Fighting Fires with our Books

One of my favoured ways to start a Sunday morning is to shout at the politics shows that fill the TV schedule. With recent events in mind, I assumed this morning my frustration would be focused entirely on the B word, but perhaps even I have become bored of that subject because what actually got me fired-up was a story at the end of BBC Breakfast News. The slot normally saved for light-hearted, feel good features.

This story was about the response a mum got when she tweeted her daughter’s concerns about becoming a firefighter.  Apparently, her 4 year old daughter thought she would need to become a boy in order to follow her dream because only boys could be fire fighters – according to all the books she had read. Don’t get me wrong, the responses this mum got were brilliant, a whole load of female firefighters showing her how wrong that idea is. But let’s ignore the responses for a moment and think about the original tweet. In 2019 a 4 year old girl thinks only boys can be firefighters. And the presenter’s response to this story? To paraphrase: isn’t that a lovely story. Not really Ben Thompson.

Yes, it is a lovely story about the positive side to social media, one mum asking for book suggestions for her daughter actually receives a whole host of empowering pictures and videos. I am sure the little girl involved now very firmly believes she can be a firefighter. But what about all the other little girls that come to similar conclusions but don’t get Twitter coming to the rescue? Instead of sharing their disappointment with a parent, they just accept the messages they are getting. The bias in toy shops and clothes is often spelled out for us in the company’s signage, but the studies suggest it is just as prevalent in the stories we are sharing with our children too.

In a study of the top 100 bestselling children’s books it was found that lead characters were twice as likely to be male, many only featured male characters and if they did happen to have a female it wasn’t often in a speaking role. Clearly it isn’t just this wanna-be firefighter who is getting a very particular version of the world shown to her through the books she reads. Does this really matter? Girls can certainly enjoy books with a male protagonist but there is a real danger that this bias is sending out the impression of a world dominated by men where women are lucky to get a bit part.

I noticed this the other day when I was reading Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. The canine detective is female, but I found it really difficult not to say refer to her as a him, that’s how ingrained it has become. But there are some brilliant books out there which try to redress the balance. If you want a female firefighter then Rosie’s Hat, also by Donaldson is a good start.  Caryl Hart’s The Princess and the Giant has the lovely line: ‘And Princess Sophie rode her bike, like every Princess should.’ alongside a picture of the Queen cutting firewood and the King cooking dinner. But my personal favourites are Bethan Woollvin’s Little Red and Rapunzel, Pea gets her fairytale fix and a lesson in how girls can totally rock and I get a laugh too.

I can’t write about gender in children’s literature and not mention boys. Yes, they may get to dominate and that definitely gives them an advantage over girls as they start to tentatively form their own identities. However, when villains are 8 times more likely to be male and a lot of the characters are confined to gender stereotypes, it can’t be doing much good for them either. It would seem the world presented by their bookshelves is one of being either a strong hero or a villain. If all your son wants to do is grow up and be a primary school teacher, he is going to be just as disappointed as our fire dreaming little girl.

So, while the Twitter response was heart-warming, the fact we are still having to think about these things is far from it. And we shouldn’t forget that although lots of female firefighters did respond, as it stands 95% of firefighters in Britain are white males.  There is still a long way to go but maybe one way to get there is through books.

Try for yourself: Take ten random books from your shelf and look at the gender balance in them. How many male and female characters are there? Who gets to speak? How do they behave?

In the past year I think our balance has got a little better but there is definitely room for improvement so if you have any other suggestions on how to even out our collection, I’d love to hear them (and any excuse to buy more books is always a bonus!)

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