Where Are all the Adult Women?

by | May 1, 2024 | IBBYLink Spring 2024

Mette Lindahl-Wise

Readers of IBBYLink know that children’s literature is important and that it can both shape and reflect the reader and their identity.

Readers of IBBYLink know that children’s literature is important and that it can both shape and reflect the reader and their identity. The late, great, Pat Pinsent (1997) said that storying is one of the most fundamental means of meaning-making, and literature that reflects the diversity of lived experience is important. Thus, gender depictions matter to the actual readers as the media influences how children see themselves and their bodies. More generally, the way gender is portrayed in children’s literature is an important social issue because ‘gender representations reproduce and legitimise gender systems’ (McCabe et al., 2011). However, my research indicates that gender inequity is still a general problem in the literature we present to our children.

There’s been a lot of focus on gender portrayals particularly in US children’s literature in small- and large-scale studies, using the Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners, or looking at textbooks and non-textbooks. Methods have ranged from examining the title characters to multimodal analysis to word corpus analysis. These various studies have generally found that the representation of females is inequitable and reifies cultural stereotypes. Lewis et al. (2022) also found that gender biases were significantly more exaggerated in children’s books than in literature for adults or in Wikipedia articles. Although less research has been carried out on gender portrayals in UK children’s literature (and none on the body of Carnegie Medal winners), this is also the case for UK literature. For instance, using Nielsen BookScan to analyse picture books sold in the UK in 2018, Donna Ferguson concluded:

The most popular picture books (…) collectively present a white- and male-dominated world to children (…) and have become more biased against girls in the past year. (The Guardian, 13/6/2019)

My research focuses on the Carnegie Medal winners from 1936–2022. The Carnegie Medal is set up as a ‘gold standard’ by virtue of its selection criteria and historical gravitas. Awards affect sales and each year’s winner is highly likely to be recommended by what Aidan Chambers (1994) calls the ‘enabling adults’: teachers, librarians, bookshop staff and parents, and is thus likely to be read by a high number of children in any given year. I treat the Carnegies as a sort of canon: prizes are a form of curation (Pearson et al., 2019) and as a body, they conform to Taxel’s (1995) notion of a ‘selective tradition’, which imposes ideological values on readers. In this way, I look at the Carnegies as a convenient sample, preselected in a way that reflects an essential aspect of our cultural mores – that which is shared and distributed by librarians and other arbiters of book recommendations for children and young adults.

As the Carnegies provide a microcosm of the UK’s children’s literature over the last 85 years they can, tentatively, be extrapolated to manifest trends in contemporary children’s literature in general, at least in the UK.

As I commenced my research, I assumed that I would be able to observe a general trend towards a more equitable presence of females (both protagonists and adult females) from the 1970s onwards, reflecting the greater prominence of women in contemporary society. However, when I explored the ratios of female child protagonists to male child protagonists in the Carnegies, I found that the male/female ratio was relatively constant and that it did not vary significantly pre- and post-1971 (1.52 versus 1.57). I also found many examples of ‘the default male’ both in non-fiction books (e.g. The Making of Man, 1962) and in books where the protagonists are animals.

As Bishop (1990) has said, it’s important to be able to recognise yourself in literature and her ‘windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors’ can be applied to gender as well as to all other identity markers. However, extending her intention, this must also include adults who are serving as role models for children’s future lives. Given that children’s books usually feature a child protagonist, I assumed that adult females would feature qua their role as the mother of the protagonist and as such the mother would function as a convenient marker for adult female presence in children’s literature. However, when I looked at the Carnegies, I found that mothers are generally underrepresented in the narratives. Of the Carnegie winners, which are categorised as fiction, only 39% feature mothers who are alive and present in the story (even though this ‘presence’ is sometimes narratively tenuous and not always a positive force). Superficially, there is much more parity between ‘present’ and ‘absent’ mothers in the winners of the last 50 years, but this varies very significantly between decades, and in the more recent (2000–2020) winners a significant 67% of mothers are absent. The mother is slightly better represented in the narratives that are rooted in a family setting – here 60% feature a ‘present’ mother. However, in the UK, mothers are present in 94% of British families whose children still live at home (according to the Office of National Statistics). As such, mothers are underrepresented in the Carnegies, possibly in comparison with children’s literature generally, and certainly in the context of real life. Thus, the fact that the presence of the mother is reduced to 60% in the setting in which she would be most expected to appear, represents a diminishing of her narrative presence in books for older children and young adults.

Research by Anderson and Hamilton (2005) found that mothers figure very prominently in picture books (while fathers are often absent), whereas texts aimed at a middle-grade or young adult reader more often seek to disrupt ‘nurturing mother schemas’ (Fraustino and Coats, 2016, p.12). There is also a position that the absence of families in some children’s literature is a device to give children freer rein or to allow adventure into the narrative (Grenby, 2014). However, if the mother is absent or dead in the narrative, opportunities for challenging gender stereotypes and potential for identification to help readers navigate the path towards adulthood are lost, even as some of the narratives explore the impact of this loss. While the absence of mothers and adult female role models is not a phenomenon unique to British children’s literature, stories from other cultures and countries tend to create more complex and nuanced adult female characters. African American and Scandinavian literary traditions aimed at children have many examples of books set in a strong network of family relations with mothers (and fathers) playing important roles in their children’s and teenagers’ lives.

The Carnegie winners are surprisingly diverse in the representation of different family structures (though with few non-white families and no representation of queer families). As such, a large proportion of the Carnegie winners feature a single-parent household; 21 narratives feature families headed by a lone parent. However, even here mothers are in the minority: there are 15 single dads and only seven single mums in the winning books. Again, this does not reflect the reality where (in the UK) more than 90% of all single-parent households are headed by a female. Many of these fictional single fathers are positive role models and portraying fathers as nurturers serves to redress gender inequality. However, could it reflect the fact that, as McRobbie (2009) has argued, single mothers are ‘demonised’ in UK political parlance in a way that single fathers are not?

The Carnegies also feature other adult female role models, though again, fewer than adult male role models (27 versus 39). Of these, two-thirds can be categorised as good role models. However, the roles that these ‘good’ female role models play in fictional children’s lives (in the Carnegies) fall into very gendered categories. They are typically teachers or extended family members (whether relatives, foster mothers or the father’s girlfriend) with only a small proportion (22% in total) taking up ‘another’ position – for instance Chingis the witch in The Ghost Drum (Price, 1987). In contrast, adult male role models occupy all kinds of role and only 1/3 fall into the categories of teachers or extended family members. This leads me to the conclusion that authors shy away from showing adult females as role models and when they do, they essentially slot into roles that are gender determined and focussed on aspects of parenting behaviours of nurturing and caregiving that are stereotypically provided by females (Doherty et al., 1998). As the BBC also points out in an article about the UNESCO GEM study of textbooks in schools, this picture is still surprisingly prevalent in books presented to children.

A 1962 textbook used in American schools.

Obviously, the Carnegie winners should not be chosen based solely on the gender of the protagonist, or for their inclusion of adult role models of either gender. However, it is essential to reflect on how females are represented in books with a canonical status and to question what this says about the kind of society which is presented to young readers in these narratives. The judging criteria point directly to the importance of this:

Whose story or stories are being told? Whose stories are not being told? (…) Could this be construed as an act of silencing? (…) Does this contribute to or reinforce existing societal inequality? (Yoto Carnegies, 2022)

While these questions help the reader tease out inequities in the portrayals of backgrounds, experiences and identities, they are not explicitly aimed at exploring gendered representations. However, unless criteria explicitly consider socio-political dimensions, prize-winning literature may tend to privilege some voices over others (Pearson et al., 2019), and by not specifying gender representation as a specific dimension for consideration, the Carnegies risk privileging male voices over female voices both in the short and the longer term.

If I were to believe the portrayal of mothers and other adult females in children’s and young adult literature, I might be led to believe that the stories of girls are not as important as those of boys and that mothers were not that important to children once they reached junior school. This would certainly seem to be the case when looking at the Carnegies. Further, it would appear that the roles available to other adult females would generally be family-related, nurturing roles, even in contemporary winners. I just don’t recognise this from my own life. The reality is that though the need changes with age, most children need their mothers and their families for life. Yet this is not reflected in the literature we present to them. Providing space for both adult and child female voices in children’s literature is essential, particularly for girl readers. I want my daughter to be able to recognise herself in the books that are available to her, particularly those recommended by ‘facilitating adults’, but I also want her to be able to see and recognise adult women in these books too, so that she develops an understanding and an enthusiasm for the world she’s going to be an adult in.

To conclude I should like to make readers aware of the adult women in the children’s and young adult books we read and recommend to children, and question the way adult women are represented in these books. Are they visible? Are they powerful? Are they complex? Are they good role models? Or are they absent, demonised, silenced, unrecognisable from the women in real life? And then this might give rise to conversations in whichever sphere you are involved in with children’s books – as an author, as a publisher, as a librarian, as an educator, as a parent or grandparent – and as a reader.

Works cited

Anderson, D.A. and Hamilton, M. (2005) Gender Role Stereotyping of Parents in Children’s Picture Books: The Invisible Father. Sex Roles, no.52, pp.145–151. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-1290-8.

Bishop, R.S. (1990) Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, vol.6, no.3.

Chambers, A. (1993) Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk. Stroud, Glos.: The Thimble Press.

Cornwall, W. (illus. M. Maitland Howard (1960) The Making of Man. London: Phoenix House Ltd.

Doherty, W.J., Kouneski, E.F. and Erickson, M.F. (1998) Responsible Fathering: An Overview and Conceptual Framework. Journal of Marriage and the Family, no.60, p.277. https://doi.org/10.2307/353848.

Ferguson, D. (2019) ‘Highly Concerning’: Picture Books Bias Worsens as Female Characters Stay Silent. The Guardian, 13/6/2019.

Fraustino, L.R. and Coats, K. (eds.) (2016) Mothers in Children’s and Young Adult Literature: From the Eighteenth Century to Postfeminism, Children’s Literature Association series. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Grenby, M.O. (2014) Children’s Literature, Edition: 2. Edinburgh Critical Guides to Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lewis, M., Cooper Borkenhagen, M. Converse, E. Lupyan, G. and Seidenberg, M.S. (2022) What Might Books Be Teaching Young Children about Gender? Psychol. Sci., no.33, pp.33–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211024643

McCabe, J., Fairchild, E. Grauerholz, L. Pescosolido, B.A. and Tope, D. (2011) Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters. Gender & Society, no.25, pp.197–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243211398358.

McRobbie, A. (2009) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage Publications.

Office for National Statistics (2021) Families and Households [online document]. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/datasets/familiesandhouseholdsfamiliesandhouseholds (accessed 11/24/22).

Pearson, L., Sands-O-Connor, K. and Subramanian, A. (2019) Prize Culture and Diversity in British Children’s Literature. International Research in Children’s Literature, no.12, pp.90–106.

Pinsent, P. (1997) Children’s Literature and the Politics of Equality, Language and Literacy series. New York: Teachers College Press.

Price, S. (1987) The Ghost Drum. London: Faber & Faber.

Taxel, J. (1995) Cultural Politics and Writing for Young People. In S.S. Lehr (ed.) Battling Dragons: Issues and Controversy in Children’s Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, pp.155–170.

Yoto Carnegies (2022) https://yotocarnegies.co.uk/about-the-awards/carnegie-medal-for-writing-criteria/ (accessed 11/25/2022).

Mette Lindahl-Wise is a PhD student in the Children’s Literature department at Goldsmiths University where she’s currently researching the representation of females in children’s literature in general and in the Carnegie Medal winners in particular.