Sunday, March 18, 2018

Animals As Characters/Subjects: Pushing Against Gender Typing

by Mary Quattlebaum

Starting March 1st, we’re celebrating Women’s History Month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ community/industry.  Join in the conversation on Twitter at #kidlitwomen or on Facebook at https:www// (which includes all the posts this month).

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.  Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.   I read these novels multiple times as a kid. I adored the fierce mare, Phantom, who cared for her domesticated foal until Misty could live on her own, and then returned to the wild.  I cried over the trials of sensitive, observant Black Beauty, the male horse in the 19th century bestseller that galvanized the movement for more humane treatment of animals.

Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith.  No matter their sex, the animal characters in these books were, by turns, loyal, cooperative, intelligent, kind, sturdy, afraid, vulnerable, and angry.  They had personality strengths and flaws.  They fought, strategized, searched for food, and cared for their young.  They persisted.  They triumphed, in different ways.  They were the heroes of their stories.

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, I remember very, very few books with strong human girl and gentle human boy characters.  I didn’t even realize what I was searching for until, as an adult, I examined my favorite books more closely. Yes, I had been a country kid, a lover of animals and the natural world, but even deeper than that, I think I was hoping for depictions in books that better reflected some of the change I was glimpsing in the wider world. The realistic, slightly anthropomorphized critter-characters in these novels pushed boundaries. They brought nuance to, and even subverted the traditional gender-assigned roles and traits of the times.  (Interestingly, for picture books, almost the opposite is true.  In her research, children’s author/scholar Jennifer Mann discovered that anthropomorphized animals—especially parents, teachers and other adults--tended to remain gender typed, especially in terms of clothing.)

In the blog post that opened this #kidlitwomen discussion, Shannon Hale asked us to deeply consider how we as creators and as teachers/librarians/parents present books to young people.  Do we or others unconsciously label or have expectations of a book as being “for girls” or of a particular author as appealing primarily to boys?  How might we work against this?  In their posts, Susan Van Metre, Meg Frazer Blakemore, and Elizabeth Dulemba further explore ideas and possibilities around re-shaping the cultural narrative.

As a writer of nonfiction about/fiction with animal characters, I’ve tried to be alert to my own shortcomings, blind spots, and expectations (with full awareness of how much I still need to learn/unlearn)—and those of the larger society.  And I want to present my work—and that of others—in a way that encourages kids to think more deeply and critically about these issues too.

For a nonfiction chapter book about Hero Dogs, I wanted to broaden the narrative about heroic animals beyond the usual stories about military/law-enforcement dogs and the single act of bravery, so I included true stories about a female detective dog who has found hundreds of lost pets; two female “nurse” dogs at a wildlife sanctuary; and a male Dalmatian who is a fire-safety educator.  At schools, I ask kids to think about the term “hero” and what it means to them—and we talk about examples of heroes in history and their lives who may exemplify a range of heroic traits.

Mighty Mole and Super Soil depicts the real-life superhero of the animal kingdom, a female mole with super strength, super speed, and a super appetite.  Mighty Mole is like Wonder Woman, I tell kids.  Only she has fur and claws and teeny-tiny eyes (and no bustier, I might add, but that’s the subject for another post).

Many kids love reading and talking about animals.  Since #kidlit women encourages solution-based discussions, I want to ask:  What’s your favorite book about animals that works against gender typing?  And/or your favorite book about/with animal characters by a woman?

My choice: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly.  So much love for this year’s Newbery Medal winner!  I especially admire the characterizations of the gentle boy and his beloved guinea pig and the fierce Nature-loving deaf girl who helps to rescue them.

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