Monday’s Agenda episode featured a fascinating discussion celebrating Winnie the Pooh and the character’s connections to Canada.
And Winnie the Pooh is worth celebrating. He has entertained generations of children. I remember my father reading me the original book by A. A. Milne and watching Disney’s version of the character on television.
But it was only when I read a collection of Winnie the Pooh stories based on the Disney programs to my young daughters that something about the bear and the other residents of the Hundred-Acre Wood was brought to my attention.
My six-year-old asked: “Why are there so many boys?”
And it’s true. In the Winnie the Pooh universe, the only female character that ever appears with any regularity is Kanga. She and her son, Roo, are kangaroos who are friends with Winnie, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, and all the other male characters in the series. As a mother, she’s the only regular character in the series whose identity is explicitly tied to her gender.
Being a father to young girls in the early 21st century has made me aware of how much of children’s literature — as with so many aspects of society — is male-dominated. (I’ve also come to realize how white kid lit is, incidentally.)
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When my daughter first asked me about Winnie the Pooh’s male tilt, I said something about how the books were written “long ago” when people thought men were more important and women weren’t as good as men at many things — but of course we know now that that isn’t true and women can do things just as well as men.
Beyond Pooh Corner
But while today there are many female protagonists in children’s books — from Mary Lennox in the classic novel The Secret Garden to Nancy Clancy in the recent Fancy Nancy series — there are many more main characters who are boys. A survey of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017 found that main characters in children’s picture books were twice as likely to be male. Characters with speaking parts were also 50 per cent more likely to be male.
Marketing might have something to do with that: Several years ago, I heard a producer of children’s programs tell an audience that broadcasters were generally more interested in shows centred around boys. It was felt that girls would watch a program with a boy protagonist, but boys would not watch a program with a girl protagonist.
After having read a lot of children’s books over the past few years, it often seems to me that unless an author specifically writes a children’s story with girls in mind, the main character defaults to male. Take the delightful Narwhal and Jelly books that writer and illustrator Ben Clanton has been churning out since 2016. Narwhal is identified as male on the first page of the first book — even though his gender is never mentioned again and is completely inconsequential to any of the stories in the series. Same with the recent bestsellers by Jory John and Pete Oswald: The Bad Seed and The Good Egg. Each book’s main character is presented as male even though they could just as easily be female without a single detail being changed.
It’s not that there aren’t quite a few options when it comes to female-centred books: Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, and Ladybug Girl are just a few of the recent book series in my daughters’ library. They also have a lot of books by Ontario’s own Robert Munsch, who has created an impressive mix of male and female protagonists since the 1980s.
And our library includes a few excellent collections of stories specifically centred around girl characters. Though my wife points out the very existence of such books only underlines the problem: If female characters weren’t underrepresented in literature and sometimes difficult for parents to find, maybe female-only collections wouldn’t be necessary.
My daughters have hit on another solution: They sometimes decide they simply don’t accept that the main character in a story is a boy, and they make me change the pronouns as I read. So, if at one point in the story that character is referred to as he/him/his, I have to — in real-time — note the pronoun, change it in my mind, and read it aloud as she/her/hers. It’s hard to remember this as you’re trying to read a story out loud, so my daughters often interrupt me to point out that I, for example, called Biscuit the dog “he” when they wanted me to say “she.”
Having to constantly shift pronouns while you’re trying to read a story is not much fun. It’s quite nerve-wracking, actually. So, publishing industry, if you could keep the new books with female lead characters coming so my daughters don’t make me do all this pronoun shifting myself, that would be great.
Watch Nam Kiwanuka talk to children's author Zetta Elliott and literary agent Léonicka Valcius about the lack of diversity in children's literature.