Years after Pippi Longstocking, Laura Ingalls and Matilda made waves in the world of children’s fiction, and young boys still aren’t reading books that star a central girl character – which in turn is reflected by sales.
That’s according to Charlie and Lola author Lauren Child, who has spoken out about gender disparity in books after being made the Children’s Laureate this week.
Child, who follows in the footsteps of illustrator Quentin Blake and Michael Morpurgo with the prestigious title, says lack of representation is still an issue amid the UK’s young reading population.
“I don't know if it's just in our culture, or whether it's a boy thing, that they find it very hard to pick up a book or go to a film if a girl is the central character,” Child tells BBC News.
“I don't know where that comes from but it worries me because it makes it harder for girls to be equal,” she adds.
The author has just published the last Ruby Redfort book. Ruby began as a character in her Clarice Bean series, but Child decided to give her her own spin-off series after being inundated with requests from young girls.
“You could quite easily change Ruby's name to a boy's name and just changing a few details in the book and it would work just the same,” she says.
“But still parents will come up to me and say, 'Do you write books for boys as well?' This is a book for boys. We do still have those problems. It does concern me.”
A landmark study of over 6,000 children’s titles in 2011 found that just 31% feature female central characters.
Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the survey found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.
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The study’s authors warned about “the symbolic annihilation of women and girls, and particularly female animals, in 20th Century children's literature, suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts”.
“The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys, thereby reinforcing the gender system,” they said.
Lack of diversity in children’s fiction – and popular culture in general – is another area to focus on, says Child.
"[Black and Asian children] are not present enough. And if they don't feel they're represented in a book, or a film, or a TV programme, then how can they feel an equal part of society?” she says.
"That really is important. I see it more and more because I have a daughter adopted from Mongolia and we're watching all kinds of programmes and the characters are mainly white Caucasian.
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“It's that look - it's very often long blonde hair, blue eyes. She's not seeing herself. And very often, if you do see a child, it's about an issue. It's not about just being a child.”
Child was made Children’s Laureate at a ceremony in Hill this week. She also made a stand about the closure of libraries, saying: “There are many children who don't have access to books and they don't have access to books in their schools because a lot of schools don't have libraries.”
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