The gender journey in picturebooks: a look back to move forward

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Date: May-June 2014
From: Childhood Education(Vol. 90, Issue 3)
Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,902 words
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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Children's literature is a powerful medium that conveys the ideas and perspectives of society in a child-friendly form for young readers. The messages contained in children's books therefore have immense importance: the stories told within their pages influence the ways in which children see and react to the world around them. Given its immense potential to help children learn about the world, children's literature provides an ideal way for teachers to help young readers explore a wide variety of ideas, themes, and complex issues.

One often reflected-upon aspect of children's literature is the issue of gender. Are girls and boys represented equally in books? Are girls and boys represented in specifically stereotyped patterns? Are girls and boys presented as strong role models for young readers? Over the past several decades, attention to the ways in which gender is addressed in children's literature has been a focal subject for many researchers (MacArthur & Poulin, 2011; Trepanier-Street & Romatowski, 1999). Examinations highlighting a general absence of girls, a lack of strong, positive females, and the prevalent use of gender stereotypes stirred a call to action to present children with books that have moved beyond portraying characters in classical gender roles to provide more equitable representations of boys and girls and positive gender role models for both. Our question here is to what extent has this call to action been realized? Are children's books moving toward a less gender-stereotyped body of work? Are the genders equally represented in children's books? Using these questions as a springboard, we set out to examine how popular children's literature has changed over the past 40 years in the way gender is portrayed and represented.


As Sunderland (2011) explains, while gender was not completely ignored as an aspect of children's literature prior to the modern Women's Movement in the late 1960s, the topic rose to prominence after that sociocultural shift (p. 9). Early explorations into gender in children's literature (e.g., Fisher, 1970; Stewig & Higgs, 1973) found that female characters were more sparsely represented; when they were depicted, it was in more subservient ways that ranged from "dull to degrading to invisible" (Fisher, as cited in Sunderland, 2011, p. 10). Since then, studies in children's literature have continued to show two distinct trends: 1) girls are portrayed less often than boys in children's stories (Knowles & Malmkjaer, 1996; Singh, 1998), and 2) females and males tend to be depicted in stereotypical terms: "girls are represented as sweet, naive, conforming and dependent, while boys are typically described as strong, adventurous, independent, and capable" (Jett-Simpson & Masland, 1993, as cited in Singh, 1998, p. 2). Perhaps the most important message that we can take away from this research is that how gender is portrayed in children's books "contributes to the image children develop of their own role and that of their...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A369128878