The minutes before bedtime marked most of my earliest childhood memories. My mother and father would snuggle up under the covers with me and whisper the words of picture books, as I’d “ooh” and “awe” at the colorful drawings. We would swap between my three favorite stories: Sailaway Home, Runaway Bunny and The Rainbow Fish. As we turned the pages, we saw the world through the lens of an imaginative pig, an adventurous bunny and an eye-catching fish. The main characters were all on journeys to discover something, either about themselves or about the universe. It was the perfect way to drift off into a blissful sleep as a small child with even smaller worries.
It wasn’t until many years later when I started to read this beloved trio of children’s books to my younger cousins that I realized something, or rather a bunch of somethings, was missing from these stories: female characters. The protagonists were all animals referred to as him and he. While the boys were brave and curious, the females were either nonexistent, supporting characters or mothers nurturing their sons. Coincidence? Maybe, I thought.
In a quest to find females in starring roles of children’s literature featuring animal characters, I pored through pages of picture books and scoured the internet for stories about girl bears, squirrels, and pigs, searching for everything from girl dinosaurs to girl butterflies. I learned that female-driven stories in the animal children's book genre stand out when they should blend in. It’s an all too familiar problem that persists in popular culture, but it carries a special type of sting in an industry that is targeting young, impressionable minds.
Statistics showed me I wasn't just creating a gender gap in my mind. Children's books with boy animals in prominent roles appear three times more than books with girl animals as central characters, according to a 2011 study from Florida State University. Males were also eight times more likely than women to appear in children’s books as villains, according to an Observer study. (Hello, Shere Khan, the fierce tiger in The Jungle Book, the scary dog-fish in Pinocchio, and the conceited hare in The Tortoise and the Hare).
Before I had this disturbing realization, Zach and I wrote Pangy as a boy. It wasn't an intentional move, it was just proof of an underlying assumption at work. We then thought about going the androgynous route and opting for “it” in an effort to avoid gender representation. But the earlier mentioned FSU study noted that when no gender was attached to animal characters, adults typically assigned a male gender when reading the stories to their children, which "exaggerates the pattern of female underrepresentation.” So, that didn't feel right either!
Instead, we wanted to make Pangy a girl without changing any aspect of the story or the illustrations. Pangy would still be a friendly adventurer and she would still not wear any dresses, frilly bows or red lipstick (not that there's anything wrong with those things!). We just wanted to depict Pangy in a way that would not surprise readers if the pronoun was "he" instead of "she."
Now, we can't imagine Pangy not being a girl. She's brave like our mothers, compassionate like our sisters, silly like our friends, and full of heart like all of the female role models in both of our lives. We're so proud to tell a story about a brave and adventurous female pangolin. We may be biased, but we love her so much and hope you enjoy her story as much as we enjoyed creating it.
P.S. Here are some of my favorite children's books with girl animal protagonists that I found during my scavenger hunt! And if you want to read more about this issue, check out this insightful Washington Post article.
- Doodle Bites by Polly Dunbar: a girl alligator learns to treat others with kindness from her friend Tilly, who is also a girl (double awesome).
- Abigail by Catherine Rayner: a girl giraffe who loves to count (plus, the illustrations are as beautifully darling as it gets!)
- One Day on our Blue Planet by Ella Bailey: a curious female penguin.
- Maisy by Lucy Cousins: A series about a female mouse, who wears all the colors of the rainbow and embarks on all sorts of adventures from visiting London to perusing through a local bookstore to landing on the moon.
Also, use discount code GIRLPOWER for $3 off Pangy the Pangolin hardcover book, and 50% of profit goes to pangolin conservation. Thanks for reading : )