Gender (im)balance in NZ children’s books

Elizabeth Heritage investigates representations of gender in New Zealand children’s book publishing by looking at the 2017 bestsellers and talking to local publishers. Are we doing the best by all genders, and why does it matter?

The Observer recently commissioned a study about the lack of gender diversity in the bestselling children’s picture books in the UK in 2017. It found that male characters are twice as likely to be in the lead, and to have speaking parts. Female characters are far more likely to be relegated to the role of sidekick, or to be absent altogether (as in a fifth of the top 100 books studied). This is not a new problem, and has been studied overseas. What about children’s books here in Aotearoa?

Let’s start with the stats. A Nielsen BookData list of the top 100 bestselling New Zealand children’s books (those books with Kiwi creators and/or publishers) in 2017 shows similar gender representation as the UK findings. For a start, more than half (53%) of the books have male-only main characters, and for 17 of those books, not just the main characters but the entire cast is male. For example, just looking at books in the top ten, Hairy Maclary and his friends are male (Hairy Maclary and Friends: Touch and Feel book), as are Māui and his brothers (Maui and Other Maori Legends: 8 Classic Tales of Aotearoa).

[J]ust 13% of books in the top 100 … have female-only main characters; only four of those books have an all-female cast.

This is in comparison to just 13% of books in the top 100 that have female-only main characters; only four of those books have an all-female cast, including The Seven Kites of Matariki. Twenty-two percent of books have a mix of male and female lead characters (in eight of those, male characters are dominant; female characters are dominant in five). For the remaining 12% of books, gender is irrelevant – in counting and nature books, for example.

Some popular authors influence this mix, such as beloved Kiwi author-illustrator Lynley Dodd. She has seven titles in the top 100, all with entirely male dog casts. There are four Wonky Donkey books featuring the titular sole male character, who is also the only disabled main character in the list.

Female and male authors are roughly evenly represented on the NZ 2017 top 100. However, female authors wrote about both female and male characters, whereas only one male author on the top 100 wrote a book with a female star: Maurice Gee’s Severed Land. Female authors contributed 18 male-led books and 11 female-led to this list. Male authors, though, wrote 26 male-led books and just that one female-led book. There is also a notable dearth of explicitly gender-queer or trans characters, although there are a couple of rainbow authors.

[O]nly one male author on the top 100 wrote a book with a female star …

It’s worth noting, too, that 60 of the top 100 books have animal characters; 30 have humans; and six feature a mix of humans and animals. (The remainder are those counting books and so on mentioned above.) This might seem like a gender-neutral choice, except that children’s books about animals have been found to be less likely to have a good gender balance than children’s books about humans. A 2011 Florida State University study found that just 7.5% of nearly 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 depict female animal protagonists; male animals were the central characters in more than 23% each year. For books in which characters were not assigned a gender, researchers noted, parents reading to their children tended to assign one: male.

The focus of this investigation is gender balance, but, once you start asking yourself who’s being represented and who isn’t, it’s impossible not to notice the dearth of ethnic and cultural diversity. In the top 100, only seven books feature Māori characters, with three more featuring other characters of colour. There were a few more that had crowd scenes with people of various ethnicities.

Interviews with NZ children’s book publishers reveal that none have official ‘gender diversity’ policies … 

The bestseller list shows what people are buying – but how does this stack up against what kind of books are being produced? Interviews with NZ children’s book publishers reveal that none have official ‘gender diversity’ policies, and the priority they place on gender varies a lot. Some publishers mention that editors keep an eye on gender balance and work with authors and illustrators to even it out a bit, suggesting that the manuscripts that come in might be a bit one-sided. Some publishers have thought deeply about gender and are keen to speak about it. Others say good storytelling is their priority (or declined to comment altogether).

For example, Julia Marshall, publisher at Gecko Press, says: ‘We don’t publish books because they have a strong female or strong male character – we are concerned with the strength of the characters and the place of the book as a whole. We are talking about characters and books, not about doing things by numbers.’

Another common attitude is the idea that, whereas girls will read books about all sorts of people, boys will only read books about boys. Christine Dale, publisher at One Tree House, says: ‘Historically boys are written in stories because innate conditioning might mean that when writers think of a dramatic or adventurous narrative, they think of a boy character first. Also, it is known that boys tend to be reluctant readers so there is an understandable drive to try to keep them interested.’

Catherine O’Loughlin, children’s publisher at Penguin Random House NZ, says: ‘I’d love to see more research into how much children actually care that the protagonist is the same gender as them. To hazard a guess, further research would show that there are a lot of factors at play here. The age of the child could be one – there are ages and stages where children want to explore what it means to be their particular gender. A child’s peer group can also play a big role in their determining what material they think is okay for them to read and what isn’t. Some kids are hypersensitive to this; others don’t care what anyone else thinks.’

At Huia they’re trying to appeal to young male readers by publishing in graphic format. Eboni Waitere, executive director at Huia, says: ‘We publish comics for boys because we know those are the books that boys go to first in the library.’

Some publishers have lists that display quite a different gender balance from the bestseller list. O’Loughlin says: ‘I had a quick tot up of our new local children’s and YA books published in 2017, and more than half have female protagonists. And it’s the same for our upcoming 2018 children’s and YA books.’

Gender diversity is broader than just creating more female protagonists, though. 

Gender diversity is broader than just creating more female protagonists, though. It means a range of characters of all genders, including trans, intersex, and ungendered characters. But how do you distinguish a character who has no gender from a character who is male? We live in a world where a simple stick figure is read as a man (on signs for toilets, for example). O’Loughlin says: ‘Many picture books we publish wouldn’t change in essentials if the protagonist were male instead of female or vice versa – or gender non-specific, for that matter – but since the English language gives us gendered personal pronouns, to avoid any jarring phrasing characters generally have to be pinned down one way or the other.’

Which begs the question: what about publishing in Aotearoa’s first language, rather than English? In te reo Māori, you can choose to specify gender if you wish, but mostly the language is gender neutral. Waitere says: ‘I mostly see children as children, not as little boys or little girls. It’s not until they get older that they have different roles.’

In Huia’s education programme, most of their books have female protagonists. This is less the result of a deliberate gender policy, though, than a side-effect of Huia’s strong focus on Māoritanga, according to Waitere. She says: ‘We want to publish books that all different kinds of Māori children can see themselves in. Māori come in all shapes, sizes, and skin tones. For example, in one of our recent books a character has red hair and is quite fair looking. But we created them so they are Māori characters.’

At Huia they also make sure their books are populated by characters of different ages and abilities. Waitere says: ‘We make sure some of the characters have hearing aids, for instance, even if it’s not a story about hearing impairment, and that there are kaumātua in our books as well as children and parents.’ Eva Mills, children’s publishing director for Allen & Unwin in Australia, says: ‘In terms of broader diversity, we have held a couple of in-house workshops with the kids team on ‘own voice’ publishing and who has the right to tell whose story. We’re looking for authentic voices from less well represented communities in all our readership levels.’

Greet Pauwelijn, publisher at Book Island, is another one who has stumbled into publishing books mostly about girls without having consciously decided to do so. She says: ‘I’m now asking myself why we have so many titles with strong, female characters. What made me choose them? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I find these stories much more meaningful and thought-provoking than others? Looking through our catalogue I realise that Sir Mouse to the Rescue, Virginia Wolf, Witchfairy and Maia and What Matters, which all have a strong female focus, are the titles I am most proud of. These are also titles that continue to do very well for us.’

Most publishers, when asked about gender diversity, referred to their books with ‘strong female characters’. Sophia McDougall addresses this in her 2013 essay ‘I hate strong female characters’, where she suggests that creators should aim for a much wider range of female characters than simply ‘strong’. McDougall is talking mostly about films for adults, but her main argument holds true for children’s books as well: ‘I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness … And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.’

One way to think about whether a particular children’s book portrays characters with a balanced range of characteristics and opportunities is to apply the Maisy Test, developed for children’s television shows and movies (see below). The majority of books in the NZ top 100 fail this test.

Underneath the objections to a focus on diversity and the equivocations about ‘good storytelling’ is essentially the question, why should we care? Why is inequality our problem to fix? O’Loughlin says: ‘It is always important for the publisher to consider what messages a children’s book carries for readers about gender and to ensure that these messages are positive and empowering, not limiting or denigrating in any way.’ Studies have found that stereotypical gender bias in children’s books gives boys a sense of entitlement and lowers girls’ self-esteem and occupational aspirations; and a dearth of female characters teaches children of all genders that girls are less important than boys.

Studies have found that stereotypical gender bias in children’s books gives boys a sense of entitlement and lowers girls’ self-esteem and occupational aspirations.

The current situation of children’s book publishing – and purchasing – in Aotearoa shows that, overall, our books simply don’t reflect the gender make-up of our general population. Perhaps 2018, the year of #metoo and Rebel Girls, is a good time to start changing that.

Editors’ note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children’s literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They’re not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook. 

Elizabeth Heritage

Elizabeth Heritage is a Pākehā arts journalist and freelance publishing professional, and does comms for the Human Rights Measurement Initiative. She is based online at and IRL in Wellington.