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Using Picture Books to Disrupt Gender Norms

Have you ever wondered how you might use picture books to make gender norms visible to children?

It turns out, you don't have to use books that do the explicit work of challenging gender norms in the story itself (although those are great too -- more on that later)! One way to help children identify the norms they are learning about gender is to use picture books in which a character's gender is not specified in the story.

What do we mean?

There are lots of picture books that do not use gendered pronouns (like she or he) or gendered names (like Michelle or Michael) when describing characters. This allows you to "play" with a character's gender as you read a book to children.

Here's an example:

I was recently reading Matt Forrest Esenwine and Fred Koehler's FLASHLIGHT NIGHT (2017) to my 3-year-old, who is very much into fantastical creatures lately. In it, three "children" -- no genders specified -- go on a nighttime trip around a backyard where shadowy objects, once illuminated, become monsters, beasts, and otherwise. It's adorable!

From FLASHLIGHT NIGHT (2017) by Matt Forrest Esenwine & Fred Koehler

In the story, one of the two white children has long, blonde hair and the black child -- who has the honor of wielding the flashlight -- has closely cropped hair. In the image shared above, I pointed to the black child first and said, "It looks like she's telling a spooky story."

Then I pointed to the white child with long hair and said, "He doesn't look scared at all!"

Finally, I pointed to the white child in green pajamas and asked, "But, how do you think they're feeling?"

What I got was not my daughter's take on how the characters were feeling about the scary story -- but rather an earful about the characters' genders:

"Mama! That's not a boy! She has long hair! And those are boys because they have short hair!"

This enabled us to have a short discussion about how hair length (or clothing or toys) doesn't "decide whether someone is a boy or a girl or neither," but that how someone feels inside is what determines their gender. She then shared stories about how at preschool, her friends often tell her she's a boy because she has short hair, and how that hurts her feelings because she "feels like a girl right now."

Despite the fact that she herself insisted on the very gender norm (short hair = boy!) that was causing her distress at school -- it was only when I used this book to purposefully push against or play with those norms that she was able:

1) to verbalize or name that norm, thereby making it visible, and more importantly

2) to articulate how that norm actually made her feel.

Though young children are unable to articulate understandings of gender in any abstract way -- they learn and, more importantly, feel the effects of gender norms, as I like to say, "right away and everyday." (Right away = as soon as they're born!). Picture books can be a great way to help them begin exploring what they're learning about gender from the social world around them, and more importantly, how they're feeling about their own gender.

Our conversation ended with the agreement that any of the characters in the book could be a boy, a girl, or neither -- and that, well, we'd have to ask them to really know!

Picture books can be a great way to help children begin to explore what they're learning about gender from the social world around them, and more importantly, how they're feeling about their own gender.

To explore this approach with the children in your life, you can use our Search Tool to filter the books in our collection by "Gender - Unspecified." Of course, you can play with the gender of characters in ANY book, but books in which the gender of characters is unspecified simply makes that easier.

People often ask us if we take into account forms of diversity beyond race, ethnicity and culture in our collection. The obvious answer is YES, because Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC) have genders, religions, abilities, and sexualities -- all of which we track in our data. In fact, a collection that focuses on depictions of BIPOC -- like ours -- can actually tell us a lot about whether and how the inherently intersectional nature of social identity gets depicted in the publishing industry at large. In other words, if a picture book collection that focuses on depictions of BIPOC has almost no representations of trans children of color -- we can then ask (and certainly should ask), "Why not?!"

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