TRC Read to Kids

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Norm-proofing your Read-Aloud: gender in children's books

It's important to remember that even when it seems like kids are squirmy and fidgeting, they are absorbing on a subconscious level the things that are going on around them. Unfortunately this doesn't mean that they can learn the multiplication tables by osmosis; it does mean, however, that we have to be careful about the social messages we send with the words, actions, and texts we share with them.

Luckily we've reached a day and age where we recognize sexism in many of its most blatant forms. Most people of any gender can tell you why it's important that books about careers show both boys and girls as both teachers and doctors, presidents and stay-at-home parents. The bad news is that sometimes the progress that we have made makes it harder to see where we still need to make progress.

There are a few methods of combating stereotypically restrictive "gender norms" in books. One familiar method involves celebrating young women as the strong protagonists of their own stories. The shelves are full of stories where girls save (or outsmart!) boys, retellings of fairy-tales that cast princesses as their own savior, Hermione-esque girls who know that looks are not nearly as important as intellect.

Cimorene would
make Betty Friedan proud...
...Bella is another story.
Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted or Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing with Dragons are both "princess" stories with girls who take control of their own destiny, and Annie Barrows' Ivy and Bean are certainly a force to be reckoned with. These are definitely books to point our girls towards as they get older and start to read on their own--but a female protagonist does not necessarily equal a positive message about gender! After all, this is the Twilight generation, and Bella Swan simply doesn't hold up under critical scrutiny. So be aware of what you're giving out, and remember that the lessons taught to us by media in any form are the hardest to unlearn.

There are books that show boys in non-traditional roles as well--check out Sport in Harriet the Spy and as the star of the sequel, Sport. In Leonardo the Terrible Monster author Mo Willems champions sensitivity and friendship over fierceness, and in Max by Rachel Isadora a young boy learns to have a great time practicing ballet!

For younger children, the important thing to look for in books are characters who are not defined by their gender--that is, characters who are vibrant and distinctive and creative and also just happen to be boys or girls. This is the case in many picture books these days. It doesn't matter if Anna Dewdney's Little Llama is a boy llama or a girl llama; the important thing is that Little Llama can't sleep!

When choosing books for a Read-Aloud, be wary of any book where gender is a defining characteristic of a character.

When it comes to the give-away book box, directing girls to only books about girls and boys only books about boys needlessly limits their options. Of course, if a little girl only wants to read books about female fairies and a little boy only wants to read books about male truck drivers, then it's better for them to read only those things than not at all--but TRC is all about forming healthy reading habits, so why not try to help kids form healthy attitudes about gender too by encouraging broader book choices?  We’ll provide books with interesting, caring and independent characters and you can do the rest!

Post by The Reading Connection intern Anna McCormally.

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