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Eye-Opening Experiment Highlights the Lack of Female Characters in Children’s Books

With every book a young child opens, power has the potential to come into focus. But what happens when they can’t relate to the main character? When the protagonist doesn’t share their same hopes and dreams? Or worse yet, when they can’t find any book where they’re represented at all?

For many young girls, that seems to be the case for nearly every book they pick up — we’re just not talking about it enough.

Recently, children’s authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo conducted a library experiment entitled “The Ugly Truth of Children’s Books” to illustrate this very point.

The video, which has been shared on Facebook over 460K times since , opens with a shot of a busy bookcase housing hundreds of popular children’s books. Then, one by one, a mother and daughter slowly remove each title that contains zero male characters.

Total books removed: Three. (OK, so it turns out, there are a lot of male characters.)

But what happens when they go on to remove books containing zero female characters?

Total books removed: 76.

Wait a minute. Where all my female characters at?

The video reveals that in a study of over 500 children’s books, only one-forth contained female characters. Yikes.

But let’s learn more about how this feeble fraction of females are represented …

As mother and daughter continue, this time they remove books where females are present, but do not speak.

Total books removed: 141. Ahem.

Of TIME’s list of 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time, only 53 books contained female characters who spoke. And while the books left sitting on the once populated shelf include females who somehow managed to get a word in edgewise, the experiment next dared to ask how many had dreams and aspirations that … wait for it … didn’t involve a prince.

Books removed: Way, way too many.

According to a 2013 study published by the Gena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 19.5 percent of female characters in children’s media are shown working. Compare that to the 80.5 percent of their male characters with career aspirations.

So what’s left on the big bookshelf for girls? Not much. Not enough. Not even close.

Our girls want more and deserve so much better. I may be the mother of boys, but girls belong to all of us. They are the future mothers, partners, daughters-in-law, aunts, friends, entrepreneurs, teachers, caregivers, heroes, storytellers, and history-makers born for greatness.

Girls deserve stories dominated by strong females. They deserve to read about big dreams realized by larger-than-life females just like them. And you know what? Our sons deserve these stories, too. They deserve to discover what’s been hidden from children’s literature and media for far too long: that females can and do.

Females can and do make history, contribute to science and technology, break records, and save lives. Females can and do fight battles, shatter glass ceilings, start revolutions, and make a powerful difference.

Authors Favilli and Cavallo know this all too well: In 2016, they published Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a powerful collection of 100 stories about the lives of incredible women from yesterday and today.

It was the book they wished they had growing up — filled with stories of female astronauts, judges, athletes, activists, scientists, and more, all brought to life by 60 illustrations created by women from around the globe.

Finally! A book for rebel girls (and yes, boys) everywhere.

It’s about time more publishers, libraries, and even parents followed suit — let’s start stacking bookcases with the stories our kids deserve.

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