The Depictions of Fathers and Children in Best-Selling Picture Books in the United States: A Hybrid Semiotic Analysis

By Quinn, Suzanne M. Flannery | Fathering, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Depictions of Fathers and Children in Best-Selling Picture Books in the United States: A Hybrid Semiotic Analysis


Quinn, Suzanne M. Flannery, Fathering


This research examines the presence and depictions of fathers in best-selling picture books in the U.S. using a hybrid semiotic approach. In 200 best-selling picture books for children, among those featuring only a father or only a mother, fathers are featured as prominent as a parent in fewer books (n = 4) than mothers (n = 10). The semiotic analysis of the images and text in two selected picture books reveals connotations related to the roles of fathers as masculine, protective, nurturing, and playful, and the conceptualization of children as naive, vulnerable, and playful. Further illuminations from the texts are of indexical signs and second-order symbols related to the father's association with night and in particular the moon.

Keywords: fatherhood, culture of fatherhood, American culture, children's literature, children's culture, hybrid semiotic analysis

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The purpose of this research is to build on the "culture of fatherhood" line of inquiry, which examines how fathers are portrayed in a variety of contemporary media (Atkinson & Blackwelder, 1993; Coltrane & Allen 1994; Day & Mackey, 1986; Flannery Quinn, 2006; LaRossa, Gordon, Wilson, Bairan, & Jaret, 1991; LaRossa, Jaret, Gadgil & Wynn, 2000). The present study begins with a content analysis of contemporary best-selling children's literature in the U.S. market to determine how many books feature fathers as prominent parents, i.e., as the only parent, and having a prominent role. Then, two representative books are used for a semiotic analysis of the portrayal of fathers in the images and text.

The philosophical underpinning of this work is that fatherhood is a socially constructed gender role that is mediated by culture. The research is guided by a human ecological perspective, which conceptualizes children's literature as a cultural artifact that influences and mediates culture to young children and their families (Flannery Quinn, 2003, 2006). This research is important to scholarship in the broad field of family studies, with regard to how fathers are portrayed in media, and how these cultural messages may contribute to identity formation of father as a gender role for male parents.

Review of Literature

Within the broad field of family literacy studies (Dearing, Kreider, & Simpkins, 2006; McTavish, 2007; Morrow, Kuhn, & Schwanenflugel, 2007; VanKleeck, Gillam, & Hamilton, 1997), attention has been given to the role of fathers in the process of reading to children (Edwards, 1995; Genisio, 1996; Hill, 1998; Karther, 2002; Laminack, 1990; Ortiz, 1996; Ortiz, Stile, & Brown, 1999; Stile & Ortiz, 1999). Research that has examined the relationship between parental attachment and parent-child reading behaviors has found differences between mothers' and fathers' reading behaviors and attachment patterns (Bus, Belsky, & Ijzendoorn, 1997; Frosch, Cox, & Goldman, 2001). With regard to reading practices, Anderson, Anderson, and Lynch (2004) found that compared to mothers, fathers are more interactive when sharing texts with children. Specifically, when fathers and mothers were observed in reading activities with their four-year-old children, fathers were found to engage in more clarification and confirmation of statements than mothers, and in more interactions with children than mothers. Further, Ortiz et al. report that fathers in their studies expressed enjoyment and desire to engage in literacy activities with their children in order to help prepare their children for school.

From this body of scholarship we know that families are important in their children's literacy development and that fathers can play a crucial role. We also know that some fathers want to contribute to their children's literacy growth. Family literacy programs often encourage parents to read with their children by providing books and activities that the families can use. What is missing is that research and evaluation of these programs do not typically place an emphasis on how fathers might be portrayed or presented in the books that are suggested for families to read (for example, Genisio, 1996; Karther, 2002). …

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