Bookish Research: Children and Diverse Books

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.

Happy reading!

Sources:
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

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24 thoughts on “Bookish Research: Children and Diverse Books

  1. Great post! I enjoy the research posts. Growing up, I felt this way as well so I remember clinging to the books that had any Asian representation. I still remember these books after all these years. Children do pay attention and the lessons they take away might not always be the ones we hope they will. As fun as fairy tales may be, this is one of the worries I have about sharing stories like Cinderella or Snow White.

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  2. I love seeing myself in books. We all do. This post was really relatable and children’s books are oftentimes misinterpreted as books that are written ‘for the sake of it’. We don’t realise kids (middle grade and lower) also like representation; they just might not know how to put in into words. Great post!

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  3. It’s pleasing to see the publishing world making more effort to include better representation in children’s books. Change is happening slowly, but it’s good to see that it is happening.

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  4. I love this research series. One thing I found in my own research last semester is that it is more likely to see an animal as the main character in a children’s book than it is to see a POC main character (of ANY ethnicity). Obviously this tapers off with older target audiences like middle grade and YA but it was still pretty illuminating.

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      1. Sorry I’m so late responding to this! I got some stats from the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) website. I can’t remember the link for the statistics about the animals but WNDB had some graphs comparing different ethnicities vs the number of animal main characters. I also did a bunch of data collection on my own using bestseller lists and newbery winners.

        Hope your research is going well!

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  5. i loved reading this post!! it’s so important for there to be diversity in children’s books & middle grade, because tbh they need the representation just as much – or maybe even more than we do!! thank you so much for sharing, j!!❤️

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  6. I’ve seen similar comments from bloggers and authors, talking about the moment they discovered or realized people like them could be the main character in a story. That really shouldn’t be something so many people have to find late enough to clearly remember it.

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  7. This is an amazing post and an important topic that needs to be more widely discussed. Thank you for raising awareness about these issues. I found it rather helpful that you linked your research sources too.

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