Hello everyone, welcome to my second research post of the summer! This week’s topic is the importance of having diverse children’s literature.
One of the most researched areas of stereotypes in children’s books is on the topic gender stereotypes. As of 2020, researchers note the continued disproportionate representation of male protagonists in children’s books. Oftentimes, female characters have less exciting or adventurous roles than their male counterparts. This isn’t a new finding, however, as researchers in the 1960s first began to notice how common gender stereotypes in children’s books were. Books marketed toward girls often depicted their roles in domestic life, whereas books intended for boys had a much wider range of opportunities.
One way in which the portrayal of gender stereotypes is theorized to be harmful for children has to do with “schema theory,” which is also thought to be important in reading comprehension. Here is a definition for schema that I liked from Britannica:
“in social science, mental structures that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behaviour. People use schemata (the plural of schema) to categorize objects and events based on common elements and characteristics and thus interpret and predict the world. New information is processed according to how it fits into these mental structures, or rules.”
For example, if a child accepts the gender schema that “women are supposed to do household work” then they may be unlikely to question why Snow White is doing chores for a bunch of men she met five minutes ago in the woods. However, these schemata are not fixed, and can be changed over time. So, the more exposure children have to counter stereotypes, the more they can begin to change those existing patterns of information. And because the research on counter stereotypes in children’s books shows similar results to the adult population, they appear to be an effective way of reducing stereotypes (see my last research post for more information on counter stereotypes).
Finally, this week I was able to see a more personal impact of the lack of diverse children’s literature. Children were asked to share their reactions to an article written about multicultural literature by the authors Hefflin and Barksdale, and the responses were pretty heartbreaking. One child said “I know as an African-American child in the classroom, that you rarely ever see African-Americans or any other minority depicted as normal people…It was very hard to relate to the books that we had to read…Sometimes it would feel like I was out of place”. A disabled child echoed that sentiment saying, “I can definitely see how an African-American child would feel left out and confused if they only see white characters in the books they read. Growing up, I felt much the same way about the lack of disabled children in stories. I use to feel like I was made wrong because I rarely saw any characters in wheelchairs.” It is clear that lack of diverse representation not only impacts unconscious cognitive processes, but children’s feelings of belonging as well.
I hope you guys enjoyed this post, please comment any questions, thoughts, or suggestions you have down below!. And make sure you keep an eye out for my next research post, which will talk about the relationship between empathy and fiction.
Examining the impact of fiction literature on children’s gender stereotypes
Gender Stereotypes in Children’s books: their prevalence and influence on cognitive and affective development
Heightening awareness about the importance of using multicultural literature