Michelle Nijhuis's five year old daughter insisted that Bilbo Baggins was a girl. After arguing about it for a while, Michelle decided to read her The Hobbit, switching Bilbo's gender-pronoun throughout. And it worked brilliantly. Bilbo is a great heroine: "tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender — and neither does anyone else."
Pat Murphy wrote a novel based on this premise: There and Back Again, which is a retelling of The Hobbit as a science fiction story in which all the characters are female (in contrast to Tolkien, whose world is all but empty of women of any sort). It is, sadly, long out of print, but available used and well worth your attention.
In the meantime, this kind of on-the-fly changes to stories are part of what make reading aloud to your kid so much fun. Poesy often requests (demands) editorial changes to the books I read her, some of which have been surprisingly effective at improving the text.
Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She's tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.
Despite what can seem like a profusion of heroines in kids' books, girls are still underrepresented in children's literature. A 2011 study of 6,000 children's books published between 1900 and 2000 showed that only 31 percent had female central characters. While the disparity has declined in recent years, it persists—particularly, and interestingly, among animal characters. And many books with girl protagonists take place in male-dominated worlds, peopled with male doctors and male farmers and mothers who have to ask fathers for grocery money (Richard Scarry, I'm looking at you). The imbalance is even worse in kids' movies: Geena Davis' Institute on Gender and Media found that for every female character in recent family films, there are three male characters. Crowd scenes, on average, are only 17 percent female.
More insidiously, children's books with girl protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroines to a fault. Isn't it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow. Children's lit could benefit from a Finkbeiner Test. (Well-intentioned kids' media can, ironically, introduce their youngest listeners and viewers to gender barriers: The first time my daughter heard the fabulous album Free to Be … You and Me, she asked "Why isn't it all right for boys to cry?")
(Image: Lani Malu)