella story, full of positive role models and affirming images for children. This is one of the books that I buy again and again to give to children for birthday pressies. I think every child should have a copy of this book because Ella is such a strong and empowering character. The Cinderella story can often reinforce negative gender stereotypes, but not in the hands of Alex T. Smith. Oh no.

Martha and the Bunny Brothers – I Heart School and I Heart Bedtime by Clara Vulliamy

Martha is a wonderful role model for children because of her immensely positive attitude. She is strong, exuberant and imaginative and inspires children to see the world and their place in it in a positive light. Clara Vulliamy has a real talent for portraying childhood and her Martha books give children a strong sense of seeing their lives represented, and therefore their potential through role models like Martha.

The Maisy books by Lucy Cousins

I love the Maisy books for their primary coloured, gender-stereotype-free happiness. Maisy is a female mouse but in these books gender is, as it should be, largely irrelevant. The characters are far too busy being friends and having adventures together to worry about traditional gender roles. They all wear primary colours, with no particular colours being linked to gender. They all play together, sharing and swapping roles and responsibilities, completely regardless of gender. Hooray! Very young children don’t care about gender, they just want to play. It’s only when they begin to pick up on and absorb society’s view of gender that they start to include it in their play and their thinking. What better way to teach children about everyday experiences than to reflect the way they play – everyone in together, wearing what they want and playing how they want. Lucy Cousins, I salute you.

Doodle Bites by Polly Dunbar

A FEMALE CROCODILE! Who is allowed to flip the prescribed gender roles and be loud and boisterous.
And a male pig who wears pink and is quiet and sensitive. The traditional gender roles have been well and truly swapped around. Interestingly, at 3 and 4 years old, the children I have read this book with sometimes try and reverse the genders back. They are sure Hector is a girl and Doodle is a boy, isn’t she? How quickly the gender programming takes hold! All hail Polly Dunbar for challenging it and showing children that gender stereotypes can be messed with and swapped about happily.

Copy Cat by Mark Birchall

I gave this book a special mention in my original blog post because Mark Birchall has a female dog as the main character and a male cat as her friend. Yes it’s a small thing to have a female dog but it feels subversive and progressive in comparison to the other animal books on the market. He has turned traditional gender assumptions on their head and you can see the power of this when you read it with children. They initially assume that the dog is male and the cat is female. Mark Birchall has illustrated his characters with clothes which helps children visually associate the characters’ gender. I find it sad that they need to reprogram their minds and learn that dog characters can be female and cats male, but hooray for finding a great book that addresses that.

I’m very fond of lists and have started one on this topic. If you can think of any books with a strong female animal character, please leave a comment below, I’d love to add your suggestions.

15 thoughts on “Female animal characters in picture books

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  1. Very interesting post! Agree that this is terrible, I get so fed up of all the male characters on cbeebies too. The Grufallo’s child is a girl and I think the ladybird in what the ladybird heard is female. I will keep an eye out!

  2. Really enjoyed this and very much agree with you. The cat/dog thing reminds me of a book I used to read when I was a tiny child, called Bimbo and Topsy. I remember being surprised that Bimbo the cat was male, and Topsy the dog female. Even at the age of 4 or 5 I’d already formed those preconceptions.

  3. I just had a browse through our books and it is hard to find them!

    For very young children there’s Jane Simmons’ Daisy (a duckling) or Lily ( a lamb) who are both curious young females who do their own thing (although they also learn to stay close to mum whilst still exploring)

    Again for young children there’s Jonathan Emmett & Rebecca Harry’s Ruby books. Ruby is a young duckling who does things in her own time.

    There’s Hiawyn Oram & David Melling’s Gerda the Goose (which may be out of print) Gerda goes on a journey to try to fly to the moon despite the other geese telling her that’s a silly idea…

    Catherine Rayner has Iris and Isaac where both characters have equal billing, both were in the wrong, both realise their mistakes and both make up to each other. She also has Sylvia and Bird (who are both female) about friendship and lonliness.

    Sue Hendra’s Wanda and the Alien (there are also sequels I’ve not read) is brilliant. Wanda is a rabbit who on seeing the alien has broken down goes and gets her tool kit to help šŸ™‚ She also makes friends with the alien even though all her friends are scared of him. Wanda rocks.

    Clara Vulliamy’s Lucky Wish Mouse and Bubble (from Bubble and Squeak) might be worth a mention, just because Clara’s fab (as you know!)

    Oh, and I’m not sure if Alex T Smith’s Foxy DuBois is a role model, but certainly a strong female character again (another yay for the awesome talent that is Alex T Smith!)

    That’s all I could find on our shelves that haven’t already been mentioned here or in tweets. Hope it’s useful šŸ™‚

    1. Wow! Thank you Anne-Marie, that’s quite a list. Apart from Clara’s and Catherine Rayner’s, I hadn’t heard of any of them. I feel a trip to the library coming on- I have some Serious Research to do now. Thank you !

  4. Great blog. It was reading ‘Dear Zoo’ for the jillionth time that really brought home to me how subtle and powerful a message children get from the ‘missing’ female animals. It wasn’t the fact that there are NO female animals in the zoo that shocked me ( though you have to wonder about their captive breeding programme) but that I didn’t even notice until I’d read it every day for months…

    1. That’s exactly the problem. It’s not noticed. We read these books over and over to our children and they don’t notice either. But subconsciously they are noticing and learning – and that is creating a foundation for their views and response to gender.

      1. My sons are 2 and a half (twins) and they can’t read – so I just make all the animals in Dear Zoo female. Except the lion, of course, which has a mane and therefore is obviously male. I can’t think of any books in our house with girl animals – really annoying. Great post: thanks!

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