Ten or fifteen years ago, when I worked at a progressive preschool, we used to cross out the sexist language in the older picture books (our own, naturally; not the library's) and rewrite it so that the kids we worked with would grow up knowing that girls can be police officers and firefighters and mail carriers, and fathers can take care of babies, and also that, incidentally, animals come in both the male and female variety.
That last point is surprisingly slow to catch on, even yea unto this day. In the last couple of weeks I've found myself reading two different otherwise-lovely picture books--both published within the past three years--that feature a variety of different animals, all of which (whom?) are inexplicably referred to as "he." After some pages of this my feminist training kicked in, and I started changing some of the "he"'s to "she," stopping momentarily to explain that this wasn't exactly how the author had written it, but I was reading it a little differently because some animals are girls, aren't they?
It might seem like a minor thing, but as a very girly girl growing up, I never felt for animal books, mainly because they all seemed somehow too boy-y. If a fictional animal was clearly a girl I was much more interested, but that was pretty unusual--in fact, except for the dragon in My Father's Dragon, and that whiny Little Red Hen--oh, and Kanga--I can't remember a single one.
How refreshing, then, to open up Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile, (reviewed more fully here by a wrung sponge) a charming trickster tale from Liberia in which both the trickster and the tricked are most definitely women. Of course, they'd have to be, as the plot revolves around the hatching of their eggs.
Even so, the kindergarteners and even the first graders were confused; they kept pointing to the Hungry Crocodile and saying things like "He wants to eat that chicken up!"
Well. Apparently the revolution has not yet arrived. Onward, ye writers of animal picture books!
p.s. Come to think of it, that most popular of contemporary animal characters, the Pigeon, is never referred to (at least not in the books themselves) as either "he" or "she." Though it seems to be generally assumed that the Pigeon is male. I tried thinking of the Pigeon as a girl pigeon, and felt my brain's eyes cross with the effort.