Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Misrepresentation in Children's Books: A Comparative Look

By Morgan, Hani | Childhood Education, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Misrepresentation in Children's Books: A Comparative Look


Morgan, Hani, Childhood Education


How children's books portray various groups is very important for educators to consider. In many literate cultures, values and attitudes are transmitted through storytelling, often involving the use of children's books (Kortenhaus & Demarest, 1993; Roberts, Dean, & Holland, 2005). Young children usually enjoy having a book read to them.

Unfortunately, children's literature traditionally has not been authentic in representing the experiences of many ethnic and racial minority groups (Nieto, 1996). Research also indicates that children's books do not always portray the female gender equally to the male (Davis & McDaniel, 1999; Kortenhaus & Demarest, 1993). For example, Czaplinski's (1972) study analyzed Caldecott-winning books from 1940 to 1971 and discovered that males outnumbered females in both pictures and text.

It is important to start when children are very young when teaching them to develop a tolerant attitude towards people who are different than they are (Sobol, 1990). Cai and Bishop (1994) use the term "parallel cultures" to describe the desired view of different cultures as equal. Authentic children's books that include a variety of cultures can help future generations view people in different parts of the world, or even those in their own neighborhood, as equal members of society (Tunnel & Jacobs, 2008). Children's literature has been used for many years to develop positive attitudes towards people of different cultures (Hansen-Krening, 1992). Banks (2003) reports children's books to be a powerful tool for teaching concepts involving race, culture, and discrimination to students in the primary grades.

This comparative review of research discusses findings of selected studies concerning gender, racial, and ethnic misrepresentation in children's books. In addition, it offers suggestions for educators on how to deal with this concern. This article will not address all groups, because there is limited research (or none at all) on this subject for certain groups.

Gender Portrayal in Children's Books

In general, the portrayal of various groups in children's books is much better today than ever before, but a few disturbing studies indicate that stereotypical portrayals still occur. A good example is the study by Davis and McDaniel (1999) on gender bias in children's books. This study modeled Czaplinski's (1972) study to examine if any improvements were made in children's books published after 1972. The 1999 study shows that the Caldecott-winning books reviewed from 1972 to 1997 featured 811 male appearances versus 508 female appearances. This study indicates that men represented 61% of the characters and women accounted for only 39%. In Czaplinski's (1972) study, which investigated books dating back to 1940, males represented 63% of appearances, compared to 37% for females.

The results of the study by Davis and McDaniel (1999) indicate that sexism in children's books still exists. It is important to note that this study only focuses on one aspect of gender inequality: the amount of male vs. female representation. It does not emphasize the roles women played in these books. Other studies conclude that females are likely to be portrayed as submissive and dependent (Child, Potter, & Levine, 1946; Jacklin & Mischel, 1973; Purcell & Stewart, 1990). This type of portrayal is stereotypical and not likely to be an accurate representation of many women today.

Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993) suggest that sometimes it is difficult to conclude whether significant changes have been made concerning the portrayal of girls and women, as data can be analyzed in many different ways. Their 1993 study took into consideration the roles that females played in various children's books and found a decrease in sexism.

The Portrayal of Native Americans

Roberts, Dean, and Holland (2005) suggest that Native Americans may have endured more stereotypes and distorted views about their culture than any other group. …

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