Celebrating Girls in Picture Books

Image from Luna Loves Library Day
Category: Bookbug

There have been some impressive campaigns and publications recently around the concept of bold girls and ferocious women. In 2016, Kate Pankhurst realised that there were very few, if any, non-fiction books about the achievements of women for younger readers. With this in mind she created Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World which celebrates female heroes throughout history, in an engaging and accessible way. One of the great things about the book is that its appeal is far reaching, and both boys and girls have been keen to read it.

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo had similar thoughts when they published their Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls in response to the lack of female role models in fiction and onscreen – they wanted a book which challenged the usual stereotypes of princesses and damsels in distress. Both books have been a resounding success which shows there is an immense appetite for these kind of stories.

While the inclusion of girls is getting more coverage than ever, a recent guardian article showed that male characters are still twice as likely to feature in leading roles in picture books than females, so there is still a huge lack of female representation. This is particularly the case for younger readers, when the standard default is still to assume ‘he’ even when the character (usually an animal) is designed to be gender neutral. The most popular picture books of last year include The Gruffalo, Guess How Much I Love You, and Dear Zoo – all of which contain predominantly male characters.  

Children begin to see their place in the world from very early on, and if boys take the lead in books and girls take a back seat (or in some cases aren't included at all), then this can very quickly become their normal view of reality. Working to challenge this are some fantastic picture books which enable children to have a more balanced understanding of gender. One of my favourites is Luna Loves Library Day, where a little girl spends time with her dad choosing her favourite books - it is full of magic and imagination, with just a little sprinkling of reality when you realise that her parents aren't together. Another is The Cow Who Fell to Earth - when a little cow crash-lands from outer space into a field of sheep who have no way of understanding her, they assume she is a boy and call her Dave. The joke is for the parents here but this is a great little picture book which teaches empathy and acceptance, while being hilarious and well-written at the same time. For younger readers, the Clive and Rosa series is excellent for swapping perceived gender norms, as well the classic Maisy series by Lucy Cousins, where both boys and girls identify strongly with her character.

The topic of gender will always be a complex one, but children should be able to see themselves in all situations in picture books. As Jennie Yabroff writes in the NY Times ‘we should want to show our kids that girls can be anything — and anything can be a girl.’


Main image from Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coehlo and Fiona Lumbers

Emma Dunn

Emma Dunn is Early Years Operations Administrator at Scottish Book Trust. She also reviews picture books for The Scotsman.