Where Are All the Heroines in Books?

by Rosalind Chua
A few weeks ago I read about a seven-year-old girl from California who trotted off to the public library and came across a book on insects with the header – The Biggest Baddest Books for Boys.

She was not impressed.

In fact she was so annoyed she wrote a scathing letter to the publisher, pointing out that plenty of girls wanted to read about insects too and could they not come up with a more inclusive title?

The upshot? The publisher wrote back acknowledging their myopia and promised to change the title of their series to simply – The Biggest Baddest Books.

Well done to Parker Dains for writing that letter. How many adults would have bothered to? In fact, how many editors would have slammed the desk and said, “Hang on, this isn’t the Victorian ages, change the damn title!”. Which is a shame when you consider that the publishing industry around the world tends to be dominated by women (but let’s have that discussion another day).

Since becoming an aunt many, many moons ago I’ve since had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the wonderful world of children’s books (Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne are my all time favourites). Browsing through the shelves as an adult made me realise that there aren’t a whole load of illustrated kids books that feature lead characters who are female. Don’t believe me, please do check it out. The boys outnumber the girls by a m.i.l.e. The female characters I did come across tended to be rather soppy princesses and after a while of staring at predominantly pink-covered books my mind retreated. It took the combined efforts of the staff of a well-known book chain to coax me out of the corner I had been silently weeping in…

There is nothing wrong with little pink books that feature plenty of princesses, I suppose there is a sizeable market for this cra…, I mean genre. But I do think that we need to give kids, especially young girls more doors to the limitless possibilities of the imagination and the world. Picture books don’t all have to be about waiting to be rescued from some tower and other outdated gender defined plots. Or hanging around on the sidelines while the boys scamper off on some thrilling adventure. Girls in books need to go on their own journeys, adventures and scrapes. Young girls and boys need to read about and see these heroines in action, and figure out that, “Hey girls are cool!”

According to recent surveys many publishers believe that young boys will not buy books that feature female leads. I don’t know what laboratory experiments these poor boys were subjected to, but it’s plainly bonkers and a lazy marketing self-fulfilling prophecy. Young boys do not buy books; parents, well-meaning aunts (*ahem), uncles and other ancient family members buy books. As book-buying adults let’s make a little more effort to broaden kids’ horizons. Books, like toys shouldn’t only come in pastel shades of blue or pink when there’s an entire colour spectrum out there waiting to excite and exhilarate a new generation of bright, curious girls and boys.

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Picture: BEN EYLES