Researchers have conducted extensive studies focusing on gender balance within literature in the past 20 years. Ultimately, most studies show an unexpected trend from children’s book to young adult literature: there’s a huge gender shift in the protagonists.
Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, gathered over 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 for one of her studies. The study focused on the gender balance of female and male characters in said children’s books.
The cessation of her study found that 57% of children’s books published each year contain male central characters. That number doesn’t sound too large until you compare it to that of female central characters. Only 31% of children’s books published annually had a female protagonist. The remaining 12% of books had both a female and male central character.
The gender disparity between male and female protagonists changes when examining novels written for an older audience.
A different study conducted by Roger Sutton, the editor in chief of The Horn Book Inc. since 1996, analyzed books written towards 12-18 year olds. He considered all hardcover books published in the first six months of 2014 by U.S. publishers (think Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House).
He found that 65% of the protagonists in young adult novels were female. Female protagonists were a whopping 43% more common than male protagonists. Out of all the novels, hardly 22% had male protagonists. Similarly to children’s books, males and females were both main characters in 13% of the books.
“Teen boys are less likely to read for pleasure than teen girls are…those boys who do read tend to prefer nonfiction,” said Sutton, explaining why most young adult novels have female protagonists. He believes that the novels are simply catering to their audience– teenage girls.
Children’s author Melvin Burgess blames the gender imbalance in children’s books on boys not wanting to read about girls. “Truism in publishing that girls will read books that have boy heroes, whereas boys won’t read books that have girl heroes” said Burgess.
Both Burgess and Sutton argue that less children read as they get older, and that those who do tend to still read are females. Their beliefs correlate to the trend of imbalanced genders throughout children’s to young adult’s literature.