Evaluating Your Child's Literature
Children's literature, sometimes seen as lighthearted, a simple world of
make-believe, is a powerful force for helping children understand their
homes and communities. In fact, children's literature is probably the most
important category of reading material for any of us. Before they can
toddle, children hear familiar stories repeated again and again, often from
the secure vantage point of a mother's, father's or other trusted care
giver's lap. The messages they learn are forever associated with the
security of those arms. Whatever values and attitudes appear in the simple
texts and rich illustrations will play an important role in their
We know that reading to children, and providing books for them to read
themselves as they grow older, is beneficial to them. Children's books can
greatly expand a child's imagination. Moral and ethical beliefs can be
conveyed through stories. Children can develop a strong self image through
reading. And in a world where television monopolizes our lives, children's
literature is a wonderful way to establish or repair the relationship
between children and adults.
Books and other printed materials can also provide a channel through which
children can learn to respect the diverse groups of people in the world
around them. They can make a significant contribution to the broadening of
children's views about their world, allowing them to learn about and
respect other cultures. Children can learn that beneath the surface
differences of color or country of origin, all people have feelings of
love, sadness, fear, justice and tenderness.
Many children's books, however, reflect a variety of biases, some in subtle
ways and some more blatantly. Sexism and racism are among the most
prevalent offenders. Simply by choosing such literature -- often with the
most innocent of intentions -- parents, teachers and those who work with
children can reinforce and perpetuate a wide range of common societal
stereotypes. It is especially harmful to support stereotypical portrayals
in the first decade of a child's life when children are developmentally
flexible and receptive to people and ideas, when clear concepts of self and
others are being formed. Refraining from doing so decreases the
probability that they will mature as ethnocentric adolescents and adults,
finding it increasingly difficult later in their lives to respect and
appreciate differences. How can we teach our children about the democratic
principles on which we founded our society -- that all people are created
equal and are equally endowed with inalienable rights -- while we offer
reading material that contradicts those very principles? Because books are
a significant part of a young child's life, both at home and in child care
settings, those who work with children should be scrupulous in their
selection of books and resource materials that are free of bias and
Girls growing up now are told that they can be anything they want
to be. They can do anything, feel anything, say anything. One can wonder
why, then, are girls and women portrayed in children's literature as being
more passive than active, as more nurturing than adventuresome, as sweet
and weak rather than bold and strong.
Traditional fairy tales, for example, are pervasively sexist. Their
historical and geographic origins, of course, account for their less than
flattering view of women and their capabilities. This awareness may help
children understand and discount what could be construed as a sinister
motive on the part of fairy tale authors, such as the Brothers Grimm. But
have you stopped to consider, in real terms, what fairy tales say about
women? The prevailing attributes awarded to female characters in most
fairy tales are incompetence and helplessness, extreme physical appearance
and secondary citizenship, all couched in strict adherence to traditional
Heroines cannot take care of themselves. In most of "Hansel and Gretel",
for example, Gretel is frightened and tearful in the face of adversity.
She is constantly in need of comfort and support from her brother Hansel,
who is strong, intelligent and brave. Cinderella is helped by a woman, her
fairy godmother, but in the end is rescued from her poverty and unhappy
home by a prince. Snow White is saved from death by a hunter, assisted by
male dwarfs, then finally rescued by a handsome prince. Red Riding Hood,
too, is saved from death by a hunter, whereupon she vows never again to
wander. Apparently being adventurous is too dangerous for girls.
Many fairy tales feature beautiful women whose fulfillment is derived from
handsome men and from marriage. Their beauty, and not their personality or
actions, define them and make them valuable to others. In some, the women
are featured as shrews, ugly witches, or vain and wicked stepmothers.
These female characters are most often
introduced as inferior people or as possessions of men. "Hansel and
Gretel" begins: "Close to a large forest lived a woodcutter, with his wife
and two children." "Rumpelstiltskin begins: "There once was a miller who
was very poor, but he had a beautiful daughter." "Cinderella" begins:
"There once was an honest gentleman who took for his second wife the
proudest and most disagreeable lady in the whole country."
All the while these women are engaged in traditional roles, those of wife,
mother and housewife, with abject satisfaction. Typical is the passage in
"Snow White" where the dwarfs ask her to live with them: " 'You could sew
and mend, and keep everything tidy.' This made Snow White very happy.
'Oh, thank you,' she said. 'I could want nothing better.' "
Unlike the female characters, males in fairy tales are most often portrayed
as courageous, adventurous, powerful, intelligent and enterprising. "Puss
in Boots" is creative and industrious. Jack, of beanstalk fame, is daring,
courageous and resourceful in defeating the giant and saving his mother and
himself from poverty. Hansel is brave, inventive and intelligent, as well
as being an emotional bulwark for Gretel to lean on.
Even men who do negative things are often absolved, or at least not
punished, for their negative behavior. Hansel and Gretel's father suffers
only temporarily for his deeds and is rewarded by getting his
children back -- plus a small fortune. The soldier in "The Tinder Box"
kills a witch after she provides him with great wealth, kills a king and a
queen in order to have their daughter, and ends up a king himself as a
reward for his avarice. When the poor father in "Rumpelstiltskin" lies to
the king about his daughter's ability to spin straw into gold, he gets her
into all kinds of trouble but is never admonished for his actions. This
pattern, a form of literary distributive justice, occurs again and again
throughout the fairy tale litany.
The uniformity of this type of sex role stereotyping is far from limited to
fairy tales. Studies on current children's literature have shown that boys
have been written about more than girls; that there has been an imbalance
in the frequency with which males and females occupy leading roles; and
that males and females, both as children and adults, have most often been
depicted in traditional roles. Even more recent classics and award-winning
books are not free of sex bias.
In Little Women, Mother March gives this advice to Jo: "To be loved and
chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a
woman. Prepare for it, so when the happy day comes, you may feel ready for
the duties and worthy of the joy." More recently , the duality is
described in this example for younger children, the 1970 book, Glad to Be a
Boy, Glad to Be a Girl, still on the shelves in many libraries:
Boys are doctors; girls are nurses.
Boys are football players; girls are cheerleaders.
Boys invent things; girls use things boys invent.
Boys fix things; girls need things fixed.
Boys are Presidents; girls are First Ladies.
Turning the tables, can't boys do anything and be anything and feel
anything, too? Why is it then that boys aren't allowed to cry? Why is
becoming a ballet dancer, a children's librarian or an artist seen as less
desirable for boys than becoming basketball players, business executives or
President of the United States? Why do men have to be pictured as reading
the paper, fixing the plumbing or disciplining their children. Boys need
These stereotypical views ultimately create diminished expectations of both
girls and boys, limiting their options even before they begin to explore
them. Breaking out of the trap wherein gender determines what is and isn't
possible requires a keen eye and some incisive questioning when reviewing
what your children are reading.
If gender stereotyping weren't enough cause for concern, the race
inequality in much of children's literature should increase our concern
exponentially. No more than 25 years ago, children's literature treated
minorities either stereotypically and as objects of ridicule, or ignored
minorities completely. The civil rights movement helped bring about a
change in the ways minorities are depicted. But the numbers were still
unbalanced. By the 1980's, only about one percent of children's books
being published yearly were about African Americans, and the picture
continues to be depressing for other minority groups, too, though African
Americans represent a increasingly large portion of our total population.
While the children's literature genre no longer presents an all white world
to the same extent as it once did, only about ten percent of the almost
five thousand children's books published each year in the United States for
children are multicultural in nature. Of those, less than fifty-one titles
were written by and about Native American and Asian peoples.
Until recently, most of the children's books featuring Native American
themes perpetuated negative stereotypes with Indians portrayed as
uncivilized, simple, inarticulate and either hateful, blood thirsty savages
or dependent on those who came to colonize their territories. The newest
stereotype of Native Americans, developed after they were placed on
reservations decades ago, depicts them as defrauded, dispossessed victims,
alcoholics unable to cope or assimilate.
Some people will argue that the tender years of childhood are not the right
time to be worrying about these potentially divisive issues, and that
talking about variety in people only reinforces their differences and not
their unifying common needs. But children are aware of gender and race
differences by the age of two. By age four they have already formed
attitudes about race. Children's literature can provide all children with
pathways to knowledge about themselves and classmates about whom they know
very little. By exposing children to multicultural literature, not only
can prejudice be reduced, but it can be prevented entirely if you get an
early enough start.
At a time when the positive connotations of "white" and the negative
connotations of "black" are being revised internationally, when racial and
ethnic tensions are flaring across the country, and when Americans are
handicapped by their lack of understanding about others who are different
from them, it seems imperative to discontinue the use of stories in which
all of the beautiful and good women are fair and white, the history and
achievements of people of color are missing, and the background, setting,
and central themes are not racially diverse. Showing racial, ethnic and
gender balance in depictions of schools, crowds, stores, and in social
gatherings, and at all levels of employment, is not unfair, nor is it
radical. It is simply a mirror of today's pluralistic society. Our
children are forming their race and gender ideas right now. Now is the
time to introduce them to literature that opens the doors to full human
potential for every child.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Research the books in your school and public libraries. If books are to
be used to help young people understand the value of living in a
multicultural world, stories should be available in which people of all
kinds are portrayed as protagonists and problem solvers, capable of
interacting and collaborating in integrated settings.
* Always read every book before sharing it with your children,
familiarizing yourself with the story and its characters. Choose books
which contain a balance of gender and racial characters. When you read,
label neutral characters as both female and male to balance representation.
* Involve the children as you read to them. Ask them questions about the
story as you read.
* Talk about your own childhood heroes and why you admired them. Use this
conversation as a springboard to let your children tell you what they like
best about their heroes. If their heroes are fictional, help them think
about real people who have some of the same characteristics.
* Many textbook manufacturers are responding to the changes in our society
by requiring that textbook illustrations include equal and accurate
representations of women and minorities. Children's book publishers,
however, haven't developed a parallel standard. Write to publishers
alerting them that by continually presenting an unbalanced ratio of
characters, whether the imbalance is gender, ethnic or racial in nature,
all children lose out, and ask them to respond by being more inclusive in
their publishing choices.
* Many small presses are taking the lead in producing quality
multicultural children's literature representing greater population
diversity. Support them in their efforts by buying their products which,
in turn, will encourage them to produce more multicultural books for the
children's literature market.
* Create a demand for multicultural books through group, school and
library purchases, sending a powerful message to publishers that
multicultural literature is read and enjoyed by all children, not just by
the segment of the market about whom the books are written.
* Talk to your local bookseller about promoting the sale of multicultural
children's books by holding bilingual readings, emphasizing their
commitment to multicultural literature in their newsletters, and bringing
in multicultural children's authors to speak in their stores.
The following text is from the recent book, _Teaching Peace: How to Raise
Children to Live in Harmony -- Without Fear, Without Prejudice, Without
Violence_ by Jan Arnow (Perigee/Berkley, © 1995 Jan Arnow, ISBN
#0-399-52155-0, $12.00). In each chapter there are additional charts,
quotes and sidebar sections that have not been uploaded. If you are
interested in seeing these additions, please contact the author directly
(email: email@example.com); (snail mail: 2025 Maryland Avenue, Louisville,
KY, 40205); (telephone: 502-454-0607); or buy the book!
This is copywritten material. Please do not distribute without the
NOTE: The text above is from the recent book, Teaching Peace: How to Raise Children to Live in Harmony -- Without Fear, Without Prejudice, Without Violence_ by Jan Arnow (Perigee/Berkley, © 1995 Jan Arnow, ISBN #0-399-52155-0, $12.00). In each chapter there are additional charts, quotes and sidebar sections that have not been uploaded. If you are interested in seeing these additions, please contact the author directly (email: firstname.lastname@example.org); (snail mail: 2025 Maryland Avenue, Louisville, KY, 40205); (telephone: 502-454-0607); or buy the book!
This is copywritten material. Please do not distribute without the author's permission.
You May Read The Entire Book Online
Chapters 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - Introduction - Bibliography
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