Children’s lit: from gender clichés to equality

Category:  The Arts
Wednesday, March 7th, 2018 at 5:08 PM

A lecture given as part of Women’s History Month examined the importance of stories in the education of young children and the changing way in which women are portrayed in children’s literature.

Put on by the early childhood education and reading department, the presentation was given by Payton Hanlon, a graduate assistant, and Kelsey Leasure, a work-study student, with the assistance of Dr. Mary Jo Melvin, chairperson of the department. 

The lecture began with an activity where the audience members submitted the titles of their favorite books as children. A pattern was quickly established; most of the books had male lead characters and some lacked any female characters at all. Hanlon went on to explain that this was a common theme for children’s literature in the past, with most of it being focused on male characters.

The Caldecott Medal is awarded to the artist of the most distinguished children’s picture book, with honors given to other strong entries. Leasure explained that only four out of the 69 winners of this award since 2000 have featured female central characters. 

Even the books that featured female characters generally kept them in a very stereotypical role as demure and dependent. Hanlon explained, “The boys in children’s literature were typically described as strong [and] adventurous.”

This old tradition has continued until recently. “In the 1800s, a lot of stories were focused for younger children, male and female, to give them a sense of what their role in society would be,” Leasure explained. “The Grimm brothers were very guilty of this action.”

The example they gave of this was a princess story known to most everyone, “Snow White.” In the Grimm brothers’ version, published in 1812, Snow White is only allowed to live with the dwarves if she agrees to cook and clean for them while they are working in the mines. 

“They really focused on the housewife chores,” Hanlon explained. The long list of chores given to Snow White, along with the repeated references to the dwarves’s own work both follow stereotypical gender rules.

However, recently this has been changing along with the social climate regarding gender stereotypes. “So now, children’s books about females are booming,” Hanlon stated.  “As you can see around the entire room, this is why: we live in a time where empowering young girls is very important.”

One visible change is the growing number of children’s books aimed at girls or with female lead characters who are strong and capable. It’s also visible in the change that is occurring within princess books. 

“These aren’t princesses who are stuck up in a tower waiting for a prince to rescue them,” Hanlon explained. “These are brave and bold princesses...those stereotypes that we listed earlier, they are no longer happening in these princess books.”

This growth of female centered children’s books isn’t limited to just the realm of fantasy either. There is growing representation of the female gender in more realistic situations, such as STEM fields with women or girls taking on the part of the scientist or engineer. Many books also focus on historical context, which talk about the important impact of many influential women in history, Hanlon and Leasure explained. 

The class ended with an exercise that showcased one such book that featured information on several influential women, including Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai. Several members of the audience were brought up to play the part of different women from history. 

Nathan Hirth can be reached at

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