No they don't, but they just might get more than their fair share when it comes to picture books.
In early November I was emailed some questions by illustrations student Harjit Kaur. She specialises in picture books, and was asking questions to do with her dissertation. I answered her questions about why I might choose to use animal characters rather than human ones, whether or not publishers had a preference between the two options ... and then I was completely halted in my tracks by this question:
'Does the gender disparity in anthropomorphic characters in children's picture books make you less inclined to having female protagonists?'
Well I have to admit that I hadn't noticed any gender disparity in anthropomorphic characters, but Harjit kindly sent me links to some learned academic papers discussing exactly that. Those papers went into complex detail about the dominant/subservient roles of male and female characters, geographical origins of different gender trends, the influence of the picture book examples chosen on young children's developing perceptions of the different genders, and so on.
My own perception of current children's books had been that we'd got the balance about right in the picture book area, although I very much dislike the present trend for pink fairy princess girly books as something quite separate from the snot, underpant and sometimes violent 'boys'' books in the book formats that come after picture books. Surely we do better than that in picture books? So I decided to do a small, and not very scientific, experiment.
I simply went through the first hundred picture books reviewed online by Books for Keeps. Some of those books had no lead character, or the sex of the lead character wasn't clear in the review or cover artwork, in which case I left them out of the count. But for the hundred with a clear lead character the results were -
Male lead 68%
Female lead 32%
That's quite a difference. But, perhaps more interestingly, the split between male and female anthropomorphic characters (I'm including robots, monsters, teddy bears and yetis here!) were even more startling. Removing human characters, we get the following neat percentages -
Male anthropomorphic lead characters 80%
Female anthropomorphic lead characters 20%
My flabber is truly ghasted by those figures! I'd no idea. So, why do we trend so heavily towards making animal or alien or toy characters male? Is it a problem? If so, why?
I'm glad to say that my most recently published picture book features a female anthropomorphic lead ... and the one I'm working on has a female alien, thanks to Harjit!