Do You Randomly Gender-Swap Characters in Kids Books?

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Cover of Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site

We have recently been enjoying one of my son’s favorite birthday presents from his second birthday. The wonderful book Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site was given to us by a relative who would never have given it to a girl, but that’s no problem–it’s an adorable book and my son loves it.

But my husband and I started doing something when we read this book out loud that we’ve done with a few other books: randomly taking some of the male characters and talking about them as female characters. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any girls in the books at all.

To his immense credit, my husband starting doing this with another favorite book called Superhero Me! by Karen Katz. This touch-and-feel book depicts toddlers playing superheroes, but my husband was really surprised that every kid in the book—six characters— was a boy. So he started switching one character, Astrokid, to female: “Astrokid ZOOMS into space, then back to Earth, her home base.” This made me love him even more than usual, since I’m a NASA engineer.

It also reminded me of my pre-parenthood days playing with my nephew. He was five, and his parents had their hands full with 18-month-old twins. My husband and I made sure to spend extra time with him. He was hugely into the Japanese T.V. show Ultraman, so he had us play the different hero characters. I’m sure everyone knew this but me, but the color-coded heroes are also strictly gender defined. I asked to be the Blue Ranger (probably the wrong title of the character anyway, forgive me), and was told by a very shocked young boy, “No Aunt Karen, you can’t be Blue! Blue is a boy!” Same response for Green. I was left with Pink or Yellow. (I hate pink and yellow, have since I can remember.) But I figured I wasn’t there for a consciousness raising session. I just said, “Aww, that’s sad. OK, I’ll play Yellow.” We were there for five days, and by the last day my nephew very generously (and unprompted!) said, “It’s OK Aunt Karen, you can play Green!” Yay!

I’ve noticed that the Richard Scarry books from the 1970s don’t have this problem. In Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, Mistress Mouse operates a tow truck service in her pink overalls and is rescuing people and fixing things on almost every page. Ma and Pa swap driving duties. Pa fixes a flat tire but Ma puts on snow chains. In Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, girls are shown playing with construction toys just like boys. It’s not unrealistically gender-neutral, since girls are shown wearing different fashions, but Pa and Ma are also both cooking in the kitchen. It seems really refreshing compared to some of the newer books that my son has received.

Getting back to the Construction Site book, it has five characters, all using he/his pronouns. It’s understandable given the assumption that boys like stories about big construction equipment like dump trucks, but it just struck us as wrong somehow. So we’ve started alternating the genders of the characters. I notice my husband and I swap different characters different times (so sometimes the Bulldozer is a he and sometimes a she), but our son doesn’t seem to notice or mind yet. Someday he’ll call us on it, and we’ll talk a bit about boys and girls and what they can do, and that will kick off probably a life-long conversation about gender.

I should also note: We’ve never swapped when the story is focused on a single character, so Pete the Cat stays firmly male, no many how times I have to sing the “I love my white shoes” song.

Does anyone else do this?

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6 thoughts on “Do You Randomly Gender-Swap Characters in Kids Books?

  1. Yup. The wonderful picture book “Papa’s Bedtime Story” by Mary Lee Donovan and Kimberly Bulcken Root used to be a regular around here—I probably read it at least 250 times over the years. It starts with a little boy asking for a bedtime story. So the father tells him a story about an animal asking for a bedtime which is about another animal asking for a bedtime story and so on and so forth. I saw no reason that the animals always had to be male, so I would swap back and forth with the genders, and once I did with that book, I made it a regular thing.

  2. I totally do this, especially with animals in books, when you can’t tell the gender anyway. I’ll also change “police/fire/mail man” etc. to “police office,” “fire fighter,” and “mail carrier.” Of course if I’m tired or distracted sometimes I’ll forget and let a “police man” slip by. I’ve also been making an effort to buy books with female protagonists, since I have 2 boys and we usually don’t receive them as gifts, except from my feminist, librarian friend who sends them only books with girls. 🙂

  3. Oh good, it’s not just me!

    Also Katie: we do the same thing! Although his aunt had all girls, and she knows some of the best girl-heroine books. She gave us the Paper Bag Princess, and that’s been a huge hit.

  4. We totally do this. My daughter is 5 and my son is 3 and before we start the book they pick their “characters.” My son chooses the boys and my daughter chooses the girls. It varies each time. The kid who picked the book gets 3 of the 5 trucks. The both love the book… “Hey, Pipe Down!” I think I started doing the gender reversal with “Even Firefighters Go to the Potty,” back when using the potty was new to my son. This book has male and female character but the astronaut is written as a boy. There are no visual gender cues for my kids to argue with so I would routinely switch this one up. After all, even girl astronauts go to the potty.

  5. We love Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, but I think I got a single time through before the all-male cast started to bug. In our house Cement Mixer and Bulldozer are lady-trucks.

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