For generations, kids have longed for more stories about girls

When you’ve got three kids and one husband home sick, there’s not much you can do, except mindless tasks like folding laundry and cleaning out drawers. It was when I was organizing the children’s bookshelves that I came across Corrie and the Yankee by Mimi Cooper Levy.


I have this book because it was written by a teacher of my mother’s back in 1959. I hadn’t looked at it a long time and completely forgot about the back cover. Here’s what it reads. My mother is Jill.

Mimi Cooper Levy lives in New York City and has taught almost every grade in the public schools from first through junior high. For the last few years she has been a teacher at the famous Little Red Schoolhouse.


While she was teaching a fifth-grade class Jill, one of her pupils, complained that in books of adventure it was almost always a boy who did anything of importance. Miss Levy promised Jill that she would write a story about a girl doing “lots of brave and stirring things.”


It was some time before the promise could be realized, because Miss Levy was then deeply absorbed in research to find material for young readers on Negro history. However, during this research she came across stories about slave families like Corrie’s, and Corrie and the Yankee began to take shape in her mind.


Mimi Levy says, “As soon as I was able, I set to work to write it down–for Jill, and John too, and all the children who used to enjoy listening to my stories. I hope other children will like Corrie too.

It’s remarkable to me that so many years ago– when editors described a female writer as “Miss” and used “Negro” for African-Americans– my mother was complaining about the same thing I’m blogging about right now, that my own fifth grade daughter is experiencing today. How many girls have sat in classrooms over how many years and wondered why female heroes go missing? How many spoke up to their teachers? How many teachers wrote about it? How many girls grew up to write their own stories?

It drives me crazy when I hear people say that girls are totally willing to see movies and read stories about boys, while boys supposedly aren’t interested in seeing movies or reading stories about girls. The truth is that all kids are trained, from birth, that stories about boys are important and for everyone, while stories about girls are trivial and only for girls.

The year is 2014. All kids need to experience narratives where girls do “lots of brave and stirring things.” Can we all help them to that? Parents, please seek out books and movies, apps and games that feature female characters with power and agency. Miss Representation has taught the world, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” but if you can’t even imagine it, that’s the worst of all.

New study shows reading a novel changes brain chemistry

New research from Emory university on how reading boosts brain function, reported in The Independent:

Being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading, scientists have said.


The new research, carried out at Emory University in the US, found that reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory.


The changes were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the the primary sensory motor region of the brain.


Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition – for example, just thinking about running, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.


“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.


Here is more evidence of how fantasy influences reality. What do you think happens to brains over thousands of years, after reading narratives where males are heroes and females are in supporting roles?

I wonder if this study’s information applies to watching movies as well.

Read the whole post here.

Via blue milk’s Twitter feed.



‘Gender neutral’ not exactly what I’m going for…

Friday, on the local San Francisco public radio station, KQED, I heard a show about children and gender neutral toys. It was a great program, featuring the brilliant Peggy Orenstein, among others, and I was psyched to hear the topic of kids and toys debated as we go into the Christmas season. But, I’ve got to say, I’m not entirely on board with the term “gender neutral” that the host kept using to define a goal. And that is a term that the media seems to cling to when the topic of sexism in kidworld is discussed. When I was on Fox News, the host kept trying to put the same words in my mouth, and I didn’t like it.

Let me be clear here. I absolutely believe toys in stores should be divided by type– building, outdoor, figures/ dolls etc– not by gender. I don’t believe objects should be color coded to imply they should be played with by boys or girls. I am hard pressed to think of something more absurd and simultaneously socially accepted than this. I desperately want to see girls and boys pictured playing together on boxes. When the term “gender neutral” is used, I think this is the goal referred to, a goal I share with all of my heart.

I guess the issue from me is that powerful female characters are already drastically missing from the fantasy world created by grown-ups for children. When we talk about “gender neutral,” I fear that girls will continue to go missing from this debate– about children, toys, play, and sexism– even more. “Gender neutral” needs to be a goal of sorts, but we also have to keep in mind that all kids need to see more girls and women doing more things. Do we call that “gender neutral”?

Another problem for me with the term is that “gender neutral” doesn’t inspire me. “Gender neutral” makes me think of a bunch of grown-ups or academics or psychiatrists sitting around wearing super thick glasses and holding notebooks.

Here is what I want to see in kidworld: More females having adventures. More females doing cool shit. Got it? Do you call that gender neutral or do you call that being alive?

I want options. Variety. Diversity. Multiple narratives. I want all kids to see many more images of powerful and complex females, to see girls taking risks, saving the world, being brave, smart, and going on adventures in the fantasy world and in the real one. You could argue that we need to see more images of boys being kind and geeky and paternal, but from my vantage point, as a reader, movie goer, and watcher of TV shows, that’s pretty covered. I honestly believe the best way to help boys get out of gender stereotypes right now is to show them females being strong, being the star of the movie, or the central figure in a game that everyone wants to play.

But, as it stands, this is not the case at all. Strong female characters have gone missing. Part of this lack is because there are so few female characters in kids’ movies. Those narratives get licensed into LEGO and diapers and clothing. But even when female characters show up, they get “make-overs” or companies like Stride Rite will remove Wonder Woman, Black Widow, and Leia from their Justice League, Avengers, and Star Wars products and marketing. It’s really shocking how strong female characters keep disappearing from toys, clothing, and all kinds of children’s products.

Here’s my four year old daughter (holding a lunchbox from the Seventies.)


My daughter isn’t a “tomboy” or a “girlie-girl.” She likes pants; she likes dresses; she like yellow, she likes pink, she likes black. She likes to race and play soccer and read and make art. She loves superheroes and her mermaid Barbie. But the older she gets, the more I see her choices getting influenced and limited by stores and marketing and media and peers. My goal is to have her world grow, not shrink. I’m not sure that “gender neutral” is what she needs.


Meet the remarkable Aluna of ‘Above World’

When I was a kid, I read Laura Ingalls and Ramona. I wanted to read about things that “really happened.” As a 44 year old woman, I have done a 180, plunging head first into fantasy. While when I was little, I didn’t believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, and I thought that there was a clear line between what was real and what was fiction. I now understand that no such separation exists: fantasy creates reality creates fantasy. Exploring that interdependent relationship, something I grew so aware of when I became a mother, is the purpose of this blog, Reel Girl. I am very excited to tell you that I just read my first Middle Grade sci-fi adventure.


Above World, by Jenn Reese, is the story of Aluna, who is a Kampii– a type of mermaid. She lives in the City of Shifting Tides and her people are dying. Above World takes place in the future, when humans have become so overpopulated and destroyed so much of the planet, that the only way creatures can survive is to use “tech” to adapt to new environments. Kampii are able to live under the sea with the help of breathing technology fastened to their throats, but these machines are failing, they are dying. Still, no one has the courage to venture above world to find the source of the problem and do anything about it. No one but Aluna, who is thirteen years old and about to get her legs transformed into a tail.

Aluna is smart, brave, funny, and loyal. Her friend Hoku tags along on her adventure, and it’s  great to experience a girl and boy work together to save the world. Aluna is the fighter while Hoku is into technology. The pair are joined by Kali, an Aviar girl, which is like a winged human. The Aviars are a civilization of female flying creatures that remind me of Amazons. There are many powerful women in this group. The final member of the crew is Dash, a horseboy. The group have many adventures and all kinds of battles where we get to see Aluna use not only her martial arts skills, but her brains and her heart.

I’ve been dying to see a writer create an exciting world about mermaids. There’s so much potential with these mythical fishgirls, but in stories and movies, games, and puzzles, we always see them lounging in bikini tops, giving up their voices or brushing their hair. I am so excited to pass Above World on to my daughters. There are two more books in this series and I can’t wait to read them myself.

Reel Girl rates Above World ***HHH***

Anyone read ‘Goddess Girls?’ I hate the covers.

After Thanksgiving, my two older daughters came home from their cousin’s house with at least three Goddess Girls books. I haven’t read them yet, but I’ve seen the covers before, in stores, and I hate the look of the goddesses.


I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and that I often do, but I don’t know how to get past the giant heads, doe eyes, and tiny bodies. Even when Artemis is killing a serpent, she looks like she’s in an Estee Lauder ad. Obviously, goddesses are supposed to be beautiful, but this limited, distorted 2013 depiction of what is attractive makes my stomach turn.

The books could still be good, I suppose. One Barbie movie is on Reel Girl’s recs: Fairytopia Mermaidia. It’s a great adventure where two brave girls rescue a prince and the entire ocean. The just released “Frozen,” which is also great, has some pretty terrifying skinny, big-headed protagonists. It drives me crazy, because the message here is, and I got this same message when I was a kid: If you want exciting adventures to happen to you, then you must be “beautiful.” Otherwise, you’re invisible. The end goal here is not to be pretty, it is to exist.

But maybe you’ve read Goddess Girls and can tell me how great they are.

Meet TooLula, a girl builder who stops bullying

Have you heard of Super TooLula created by Michele Sinisgalli-Yulo of Princess Free Zone? Before you complain, Sinisgalli-Yulo doesn’t hate princesses. She wants to provide kids with another option.  Sinisgalli-Yulo has written a book called Super TooLula and created a treatment she is shopping around to networks This show looks so cool and creative. There’s nothing quite like it on TV, and I can’t wait for my kids to watch it.

Here’s Lula with her dog, Chewie.



  1. Lula is a female version of Handy Manny or Bob the Builder, but with the added underlying social components of bully prevention with a focus
    on undoing gender stereotypes that are often the root cause of bullying by children. Providing children with an understanding of empathy and compassion is key to preventing future occurrences of bullying. The show recognizes the importance of teaching kids about the emotions underlying bullying incidents—from the perspective of the victim and the bully. It also encourages them to get beyond being a bystander by either speaking to an adult or standing up for others.

Here’s a summary of one episode:


  1. While on a trip to Mexico, where the whole family is helping a relative irrigate their farm. Lula and her family invent a new way to divert water and use it to water plants. Lula and her Dad help with planning, measuring and digging. Soon they befriend a group of local kids. The kids reveal a big problem. Super TooLula is needed to face a Giant bully that had been terrorizing the local kids for years. It turns out the Bully was a long tormented little brother of an even bigger Bully. Super TooLula teaches both bullies how to help others. Soon, the bully brothers become local heroes to all that had fear them when they help build the last section of the new irrigation system.

Lula is helped along by some tools:



Harry the Hammer

Harry is the toughest of all the tools. He is the team leader and director. He knows that sometimes you just have to be tough. He may come off like a drill sergeant, but he always looks for action with a smile!

Sammy the Saw

Sammy (short for Samantha) knows that sometimes you just have to remove or separate some things to make it better. So she whirls like a tornado to shape parts and pieces out of wood, plastic, soft metal or to cut through a tough problem!

Dusty the Drill

Dusty is tough and clever. When
a problem stymies others, he knows how

to break through! Dusty very persistent and always stands up for the underdog. He stutters when overly excited.

Carla Compass

Carla is able to locate lost objects, and if you’re lost, she can point you in the right direction. She is very maternal. She’s scared of other magnets and afraid of heights.

Lucy Level

Lucy is the one to always make sure everyone is balanced and level headed. She is the nurturer of the team. Calms down the others.

Maddy Measuring Tape

Maddy is always thinking ahead. She is all about details, measurements and plans. She is the practical one that makes sure parts will fit together or through tight spaces. Maddy’s friends think she needs to learn how to have more fun!

Gabi Goggles

Gabi is able to see right into the heart of a bully. She is able to see in the past and pinpoint the reasons why they are unhappy and end up hurting others. She is a precautious soul. And she is always the one to remind us all about being safe!

Ricky the Wrench

Ricky is very strong and not afraid of hard work. He knows hard work gets things done. He can open and unlock stuck objects that others can’t. He hates rust

more than anything.

The Talking Nail Heads

Do not actually talk. They are vocal instruments
who express themselves in emotion-filled, wordless music. Some do the bass line, some do mouth drum sounds, but they all can really jam or lay down a phat beat to sing over!

There are humans in the stories as well.


Naomi is Lula’s eight-year-old Japanese-American cousin. Naomi is a genius with arts and crafts like origami and revels in teaching others what she knows. Lula and Naomi love each other and spend a lot of time together along with their families. Naomi can often be found humming or singing impromptu songs and playing her favorite juice harp (which she also plays in their band). She always tries to get Lula to eat odd and spicy things.


Ten-year-old Wesley is the school bully in Lula’s class. He is also TooLula’s ultimate nemesis. It is his mission to turn good kids mean by bribing them with things he knows they like, but he has a difficult time when Lula and her friends step in. Deep down, Wesley really likes Lula and just wants her attention, but he doesn’t know how to show his true feelings and is afraid Lula and others might laugh at him. Oh Wesley!?

Kids trained to think stories about boys for everyone, stories about girls only for girls

Soraya Chemaly is my new favorite writer. I can’t get enough of her blogs on Huffington Post and Salon. From her post What Does it Mean that Most Children’s Books are About White Boys:

One day when my daughter was in third grade, she had to explain to a classmate what sexism was. Four kids — two boys and two girls — had been put in a reading group together, given a basket full of books and asked to talk about them and decide together which one they wanted to read and discuss.

As they went through their choices, the boy picked up a book whose cover showed an illustration of a woman in a hoop skirt. He quickly tossed it aside. My daughter suggested that it might be good, and asked if he’d already read it, because she would like to. He said no, it was a girl book and he wouldn’t read it. Her response was pretty cut and dry: “That’s a sexist thing to say,” she explained. He was a friend of hers and an intelligent kid. He paused long enough for her to realize he wasn’t sure what she meant.

“Do you know how many books with boys in them I read?” she said. “You should read girl books, too. Not reading them just because they’re about girls is sexist.”

Frankly, today, I’m pretty certain that what she, a 9-year old, told her classmate was more than most adults can muster.


Chemaly is so right. Sexism gets passed on, generation to generation, from parents who continually read their kids stories and take their kids to movies starring males. What happens when the narrative is about a girl, when a girl is shown front and center on the book cover or on the movie poster? Parents, too often, decide that kind of entertainment is just for girls.  Of course, multinational industries like Target and Disney support and enforce and make money off of gender segregation. Disney execs, when changing the title of a movie from “Rapunzel” to “Tangled” and making Flynn Ryder a costar to the female, hold a press conference, telling us, with no shame at all, that while girls are happy to see movies about boys, boys refuse to see movies about girls. So are girls just born open-minded, generous, and altruistic, perfectly happy to be marginalized, cast in the supporting roles, if they get to exist in the story at all? Or, are girls trained, from day one, from before day one, frankly, while still in the womb, that stories about boys are important?

Chemaly goes on:

Do you know what percentage of children’s books feature boys? Twice as many as those that feature girl protagonists. In the most comprehensive study of children’s literature during a period of 100 years, researchers from the University of Florida found that:

  • 57% of children’s books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.

  • As with television and film, books with animated characters are a particularly subtle and insidious way to marginalize based on sex, gender and race. In popular children’s books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.

  • The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters…

    Researchers of the study above concluded, “The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children’s media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games and even coloring books.”


    Please seek out books and movies and games with smart, strong girls for all of your kids. Here is a list of movies Reel Girl recommends. Check out the “Reel Girl recommends” category as well. Other categories to explore on Reel Girl include books, games, television shows, Cool and Radical Girls, and Top Heroine Rating. Or do a search for a book or movie title on Reel Girl to get my review. I rate media and products with 1 – 3 S’s for gender stereotyping and 1 – 3 H’s for heroines. For media or products to avoid, look into Reel Girl’s Worst Stereotyping category. Everything I rate, I’ve personally read, played, or viewed, often with my three daughters, now ages 4, 7, and 10. Great resources also include A Mighty Girl and Toward the Stars.

‘I’m not a pilot, I’m a pilot’s wife,’ says 3 yr old girl

Yesterday, a teacher at my daughter’s preschool told me that she saw two boys and a girl spinning the knobs of a play oven. Boy #1 says: “I’m a pilot! I’m flying a plane.’ Boy #2 says: “Me too!” The girl is quiet, so the teacher says to her: “What about you, are you a pilot?” The 3 year old girl replies: “I can’t be a pilot. I’m a pilot’s wife.”

So what do you think has happened in this little girl’s short life to make her believe it’s more likely that she would be a pilot’s wife than a pilot?

Could it be that in her world, those are the gender roles she sees? While books, movies, and TV shows for children are full of images of boys riding magical creatures into the sky– from “ET” to “How to Train Your Dragon” to Harry Potter — girls are stuck in the passenger seat if they get to soar at all. Here are three images repeated endlessly in the media.




I’m always on the look out for images in children’s media of girls flying, and they are few and far between. If I seek them out, I can find them, but these pictures rarely cross my children’s path, not in movies, or posters for those movies, or on most of the book covers they come across when we’re shopping at a local store. Here’s a picture from The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches that I photographed a while ago, because it’s so rare.


Today, on Facebook feed I saw that Toward the Stars is celebrating Female Flying Daredevils week, posting “We wave enthusiastically to all our girls and boys that aspire to travel above the clouds.”

Toward the Stars recommends You Can’t Do That, Amelia, Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of World War II, Fly High, the Story of Bessie Coleman, Zephyr Takes Flight, and Violet the Pilot.




We also have Angela’s Airplane which my 4 year old daughter loves.


You may not have seen these books around. They may not have been made into major motion pictures for kids or toys or LEGO sets, but, please click on the links. Stock your libraries. Read these books to your kids, and that includes your sons. All children need to see far more female daredevils.

Keep watching Toward the Stars all week for more recommendations of fearless females flying the skies.

Update: So right after I post this, I see on Facebook info about the documentary:”We Served Too: The Story of Women Air Force Pilots of World War II.” You’ve got to watch this trailer.

These women flew over 60 million miles within a 2 year period…However, after a nasty and aggressive campaign by male pilots who wanted the WASPs jobs, they were the only wartime unit that was denied military status by congress…For many years the WASPs kept their achievements quiet. Their service in World War II would only be known by a few. They are not mentioned in our history books, nor is their story taught in schools.Their accomplishments of being the first women to fly in the military would even be forgotten.

One pilot says, “Such a shame that when we disbanded, they took all of our records and they sealed them, and they were stamped either classified or secret and filed away in the government archives.”


Sealed records! I am so mad about this. Again, women’s stories are repressed and hidden, affecting a new generation of kids. I haven’t seen the film yet, so don’t know if it’s good for young kids. Wouldn’t it be great to make a children’s version? A book to go along with it? A computer game? App? A LEGO set? What do you think the chances are we’ll see any of that? They’re low, because in 2013, we still live in a world where women’s stories go missing.


Art creates reality: Imagining gender equality in the fantasy world

Some good quotes here. Let me know what you think

Bono on Jay-Z in November’s Vanity Fair:

In music, we love the idea of the screwed-up, shooting-up. fucked-up artist. The one bleeding in the garret having cut his own ear off. Jay-Z is a new kind of 21st-century artist where the canvas is not just the 12 notes, the wicked beats, and a rhyming dictionary in his head. It’s commerce, it’s politics, the fabric of the real as well as the imagined life.


Stephen Mitchell in Can Love Last, the Fate of Romance Over Time

It is the hallmark of the shift in basic psychoanalytic sensibility that the prototype of mental health for many contemporary psychoanalyitc authors is not the scientist but the artist. A continual objective take on reality is regarded as neither possible nor valuable in contrast to the ability to develop and move in and out of different perspectives of reality.


New York Times, October:

Public narratives about a career make a difference. The most common career aspiration named on Girls Who Code applications is forensic science. Like Allen, few if any of the girls have ever met anyone in that field, but they’ve all watched “CSI,” “Bones” or some other show in which a cool chick with great hair in a lab coat gets to use her scientific know-how to solve a crime. This so-called “CSI” effect has been credited for helping turn forensic science from a primarily male occupation into a primarily female one.

Jezebel reacting to New York Times piece:

The New York Times today would like to suggest that storytelling is powerful, that, in the whole art/life dynamic, it’s life that imitates art, not the other way around, at least not when it comes to kids imagining viable career paths for themselves.


Whoopi Goldberg:

Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.


In the fantasy world, anything is possible, so why do little kids see so few female heroes and female protagonists on TV and in the movies? While boy “buddy stories” are everywhere you look, why is it so hard to see two females working together to save the world? Why are females, half of the kid population, presented as a minority in fantasy world? Why are TV shows, movies, and books about boys “for everyone” while shows and movies about girls “just for girls?” When we pass on stories to our kids, what are we teaching them about gender, about who they are right now and who they will become?

One more quote for you from neuroscientist, Lise Eliot:

“Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds, grammar, and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires it up only to perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, its possible to learn another language but far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly. The ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. This contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”

Eliot believes: “Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.”So let’s all use our brains to imagine gender equality in the fantasy world, take actions to manifest that vision, and see what happens next. I bet it’ll be amazing.

Reel Girl recommends ‘Kat McGee and the Halloween Costume Caper’

My kids and I just finished Kat McGee and the Halloween Costume Caper, the story of a courageous girl who teams up with Jujitsu Princess and Candy Cane Witch to save Halloween from the evil Snaggletooth.


There are some very cool things about this book:

(1) Three girls share an adventure. It always drives me crazy when they say girls like stories about “friendship” but boys like stories about “adventure.” A ridiculous premise in the first place, but what are “buddy movies” for goodness sake? Adventure stories are, often, about friendship, yet in children’s media, we don’t get to see girls taking big risks together as much as we should. In Halloween Costume Caper, we witness a trifecta of heroines, “Team Kat” facing their fears and working together to save the world.

(2) All kinds of other cool, female characters show up. Not only do we see the three awesome girls just mentioned, we meet so many more. Gram is magical, powerful, and wise. Dolce is a “Maker of Magic and Mischief” who helps Kat on her quest. Costumes who makes cameos in the story include Merida, Goldilocks, Bride of Frankenweenie, Tinkerbell, Wonder Woman, Red Riding Hood, American Girl Dolls, and more. You can’t read this story an miss that there are so many things that girls can be.

(3) All about Halloween. From Dr. Seuss’s Grinch Who Stole Christmas to “Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus,” there are lots of narratives about saving Christmas, but I’ve never read one about Halloween, and we desperate for some female-centered Halloween narratives. I just posted a list of girl-centered monster movies for little kid sto watch this Halloween and you know how many films made that list? Only 9. Last Halloween, no less than 3 movies– Frankenweenie, Hotel Transylvania, and ParaNorman– all featured male protagonists.  Here’s to hoping Halloween Costume Caper becomes a movie.

(4) Kat McGee makes her own costumes. Not only is Kat brave, she is creative. Every year she wins the contest for the best costume. She takes pride in her work, and if your kids read this book, it’s a good bet you can talk them into making their own costume, just like Kat.

(5) Published by In This Together Media. Though I interviewed the new publishing company, In This Together Media, a few months ago, Halloween Costume Caper is the first book the company put out that I’ve read. ITTM is dedicated to producing “better quality books for and about girls– stories where the main character’s whole reason for being isn’t to be kissed, or the other extreme, to be some kind of superchick. We wanted to broaden the narrative possibilities, and that comes from more layered, nuanced characters.”

After reading Halloween Costume Caper, I’m excited to get more of ITTM books for my kids. You can learn more about ITTM and order books here.