REVERSED ROLES Gender bias in children's books


Kirstin McNeil argues that gender bias is still a problem in children's books. As we celebrate Father's Day today it is worth considering how these perceived roles in books may impact the way we see one another's role in society. After all, life imitates art and vice versa. 

How often do you see dads doing the washing up in picture books? Or being part of the school run? 

How many books have grandma with power tools, or mum doing the weeding? When is grandad allowed to play volleyball on the beach?

Across the books I read to my kids, the mum is often shown doing household tasks like washing up or tidying whilst the dad is out in the garden or driving the car. Dad gets to do the fun things like use tools and play football whereas mum does the shopping or feeds the baby. Even in books where they weren’t allocated specific tasks, dad got to wear sports clothes but mum was confined to aprons, rubber gloves or dresses and heels.


I notice it with grandparents too. Not only are the grandmothers more static – grandma sitting in a chair knitting versus grandpa in his allotment – but overall grandparents in picture books just look old. Like great-grandparents old! It seemed to me like the picture book world had skipped out a whole generation! If you think about it many children of picture book age, (0-5 years), have grandparents who are still working or volunteering, are active and super fun.


We’ve read a lot about gender roles in books, on film and TV and how this culture of ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ toys, clothes and games having damaging educational, societal and familial impacts on future generations. Much of this is targeted at how children are depicted in books, and rightly so, which has led to more diversity in protagonists across children’s books. Boys can be sensitive and popular, (MG Leonard, Simon James Green), girls can be sporty and scientific, (Andrea Beaty).


Gender bias is so prominent in our media that schools are also being asked to draw attention to it and help children spot it themselves.


Less focus has been on the caregiving roles we see across illustrated pages. Grandparents and parents usually play a background role in many books – otherwise kids wouldn’t have as many adventures – but this doesn’t mean we can ignore them altogether.


In my book My Family is So Scottish I took inspiration from my own grandparents. The Papa is leading the charge on a rainy walk up the hills and granny is enthusiastically cheering on her rugby team. The dads in all my published books take an active parenting role: feeding the baby, reading books and doing the school run.


The CBeebies programme based on Laura Henry Allain’s brilliant book series Jojo and Gran Gran, is a shining example of representation not only for Black British Caribbean families but for the growing numbers of grandparents actively involved in caring for their grandkids.


Books like Granddad’s Camper by Harry Woodhouse show a wonderful cross-generational connection that goes deeper than just “being at grandpa’s house” or “visiting grandma”. It was one of the first picture books I read that focuses on the fact that grandparents have had adventures too – long before they had kids of their own. It’s also brilliantly inclusive as is the sequel, Grandad’s Pride.


Clean Up by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola shows a grandma surfing!


As authors and illustrators we have the power to diversify the narrative of how caregivers are reflected in books and, when done well, we increase inclusivity and relatability for many families.


Yes, there are still many stay-at-home mums and dads who work too late to pick up the kids from school, but increasingly this dynamic is changing and we should be embracing that.


Small changes to characters make a big impact. Curtis Ackie’s book Later is about children waiting for their mum to come home from work with a stay-at-home dad.


Kerrine Bryan’s Butterfly books series show parents in different careers such as a mum in the army and a dad who is a nurse.


We can also highlight vulnerabilities in parents that encourage discussion. My book, Daddy’s Scared of Beasties, centres on one of the two dads who, despite his big and rugged physique, is rather terrified of mini-beasts. I wanted to share a story – based on reality! – that parents are also scared of things and sometimes need a hug too.


The great thing about being self-published is I’m very much in control of the gender role narratives in my stories, due to being able to closely collaborate with my illustrators. Traditionally published authors can​ always question decisions made regarding background characters and deliberately write characters in a way that challenges these gender biases.


I’d love to see more grandparents and parents like the ones I see in reality – full of energy, working in different careers and sharing domestic tasks.

 *Header image: in-house collaboration by Ell Rose & Tita Berredo;

Kirstin is a London-based Scottish author who writes joyful and diverse children’s books. Through her imprint Sequoia Publishing UK she intends to make a positive impact on the publishing industry. She has published three books – My Brother is a Vampire (2021), My Family is so Scottish (2022) and Daddy’s Scared of Beasties (2023).


Connect with Kirstin through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. 


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. Find their work at www.shannonillustrates.comFollow them on Instagram and Twitter. Contact them at 


Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. She has a Master's degree in Children's Literature and Illustration from Goldsmiths UOL and a background in marketing and publicity. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or 

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