Gender Issues in Young Children's Literature

By Tsao, Ya-Lun | Reading Improvement, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Gender Issues in Young Children's Literature


Tsao, Ya-Lun, Reading Improvement


In recent decades, extensive studies from diverse disciplines have focused on children's developmental awareness of different gender roles and the relationships between genders. Among these studies, researchers agree that children's picture books have an increasingly significant place in children's development because these books are a widely available cultural resource, offering young children a multitude of opportunities to gain information, become familiar with the printed pictures, be entertained, and experience perspectives other than their own. In such books, males are habitually described as active and domineering, while females rarely reveal their identities and very frequently are represented as meek and mild. This valuable venue for children's gender development thus unfortunately reflects engrained societal attitudes and biases in the available choices and expectations assigned to different genders. This discriminatory portrayal in many children's picture books also runs the risk of leading children toward a misrepresented and misguided realization of their true potential in their expanding world.

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Gender bias as portrayed in children's literature is still as prevalent today as in past decades, and remains a problem in light of the fact that gender stereotypes and sexism in children's picture books affect the development of gender identity in young children (e.g.., Allen, Allen, & Sigler, 1993; Trepanier-Street & Romatowski, 1999). Numerous studies (e.g., Fox, 1993; Singh, 1998) of children's literature content indicate that male figures dominate the majority of books. This condition affects children's development and perceptions. Children adopt certain roles and behaviors as part of their socialization process. Many of these gender-based, behavioral roles arise from identification with others. The development of gender-role identity is important to children's self-perception, and influences adults' and peers' treatment of children (Kortenhaus & Demarest, 1993). Gender affects others' expectations of children and youngsters often do not understand the expected behavior. The purpose of this article is to examine the current gender issues extensively revealed in children's literature.

As mentioned, literature is one of the homes of gender stereotypes. The books that children read and that are read to them have psycho-social uses at a time when children are continually constructing ideas from information around them and assimilating new knowledge with previous knowledge (Elliker, 2005). In general, children's literature is said to provide characters and events with which children can identify and through which they can consider their own actions, beliefs, and emotions (Mendoza & Reese, 2001). The characters and situations in books introduce children to what the world may look like through others' eyes, and offer opportunities for children to further construct their own views of self and the world.

Strictly speaking, everything that children read contributes to the formation of self-images that help to construct children's self-identity. For example, girls can imagine themselves as women and boys can imagine themselves as men (Singh, 1998). Images and specific language used in picture books have the potential to affect children's developmental processes in various ways as a result of reading at crucial stages of development (Kramer, 2001).

Besides being an important resource for developing children's language skills, children's books play a significant part in transmitting a society's culture. Without question, children develop gender-role identities during their early years, and one factor that influences this identity is the literature that children read or is read to them (Allen et al., 1993). Picture books also have a particular influence on gender identities because they are viewed at a time when children are in the process of developing their individual identities. …

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