September 23, 2013

It’s a Boy’s Boy’s Boy’s World


Earlier this year, NPR ran a story about the white, white world of children’s books, “As Demographics Shift, Kids’ Books Stay Stubbornly White.” It cited a report by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that found a mere 3 percent of children’s books are written by, or feature, Latinos — even though almost 25% of public school children today are Latino. Soraya Chemaly referred to this story in her article on Role Rebootpointing out the rampant lack of anything other than white male characters in children’s books:

Do you know what percentage of children’s books feature boys? Twice as many as those that feature girl protagonists. In the most comprehensive study of children’s literature during a period of 100 years, researchers recently found that:

  • 57% of children’s books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.
  • In popular children’s books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.
  • The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters.

The female characters that do exist are so often minor and on the sidelines, or just stereotypes, that it hardly seems fair to include them. And the rest of the numbers are staggering: Chemaly writes, “Of an estimated 5,000 children’s and YA books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans.”

Chemaly points out, rightly, that the purpose of discussing this isn’t to demonize white boys, but to broaden representations in the media. And there’s no reason, including sales, it shouldn’t happen.

I have great memories of the books I read as a child, but can hardly remember a female character I identified with. Even Judith Viorst, in a book I probably identified with too much, inflicted her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on a white boy. It seems like, demographics and modernity be damned, not much has changed.


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.