Quote: Not only did I find precious few role-model dads, I found hardly any
dads at all. In all the picture books piled up around our house - more than
100 of them, in unsightly towers - mothers appeared in just under half and
were invariably portrayed in a positive light. Fathers cropped up in nine,
of which only five took a positive role in parenting. Of course, I
shouldn’t base my judgment on our collection of books alone. But academic
studies confirm that men are underrepresented in children’s books. When
they do appear they are often withdrawn and ineffectual. In spite of
today’s shifting parenting roles, books aimed at pre-school children still
tend to depict the mother as the sole or primary care provider. Fathers are
absent, silly or just plain busy.
The Times (Britain)
26 May 2009
Where are all the nice, normal dads in children's books?
By Damon Syson
When it comes to bedtime stories, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ava
loves the US author Richard Scarry’s books, especially Cars and Trucks and
Things That Go. Personally, I’m not so keen. I find Pa Pig — Scarry’s
father character — profoundly irritating.
Cars and Trucks centres on the Pig family’s outing to the beach. Over the
course of the day, Pa Pig repeatedly lets down the others. He falls asleep,
having promised to drive. He fails to change a flat tyre, leaving his wife
to do it. He gets sunburnt, despite her warnings. It’s an image of the
lazy, feckless, unreliable paterfamilias echoed in various TV sitcoms. He
is practically a porcine Homer Simpson.
I wouldn’t mind this so much were it not that Ava’s favourite TV programme
(with accompanying books) is Peppa Pig, boasting a similarly comical
caricature of fatherhood in the shape of the amiable Daddy Pig — fat,
greedy and a DIY disaster zone.
Don’t get me wrong, Peppa Pig is wonderful. And I’m aware that there is
plenty of good-natured humour to be had from lampooning fathers. But, faced
with these negative images, I looked through Ava’s selection of bedtime
reading in search of positive representations of dads.
The result was a shock. Not only did I find precious few role-model dads, I
found hardly any dads at all. In all the picture books piled up around our
house — more than 100 of them, in unsightly towers — mothers appeared in
just under half and were invariably portrayed in a positive light. Fathers
cropped up in nine, of which only five took a positive role in parenting.
Of course, I shouldn’t base my judgment on our collection of books alone.
But academic studies confirm that men are underrepresented in children’s
books. When they do appear they are often withdrawn and ineffectual. In
spite of today’s shifting parenting roles, books aimed at pre-school
children still tend to depict the mother as the sole or primary care
provider. Fathers are absent, silly or just plain busy.
Maybe this annoys me because not only am I a very hands-on father (I work
from home and do more than half the childcare) but I was brought up by my
father from the age of 3. It worries me that even though — or perhaps
because — she spends more time with me than with my partner, Ava is
obsessed with the mother/child relationship. Whenever we spot an animal or
bird in the park, her first question is: “Is he going home to find his
mummy?” Could this be related to the world she sees at story-time?
“Children’s books need to catch up,” says Nicholas Tucker, an educational
psychologist and the author of The Rough Guide to Children’s Books. “There
are a few in which you see dad washing up and doing things with the child,
but it tends to be at the weekend or on holiday. There are not many where
the dad is the most salient character.”
Tucker believes that this is simply “a hangover from when mothers were at
home and fathers went to work. The Ladybird books, for example, depicted
dads coming home on the last page for tea. Then again, it could simply be
describing a situation that is still true. On the whole, up to the age of 5
you do see more of your mother.”
And how much does what children read affect their perception of what is
normal? Could what my daughter reads now have a lasting psychological effect?
“No,” says Tucker. “The greatest psychological effect is on the parent. The
child has a reality and picture books may reinforce or contradict it, but
the only books that have a real psychological effect on under-5s are those
that set out to be scary — because children have an uneasy boundary between
fact and fiction that can be easily flooded.”
Whether or not what she reads now will shape Ava’s future world-view,
psychologists estimate that children begin to form gender stereotypes
between the ages of 3 and 5 — and while most pre-school literature
perpetuates the idea that fathers are out at work and barely involved in
childcare, the reality is very different. According to the Fatherhood
Institute, British fathers in two-parent families now carry out, on
average, 25 per cent of the family’s childcare-related activities during
the week, and one third of those activities at weekends. And the pace of
change is increasing. Between 2002 and 2005 the percentage of new fathers
working flexi-time to spend more time with their young children rose from
11 per cent to 31 per cent.
Clearly, the books we read to Ava every night do not reflect this. Then
again, this could have something to do with when they were written. Like
many parents, we tend to buy “timeless classics”, some of which were
written 40 years ago. You wouldn’t expect the dad in Judith Kerr’s The
Tiger Who Came to Tea to nip out to Tesco Express, whip up a vegetarian
moussaka and then don the Marigolds — dads didn’t behave like that in 1968.
Yet the dearth of domestic dads in pre-school books seems out of step with
the way in which family dynamics are evolving — and the way that they must
continue to evolve if women are not to be left short-changed and
overburdened. So surely it is the duty of publishers to do their bit?
Suzanne Carnell is the editorial director of picture books for Macmillan
Children’s Books — home to major names such as Julia Donaldson (The
Gruffalo) and Emily Gravett (Wolves, Orange Pear Apple Bear). Carnell
contends that the industry has responded to the shift in gender roles —
although she is quick to point out that women buy more books than men, by a
“When you first mentioned this subject,” she tells me, “my reaction was
that you were probably correct in claiming that fathers are
underrepresented. That was certainly the case ten years ago. But then I
looked at what we and others are publishing and I don’t think that’s true
any more. Bringing in dads is something of which publishers have become
increasingly aware — not just with under-representation but in not making
our books too ‘girly’ and ensuring that there is plenty out there that dads
want to share with their children. We all have tractor books on our list
now — and we are conscious that picture books don’t all need to end with a
hug or a party. They don’t all have to be pink and glittery and about fairies.”
She cites Macmillan books such as My Daddy is a Giant, Daddy on the Moon
and Football Fever, in which a father takes his son and daughter to a
Such books are certainly a step in the right direction — but some of the
new dad-friendly children’s literature represents the pendulum swinging too
far. Some books involving dads, especially in the US, present us as
idealised figures taking our sons on fishing trips and dispensing copious
amounts of physical affection. Hey, dads hug too!
I am not asking for dads to be held up as supreme beings. I just want us to
get a look-in. Most of all, I want to see dads doing normal domestic
things. Carnell counters that the type of books depicting parents and
children going to the supermarket or the swimming pool — as in the iconic
Sarah Garland books of the 1980s — are simply out of fashion: “We just
don’t publish many domestic books at the moment,” she says. “Of course,
it’s very important for us to reflect society and there was a period when
publishers were very conscious of making sure that mother wasn’t always
behind the kitchen sink, that she could be a pilot or drive a tractor. I’m
afraid that was more of a priority than bringing Dad into the kitchen. So
maybe that was Stage One and we have now embarked on Stage Two.”
True enough. I am reminded that my bête noire, Cars and Trucks and Things
That Go, was written in 1974. Its roster of characters includes Mistress
Mouse, a doughty mechanic who wears overalls, drives a tow-truck and “can
fix anything”. In the counter-cultural context of the time, it went with
the territory to poke fun at patriarchal figures, as Richard Scarry does
via Pa Pig. Equally, the Sarah Garland books — with their ebullient lone
mother — were a reaction to the era when nuclear families were still the
norm in kid-lit.
So maybe it is still too soon to expect dads — once authority figures and
overrepresented in literature — to expect equal treatment. My concern is
that, as we enter an era when it is vital to suggest a new family model to
our children, their literature still hasn’t got with the programme.
Mind you, talking to Carnell, I am shocked that she seems mildly surprised
to find a father talking about “sharing books” with his child. Perhaps dads
have no right to expect a higher profile in children’s books for the simple
reason that too often we don’t buy them, don’t read them and, most
importantly, don’t write them.
As Nicholas Tucker puts it: “It’s worth remembering that most of the
authors of these books are mums, who write the domestic scene as they
experienced it. So if you really don’t think you can find a book with a
decent father figure, why don’t you go away and write one?”