I can’t think of a childhood friend that captured my imagination quite like George Kirrin, my favourite member of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five. George is an 11-year-old tomboy who lives with her scientist father on a mysterious island, off the coast of Cornwall. She’s the highlight of Blyton’s classic series, which sees four schoolkids swept up on escapades that involve pirates, castaways and aggressively British afternoon treats. This is mostly because she’s feisty, whip-smart and courageous — never one to back down from an adventure or give in to the authority of her bossy male cousins (I’m looking at you, Julian).
As a child, I devoured those dusty The Famous Five hardbacks, too busy committing George’s every action to memory to register some of Blyton’s more retrograde views. I could never connect with Cinderella or Snow White or Rapunzel, characters whose beauty always seemed like a poor trade-off for the price of being trapped by your femininity. George was just unruly enough relate to. She showed me who I wanted to be when I grew up.
Although The Famous Five was first published back in the ‘40s, protagonists such as George are still as remarkable now as they were back then. According to a January 2018 study from The Observer, based on an analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, lead characters in children’s literature are still twice as likely to be male than female.
Recent bestsellers such as The Koala Who Could and There’s a Monster In Your Book don’t contain any female characters at all.
Male characters are also given twice as many opportunities to speak as female characters. It’s a privilege that, ironically enough, also extends to male animals who are mostly embodied as powerful creatures such as dragons, bears and tigers. Females — even in an imaginary universe! — are mostly characterised as passive and vulnerable birds, cats or insects. And recent bestsellers such as The Koala Who Could and There’s a Monster In Your Book don’t contain any female characters at all.
The lack of gender parity in children’s literature, to say nothing of the glaring absence of characters of colour, isn’t simply a question of logistics. Given that stories often school children in gender roles and equip them with the tools to imagine their future realities, it can also have profound real-world effects. According to 2017 research from the US journal Science, girls believe that their gender is less capable and intelligent by age six — a finding that’s fuelled, no doubt, by all the cultural memos they’ve already internalised.
Merissa Forsyth believes that we can re-wire the messages we send to young girls. The founder of the Pretty Foundation, a not-for-profit that promotes resilience among girls aged between two and six, has just released Charlie’s Tales: Sylvie and the Star Tree, a series of books about Charlie, a spirited, female protagonist with wild, red hair. She says she hopes that the series will show girls that it’s okay to focus less on conforming to stereotypes and more on living life to their full potential.
Hopefully young girls everywhere resonate with Charlie and know that they can achieve incredible things in life if they believe in themselves
“Gender stereotypes start to form from an early age such as when children are learning about how to be a boy or a girl,” Forsyth says. “We hope to see this book series become an animated series and then move into toys and other forms of entertainment. Our aim is for Charlie to be a peer role model, who also demonstrates a healthy body image. Hopefully young girls everywhere resonate with Charlie and know that they can achieve incredible things in life if they believe in themselves.”
Forsyth is part of a growing movement that aims to widen the types of female protagonists that appear in children’s books. Back in 2012, Washington couple Carolyn Danckaert and Aaron Smith started A Mighty Girl, an online platform featuring books designed to foster courage and confidence in the new generation of women (new releases include an illustrated tribute to Hidden Figures, based on the extraordinary African-American women involved in the space race).
And last month, writers Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, buoyed by sexisim in Silicon Valley, launched a follow-up to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. The wildly successful compendium of alternative fairytales — which became the most successful new title in the history of crowdfunding — includes stories about Yusra Mardini, the Syrian Olympic swimmer with a refugee background and Sarina Srisakul, America’s first Asian-American firefighter and the French volcanologist Katia Krafft. It’s been nearly 80 years since George Kirrin first captured our imaginations. If a new generation of female characters are finally joining her, it can’t happen quickly enough.