Thursday, September 27, 2007

There's a Sausage Party on My Shelf, and I'm Not Invited

It took me a long time to realize there's a total sausage party happening on Sam's bookshelves. Perhaps it's the ubiquity of board books that feature practically androgynous characters, such as that bunny from Goodnight, Moon and the caterpillar from The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I mean, I think I've always assumed they were male, which possibly reveals my own gender biases, but their Y chromosomes always seemed kind of beside the point.

But then when you move into books for pre-schoolers (aka "stories that are actually interesting"), you notice the dearth of female characters. Corduroy? Peter Rabbit? Curious George? Babar? The poky little puppy? All boys. Ditto a couple of my personal favourites: Peter from
The Snowy Day and Max from Where the Wild Things Are. And when you think about it, almost every major character in any Dr. Seuss book is male, with the the exception of Cindy Lou Who, who's really more of a bit part. Though I guess that kangaroo from Horton Hears a Who is an important character, but let's face it: she's kind of an asshole.

Let me tell you about one Richard Scarry book we have, which really illustrates my point:
Busy, Busy World. Billed as "33 exciting adventures for girls and boys," the book is a collection of stories that take place around the world, each featuring a new and different character... and almost every single one is male. There's Couscous the Algerian Detective, Officer Montey of Monaco, Happy Lappy from Finland, Rajah of India, and Ukelele Louie the Hawaiian Fisherman. (Disregard for a moment the raging ethnic and nationalistic stereotypes. The matter currently under discussion is the fact that almost none of the titular characters in these stories are female.)

Oh, there are women in these stories. You've got Heidi, who keeps asking Ernst the Swiss Mountain Climber to rescue her damn stupid cow. You've got Tina, a pig who is so fat that on her wedding day she can't fit into a gondola. (Fortunately, Mario comes along with his melon boat and saves the day.) And you've got Shalom of Israel's wife, a woman who is such a nag she doesn't even deserve to have a proper name. But if you take away the damsels needing rescuing and the nagging wives, you've got precious little left.

There are a
few noteworthy female characters in pre-schooler lit, I'll admit. Sam adores both Madeline and Olivia. And I guess you can sort of count Mary Anne from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, if Sam's fondness for her is anything to go by... despite the fact that hers isn't really a speaking part. But that's about all I can come up with.

Help! Any suggestions for great kids' books featuring girls? I'm trying to raise a kid who doesn't follow in the footsteps of his father -- a man who, while I love him dearly, has never been known to voluntarily crack the spine on a book written by a woman. Unless you count Annie Proulx... which I suspect he doesn't.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, it doesn't get much better as they get older. Just scoured my kids' shelves (boy age 10 and girl age 7) and the dearth of female characters is depressing. I found Stellaluna by Janell Cannon (a tad overwritten but with terrific illustrations), and one of Sendak's Little Bear books (good female characters, but Little Bear is, of course, male), and Rechenka's Eggs by Patricia Polacco (both main characters--an old lady and a goose--are female). Anything by Polacco is great, though. And of course, for the beginning chapter book reader, tons of Junie B Jones books, which is fun, but let's face it, Junie B is not the most "together" kid.

I hope you have better luck than I've had diversifying the shelves!

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to think of my nieces' book shelves and the only ones I can come up with are Olivia and Miss Spider. They love both of them, but I'm guessing they're a little girly.

Nicole Steeves said...

Try Dora. Although her toys all seem to be made of lead, she's a pretty cool girl.

Emily said...

Princess Smartypants! At the end of the book, she turns the prince into a toad and doesn't get married. It's awesome.

Anonymous said...

There's the Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban. And Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish.

Anonymous said...

The (almost) lack of female characters in books -- and kid movies -- drives me a bit crazy as well. After searching for girl power without much luck (although Robert Munsch and fairy tales were a surprise success), we began doing the following:

- We change the characters in books from boys to girls as much as possible. Give it a go -- it isn't as hard as it seems!

- When we tell stories without books, they feature as many female as male characters.

- Jonah has a doll house, with both female and male dolls, and we make sure that they all get turns being doctors, vets, caregivers, police officers, nurses, teachers, etc. (Go playmobile: the dolls are pretty genderless.)

Good luck! I hear your pain.

Sandy D. said...

Well, I'm a little ambivalent about the girl dog with the hat in "Go Dog Go", with her "Do you like my hat?" all the time.

Kevin Henkes has "Chrysanthemum" and "Julius, The Baby of the World" which features big sister Lilly.

Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess is great, but a little heavy-handed.

My daughter prefers the girl in Mercer Mayer's There's Something in My Attic.

Have you seen Virginia Lee Burton's "The Little House"? The house seems to be female. But the story makes me cry every time I read it.

Anonymous said...

It's about Troll love. *sigh* And there is lots and lots of other stuff by or illustrated by Tomie DePaola. They are so awesome. I loved those books so very much as a kid.

Sandy D. said...

Also - a girl is featured in When I'm Sleepy, which is a gorgeous book.

Anonymous said...

My little guy was 3-1/2 when he fell in love with the "Charlie and Lola" books -- Lola's a fantastic, mouthy character, and her big brother is definitely second fiddle. Olivia rules also. Another favorite author is Phyllis Root, who wrote the divine "Big Momma Makes the World" (the Genesis story with a female creator, yay!) and "Lucia and the Light," about a little girl who skis up a mountain to save the sun from a bunch of trolls. But you're right -- these are exceptions to the rule.

Anonymous said...

Robert Munsch has a good mix of male and female protagonists. Some of my favourite ones featuring girls are A Promise is a Promise, Angela's Airplane, David's Father, Millicent and the Wind, Moira's Birthday, Murmel Murmel Murmel, The Paperbag Princess, Pigs!, Something Good, and The Boy in the Drawer.

Unknown said...

When he's a bit older, Pippi Longstocking! I loved those books when I was little and I love them now. (I also love the Snowy Day.)

Anonymous said...

IF you are looking at Robert Munsch, don't forget Stephanie's Ponytail.

Karen Olson said...

Olivia was one of our favorites, and as my daughter has gotten older we've gone through most Junie B books and Ramona. Sheila the Great by Judy Blume is fabulous. Roald Dahl is fun, but most of his characters are male as well. But to be honest, if you've got a boy, he won't want to read books about girls. But girls are okay with reading about boys. It morphs into that whole thing about how more women read than men.

Karen Olson said...

Oh, and there's the sister in the Magic Treehouse books.

librarianpm said...

Cornelia Funke's picture books are great for female characters - especially the Princess Knight, and Pirate Girl.

Helen said...

Also Russell Hoban's Francis books - Bread and Jam for Francis is here.

I was completely obsessed with Free to Be You and Me [I had the record and didn't even know it had been a live show] when I was a kid, and although it's depressing that it's still so relevant 30 freakin' years later, I still think it's pretty great.

Sandy D. said...

I can actually think of a lot more books for older kids (chapter books) most recent favorite (and my son's, too, although he usually only likes male protagonists) is Mark Crilley's SF Akiko books. There's both a series of graphic novels and regular books.

Sam Bando said...

Hello, and thank-you for distracting me with your lovely blog.
I'm not sure how old your son is, but what about "Matilda" and "The Twits"(Roald Dahl) - Mrs Twit is a wonderful character. And does "Mrs Pepperpot" exist in Canada? She is also great.

Lis said...

While I can not think of any suggestions I had to share a story, my step-father is German, from Germany, not just by nationality and while he has lived in the US for 20 some years now there are still certain colloquialisms that he has never come into contact with so this year for his birthday he demanded a SAUSAGE PARTY! With grilling and sausages of course, it was difficult to explain to him that he could not under any circumstances invite all his very American friends over to his house for a sausage party.

BabelBabe said...

Elizabeth Brown in The Library.
Lily and her Purple Plastic Purse (also Henkes, I think).
Charlotte's Web.
Molly Mullett (it's in an anthology we have of untypical fairy tales called The Outspoken Princess and the Gentle Knight).
Meg Mackintosh (for slightly older kids, and waaaaaay preferable to Junie. Grrr.)
The Five Chinese Sisters.
Frances, in Bread & Jam for Frances, etc.
I have to go check the other bookcase : )

We also have a very fun book called Moonstruck, and the main character is a female cow who wants to jump over the moon.

b*babbler said...

Ooh.. I can't wait to hear about the big things...

landismom said...

Ditto on the Henkes books, Olivia and Madeleine, and Cornelia Funke (although for a much older kid than Sam, as was pointed out). There's also Tomie De Paola's Adelita, and my kids really like his bio of Frida Kahlo, too. Oh, plus Strega Nona. Ruth Krauss's I'll Be You and You Be Me is pretty gender neutral. Roxaboxen, which I reviewed a couple of years ago, is amazing. Smartypants, Pete in School has a fantastic female protagonist. There's A Very Bad Case of Stripes, which is fun. I could do this all day!

BTW, what's the opposite of a sausage party? A clam bake?

Anonymous said...

I second (or third) the Frances books.

Also, my daughter is really into Eloise right now and that book has added some good words to our vocabulary. We are also reading the Raggedy Ann books which are old fashioned but fun. The original Oz books are good and have several female leads.

There are some boy/girl pal books we like: The Boo and Baa books and the George and Martha books.

My kids are asleep otherwise I'd go look a their shelves for more ideas.

Natalie said...

Try some of the Serendipity books by Stephen Cosgrove. They're at least illustrated by a woman: Robin James. Plus, there are lots of female main characters, like those in Flutterby, Little Mouse on the Prairie, Buttermilk, and the beautiful The Dream Tree. And I'm pretty sure the titular characters in Creole and Serendipity are female.

Also, while the main characters are male, Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit is just fabulous!

George McDonald's At the Back of the North Wind--about a boy and the personified, decidedly female North Wind--is another great one. But you might want to wait until your son's older, given the story's language and syntax is VERY Victorian.

rorabee said...

They're probably very dated now - they were kinda dated when I read them, twenty-five years ago (that long ago? wow) - but the Secret Seven and Famous Five series had co-ed teams of mystery-solving kids. They're chapter books. Now I'm curious to go back and look for gender stereotypes in them, though.

Maybe Arnold Lobel has some potential - although now that I think about it more, Frog and Toad and Owl are all male. Hmph.

Not so helpful after all. Oops.

Helen said...

Although I loved them, the Famous Five and Secret Seven books are _full_ of gender stereotypes. If there's ever anything exciting to be done the boys go and do it and the girls are left with the washing up (English for `doing dishes').

George (the girl in the Famous 5 who wants to be a boy (and who can blame her?)) always protests, but I think she usually ends up doing what she's told.

Anonymous said...

The Balloon Tree!!!! Even if you're just reading it for yourself. There's sister bear in the Berenstain Bears, and.......that's all I've got. But Robert Munsch is always amazing and loads of fun to read.

Unknown said...

Oh oh! I also forgot about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty Macdonald. Sometimes the adults get annoying with the gender roles (a lot of times the wives call the husbands to ask what to do about every little thing, and/or ask like, PERMISSION to use the car, and I don't think there's a working mom among them, ever), but the children themselves are pretty normal, and act pretty much the same despite gender, especially in the last book, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's Farm.

I think again though, that one, like Pippi, is better for older kids. For what it's worth though, my teacher read us Pippi aloud in second grade and both the boys and the girls liked it. Maybe because there IS a boy character, he's just not the point of the book.

Cara said...

Noisy Nora, by Rosemary Wells. It was one of my favorite books as a little kid. Some people don't like it because it has the line "'Nora,' said her sister, 'Why are you do dumb?'" I ignore these people, as they are probably the same ones who wrap their children in padding before they go on the playground.

Also, Who's a Pest by Crosby Bonsall. The protagonist is a little boy, and the girls in the book are his four bratty sisters, but it's hilarious. It's one of those books that won't make you want to stab yourself in the eye if your child wants you to read it over and over again. I reread it last year and I still giggled all the way through it.

Anonymous said...

For when Sam is older, try the "Something Queer" series by Elizabeth Levy. I think they're out of print now, but you can find them online and they are awesomely worth it - 2 slightly geeky girls who solve all these mysteries. They even have one set out West and one in outer space.

Rebecca Newman said...

Hi from Australia!
The books by Tony Ross are very good (e.g 'I want my potty', 'I don't want to wash my hands', 'I want a sister', 'I want to be') and include a strong female character. A princess, but a 'real' type.
And Jane Simmons has written a series of books about a girl duck called Daisy that are very good and the illustrations are gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

Hi, my 3 year old daughter was obsessed with diggers and now is into dancing, so she can't get enough of Angelina Ballerina. Don't know if that's too girly for Sam, but it's got boy characters in it too, so who knows.

Here are some other suggestions to add to Olivia and Madeleine:

Blueberries for Sal: McCloskey
Yoko: Rosemary Wells, also older chapter series as characters go to school
If You Give a Pig a Pancake: Numeroff
Miss Rumphius: Cooney
Katy and the Big Snow: Burton
Ugly Truckling: Gordon
Knuffle Bunny: Willems (this is for younger, but Knuffle Bunny Too has Trixie going off to school)
Also, the My First Little House books introduce kids to the Little House on the Prairie with an illustrated chapter per book. I thought I would hate them, but I love them.
D.W. stories from Marc Brown's Arthur series, as well as Amanda Pig stories with brother Oliver by Jean Van Leeuwen. Etc, etc...

Anonymous said...

Dennis Lee writes great children's verse, and his Lizzy's Lion was a favourite of mine when I was a toddler.

pussreboots said...

Here are some others:

Ganzy Remembers by Mary Grace Ketner
Mrs. McTats and Her HouseFul of Cats by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Joan Rankin
Who Said Boo? by Anne Miranda
Attic of the Wind by Doris Herold Lun and Ati Forberg
Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
Madeline's Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans
George and Martha: One Fine Day by James Marshall

BTW, I have a 5 year old son and these are all books in his collection.

Jeane said...

You inspired me to look at my daughter's bookshelf- she has over 80 books and I could only find SEVEN that really feature females, I was so shocked! They are-

Maggie and The Pirates- by Ezra Jack Keats
Carmen- by Bill Binzen, old-fashioned and the girl is a real whiner
Time to Say Please- by Mo Willems
Katy No-Pocket by Emmy Payne
Fairy Wings by Lauren Mills
Dahlia by Barbara McClintock- a girl who doesn't like dolls and
Red Riding by Jean Merrilla hilarious book about a brother and sister who tell themselves the story of Red Riding Hood- I still laugh every time I read it!

Anonymous said...

Harriet the Spy!

Anonymous said...

Ooh ooh ooh! If you like Sendak, read Outside, Over There. It's a gorgeous book, and all of the characters who actually turn up in it are female (a father is mentioned). Sendak also illustrated a fantastic translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Nutcracker, which will almost certainly be too scary for a little guy, but which he'll probably love when he's six or seven, and which has a female protagonist (though the gender roles are a little weird, as it was originally written in the early 19th century).

Also, When the Sky Is Like Lace has all female protagonists and is astonishingly beautiful and poetic - one of my favourites when I was a kid, though I can't for the life of me remember who wrote/illustrated it.

Matthew E said...

We just got Kenneth Oppel's 'Peg and the Yeti' for our kids, and Peg takes no prisoners. (There's an earlier book, 'Peg and the Whale' or something, but I haven't seen it.)

Gertrude in 'Bullfrog Builds a House' is not your standard female character. Bullfrog would be nowhere without her.

Check out Will Shetterly's short story, available online I think, 'The Princess Who Kicked Butt'.

A couple that are good for older kids: Lloyd Alexander's 'Prydain Chronicles' series and Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' dodecalogy contain two of the great female characters in all of fiction. Respectively: Princess Eilonwy daughter of Angharad, and Captain Nancy Blackett of the Amazon.

lazy cow said...

Judy Moody (Megan McDonald) (for slightly older kids, 6=), lots of Shirley Hughes books have great girls, like the Annie Rose and Alfie books, and the Lucy and Tom books. Rose meets Mr Wintergarden, Let's get a pup, The Trouble with Dogs by Bob Graham.
Too many babas (can't remember the author) is a hoot.

Anonymous said...

Here's my list:

Picture books:
The Paper Bag Princess - Robert Munsch
Petronella - Jay Williams
The Princess Knight - Cornelia Funke (she's coming out with a chapter book called Igraine the Brave)
A Cowboy Named Ernestine - Nicole Rubel
Cinder Edna - Ellen Jackson (she doesn't rescue anyone else, but she rescues herself)
Little Red Cowboy Hat - Susan Lowell
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters - John Steptoe
Eloise - Kay Thompson (not a role model, but she's certainly not passive!)
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse - Kevin Henkes (ditto)
Madeline - Ludwig Bemelsmens
Sleepless Beauty - Frances Minters
Miriam and her Brother Moses - Jean Marzollo (Biblical)
Winners Never Quit! - Mia Hamm (as in, don't get mad and quit if your team is losing)

Early Chapter books:

Ruby Lu, Brave and True (and sequel) - Lenore Look
Clementine (and sequel) - Sara Pennypacker
Ivy and Bean (and sequel) - Annie Barrows
Junie B. Jones series - Barbara Park
Cam Jansen series - David Adler
Chapter books:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (and other Joan Aiken books, including A Necklace of Raindrops)
Dealing with Dragons - Patricia Wrede
Half Magic, Seven-Day Magic - Edward Eager
Mistress Masham's Repose - T.H. White
Violet and the Mean and Rotten Pirates - Richard Hamilton (we've just started this, so I'm not sure about it yet)
The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson - Bette Bao Lord
(more obvious ones: Charlotte's Web, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Ramona Quimby books, A Little Princess, Pippi Longstocking)

Don't Bet On The Prince - Jay Zipes (more for the parent than the child, but the first half of the book has stories for kids)

Anonymous said...

Christina Katerina and the Box! I'm 18 and I still love it.

Jess said...

One of my favorite picture books (in addition to a bunch of fabulous ones already mentioned) is The Maggie B by Irene Haas. Margaret does a lot of traditionally female things - bake, care for her baby brother - but she also battens down the hatches during a storm and takes care of herself all day.

Also a fan of Kevin Henkes, Mo Willems, Russell Hoban, and Patricia Polacco.

Angela said...

I am a children's book lover so I know there are fantastic female characters out there. One of the best books featuring and authored by a girl is the Diary of Anne Frank.

For the younger set, Munsch's female characters are hilarious, active and worth owning so check out his series. Olivia has been mentioned and she is great as well. There is the Jillian Jiggs series by Phoebe Gilman. Many of Emily Hearn's books--Hattie Pearl, Click Click, Franny and the Music Girl--feature female characters.

For older children, Charlotte's Web features a female spider and a girl character. Anne of Green Gables is another with a strong female personality. The Little Bear series does have a male bear as a lead but a number of the other characters are female and still strong. There are also Sylvia McNicoll's books that almost exclusively feature female tween characters.

Some older selections...I also remember as a kid reading the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary: I haven't read them recently so not sure if they're appropriate. In the Narnia series, two of the four children are girls who become equal queens to the kings--they're a little more stereotypical (portrayed as emotional).

Angela Fehr said...

My girls and I love the "Stella" books by Marie-Louise Gay - I'm an artist and I LOVE the watercolor illustrations.

Seems to me that when girls do get to star in books, they have the most fun! Ramona, Pippi, Lola, Paper Bag Princess - they are all a little zany, wild and creative.

Fish Cake said...

Two that haven't been mentioned that I love:
Maggie Scraggle Loves the Beautiful Ice-Cream Man (but I cannot find a copy for love or money - if anyone knows where to get one, please let me know)
and The Duchess Bakes a Cake by Virginia Kahl (A long time ago there lived over the waters, a duke, a duchess and their family of daughters...) A truly fantastic story in verse.

I Love you Blue Kangaroo is a lovely story, too, about a little girl called Lily.

Then there's 'The Night Pirates' about some rough, tough little girl pirates.

And what about some of the classics, like The Little Match Girl, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Rose Red, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid? But maybe they all feed the stereotype you so loathe...

Unknown said...

My boys love Edwina (a *female* dinosaur who doesn't know she's extinct.) The other character is Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie is male, but at least he's the antagonist. Bonus because it's about a dinosaur, right?!

Also, Stellaluna is a classic about a female bat, and Ira sleeps over... or is Ira a boy, too...