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Children’s Responses to Nontraditional
Gender Roles in Children’s Literature

Janelle Thornock

DCI 510 Teacher as a Researcher
DCI 593 Applied Project
May 7, 2003

I’m a 3rd grade teacher in a large southwestern metropolitan area in the United States, and the community my students live in is an upper-middle class suburb. This past year was my first year teaching in this community and at this school. Teaching reading is my passion! Most of my undergraduate education was in reading, so I feel the most comfortable and confident in it. An exciting time for me is to read aloud to my students, highlighting different genres and themes and then watching them get hooked on books and reading for the love of it!

It’s been my experience that my classes bond as we live through books together. Typically, the memory of a book that we’ve read months before will unexpectedly emerge and we will share a laugh about that story. One day a child said, "Teacher, remember when we read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (Dahl, 1964)? A spontaneous discussion followed about how crazy Willie Wonka was and how clever Charlie was I love it when they remember! My favorite part is having them sit mesmerized on the carpet around my feet as the characters come to life for them. I believe that children are left with lasting, powerful impressions of literature that leave a huge impact on them. They grow up shaping their views about life based on what they have read and were exposed to when they were younger.

Mem Fox, a favorite children’s author wrote, "Everything we read…constructs us, makes us who we are by presenting our image of ourselves as girls and women, as boys and men." (1993, p. 152). I want to encourage my students to be freethinkers and think outside of the box as the reflect on how they have been constructed to think of themselves as "girls and women" and "boys and men." I recognize that literature shapes their lives and thinking, and so I want to expose them to as much literature as I can that looks at different ways that people live their lives. The literature that I choose to read to them does make a difference.
An additional part of learning that I feel deeply affects their learning is the ability for children to adequately communicate their thoughts and feelings in a group discussion. Children process learning and define their beliefs through collaboration and communication with their peers. I like to give my students opportunities to articulate their thoughts, bounce ideas off their peers, reflect, and then write down their thoughts in their journals. In connection with the gender study, I wanted to observe how discussing their ideas with a peer group would influence their thoughts on gender.


As I watched my classroom, I noticed traditional gender roles taken on by the students. The boys dominated most of the conversations in our class, whether it was in reading, writing or math. The girls were more shy about contributing to our discussions and hung back, almost withdrawn. When the children sat on the carpet for reading times, the boys always crowded around at my feet and the girls formed a semi-circle around them. I thought this was outrageous! In my mind, I saw the sixteen girls catering to the eleven boys in our class. The boys would aggressively shove their way to the carpet to sit the closest to my feet! I wondered if I tailored my teaching more towards boys and if I unknowingly taught the girls to be quiet, shy, obedient girls. I hoped this wasn’t the case, but I wasn’t sure. I wondered if I called on boys more than I called on girls. Doubts and worries ran through my head. At about this time in the school year, I reflected on what chapter books I had read aloud to the children. I noted that I had read two of my favorites from Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and James and the Giant Peach (1988), and a favorite from Beverly Cleary, The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1965). These three stories had strong traditional male protagonists! I wondered if the literature I read aloud to them had any impact on them. Did it affect their thinking? But deep down inside I knew that it did. As I generated a list of the stories we’d read, there seemed to be a few that had strong nontraditional female protagonists, but the children rarely spoke about these books. They remembered the ones that had male dominant character; however, the students did fall in love with one of the chapter books that had a strong nontraditional female protagonist, Judy Moody (McDonald, 2002). As I thought about that, I saw hope! I theorized that if I could expose them to more literature that had nontraditional characters, then maybe this might give them an opportunity to reflect on their views of gender and how it affected behavior. I knew I had to take "baby steps" as I wanted to understand more deeply what gender roles meant to my students. I wondered what might happen if I introduced some more nontraditional male and female roles in children's literature to these children and how they would react to them.

Research Question

The following question guided me as I began to conduct research in my classroom about what gender means to my students:

* How do two students in my 3rd grade class respond to nontraditional gender roles in children’s literature?

I determined that the following sub-questions would help me understand my research question more deeply:

* How does my choice of literature affect my class?

* How do our class discussions affect their thoughts and feelings on gender?

* How do my students internalize and apply our discussions and their thinking to real life situations?



I decided that I would take two children from my class to focus on, while continually observing all the students to see if there were any changes in their thinking about gender. A girl and a boy from my class were chosen to be my participants.

I chose Amber early on in the study because since the first day of class she exemplified a strong, independent personality. She was one the girls that who spoke her mind no matter what the other boys or girls were doing. A few months ago our school had a school-wide spelling bee. Contestants would be chosen from the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade. Amber was chosen to be one of our representatives and so I explained to her that she would be one of the youngest contestants and the majority of the words would be 5th and 6th grade words. I tried to explain how challenging it would be. She patiently responded that it didn’t matter whom she was going to compete against or how difficult the words were going to be, it was important for her to at least try! As I’ve watched her grow throughout the year, I witnessed a girl wasn’t afraid to speak her mind in class. She was well liked by the other children, and they recognized her as a natural leader. They voted her to be their Student Council representative. Amber played with the boys as freely and confidently as with the girls during recess time. In class, she was fine working with boys or girls, almost unaware of gender, but looking more at personality. Physically, she was the smallest girl in our class; however, she was successful in taekwondo and performed demonstrations for the class. Not only was she physically strong, she was academically strong. Amber’s parents were very supportive of her and her two brothers. She was not a behavior problem in class, but was likely to talk and entertain the children at her table. She was a happy child and liked school, especially reading. Amber’s love of literature and freethinking mind were important factors in my decision of choosing her.

Choosing Tyler to participate in the study took much more time and thought. He was similar in size to Amber and was the smallest boy in our class. When Tyler came into our class, I noticed right away his inability to focus, listen and concentrate. I always placed him near the front of the room to lessen any distractions. I judged him as being an academically low student, although he seemed to do well on most of the work I gave him. Tyler merely preferred socializing with the other children at his table than listening to me. Tyler’s parents were very supportive and his father would drop by sporadically to conference with me about how he was progressing. He was an only child. Tyler seemed disinterested in reading, but performed well in math. I soon learned that Tyler was the youngest student in my class and was a little more immature than the other students, so I believed that some of his social and academic behavior was due to the fact that he was so young. He was well-liked by the other boys and was voted to be their Student Council Representative even though he was not a natural leader. He played predominately with the other boys at recess and during class. Tyler seemed to be a follower. He rarely spoke up during group discussions in class, but was more content to let the other students lead. He seemed to go along with what the other students said or did. It was his dependence that finally led me to choose him to participate in our study. I wanted to find out what his thoughts on gender roles were and if his thinking could be challenged.

Data Collection.

As I began my research, I read an article from teacher-researcher, Peggy Rice (2002) who performed a study similar to what I wanted to do. She reflected that children’s literature that portrayed characters in nontraditional gender roles had been around since the early seventies, with the hopes of expanding children’s definitions of masculinity and femininity. However, studies in the eighties and nineties "indicated that children were not responding to these characters in the manner in which adults had predicted. The results of these studies indicate that simply providing books that portray non-stereotypical females and/or males is not enough" (Rice, 2002). Rice’s study suggested that in addition to incorporating books like these into our regular teaching, educators must incorporate activities that give children space to expand their definitions of gender. She suggested activities such as open-ended response prompts related to nontraditional literature, small and whole class discussions, creative dramatization, and portraits. After reading this article, I understood that I needed to do these activities after I read the pictures books I’d chosen and collect information about the activities as data. This would be the place where I could utilize their discussion groups to challenge their thinking. I energetically began keeping anything and everything the students worked on and paying close to what it was they were thinking about.

Some data I collected were audio-taped transcripts of group discussions, student interviews, student journaling, creative dramatization, my field notes on things I would see and hear in my classroom, my journaling, and memos to myself on reflections on what things I was seeing happen in class.

Data Analysis.

During the study, I tried to document, reflect, and journal about the actions of my students as much as I could and using as many different styles as I could. I used Field Notes to record what I saw happen in their groups or on the playground that might have some connection to our gender study. I also wrote memos to myself after a discussion or activity in which I could analyze the mood and overall feeling of my students and write down some general thoughts of mine. I also wrote entries in my teacher-researcher journal. My researcher journal helped me to record the pictures books we’d read, which books we would read next and which chapter book I would read aloud to them. I logged some responses that the students had to some literature and what I thought they were thinking about or working through as they wrote that. So, I read and re-read all of the pieces I wrote and all the pieces I collected from the students. I highlighted my journal and data and looked for underlying themes or patterns, and from these I developed the two codes: Signs of gender biased thinking and Signs of non-bias gender thinking. I classified the data into these two piles. I also coded my reflections and work to show that I came into this project having certain biases of my students, too.

The Study

I started very simply with group discussions. We talked about every book that I read aloud to them. I would ask questions throughout the book and at the end about particular gender roles of characters or about actions of certain characters that might have some bias behind them. For example, we read William’s Doll (Zolotow, 1972), a story about a little boy who desperately wants a doll, but his father only buys him balls and trains. I asked the boys and girls, "If William were your son, would you have bought him home a doll instead of a basketball and train?" Then they shared their thoughts with a partner sitting next to them, and then we regrouped and shared thoughts as a class. We analyzed the characters, plot, setting, problem, and solution. I wanted the students to be very comfortable with sharing their true thoughts are feelings with their classmates. At this point in the school year, the students had been together about eight months and had formed a cohesive community; however, this was a different type of bonding activity. This was more thought provoking than just listing their favorite parts of the story. They would sit at the reading carpet and share with whomever was sitting next to them, or they discussed it at their table. I documented the discussions in different ways, such as audiotapes, field notes, and memos to myself after the discussion about the mood of the discussion. The general consensus was the girls thought it was important for William to learn to be a dad and play with a doll. The boys were a little bit stunned and said that he could have a doll that the grandmother eventually bought, as long as he learned to play sports as well!

In April I conducted interviews with my two participants, Amber and Tyler. These only lasted about eight to ten minutes and I conducted them in our classroom, as we sat in the students’ desks. We had read The Paperbag Princess (Munsch, 1980) in class and so I asked if Prince Ronald was similar to boys in real-life and if Princess Elizabeth acted like girls in real-life. If so, what were the similarities? Other questions were posed in the interview that had to do with nontraditional literature. Following is an excerpt from Amber’s interview on her thoughts about how these two characters parallel real-life boys and girls.

T. Do you think most girls act like Elizabeth?
S. Some.

T. How do some girls act like Elizabeth? What characteristics do they share?
S. They’re brave and they count like what’s on the inside and not on the outside.

T. Oh, neat! Do you think that boys act like Prince Ronald?
S. No, not all boys.

T. How are real-life boys different?
S. Because, they kind of care about how you look and stuff, but they really look at your personality.After we read a variety of stories consisting of nontraditional main characters, the students had an opportunity to write down in their journals some their thoughts and reflections. I then allowed them to share their journals with partners, with their table groups, and then with the entire class. Their instructions were just to freely respond on any aspect of the book. This was my favorite data to review because some of their thinking that wasn’t expressed in class was written down. After the students had a chance to discuss Ronald and Elizabeth from The Paperbag Princess (Munsch, 1980) they were able to respond however they wanted in their journal. Following are four responses I thought were interesting, two boys and two girls. One boy said, "I was surprised that Ronald was mean to Elizabeth. I didn’t like that he was scared. This book should have been switched around because the boy was supposed to rescue the girl." Another boy said, "I like Prince Ronald. He is cool. I was shocked when Elizabeth was mean and said ‘You’re a bum!’" A girl responded, "I like when the boy is the person who is the hero. I think that it makes the story better when the boy is the hero." And another girl stated, "I think Ronald is a brat and a snob. I think Elizabeth is brave and kind, sweet and strong. The end would have been better if she had said, ‘Forget you! I will go find me another prince who is not mean.’" Reading journals fascinated me because each child pulled something different from the story. They accessed their background knowledge and experience and wrote something that had touched them in some way. I learned a great deal during the study from reading their journals. I was amazed how different their journal entries were from Amber’s interview.

The students also participated in a creative dramatization. The assignment was to take one of the stories that we had read in class, a picture book or chapter book and switch the sex of the main character. Then, based on their new character they were to alter the plot, as I watched to see how their new interpretation would differ because of gender. We generated a list of stories from which they could choose and then I had them work in their table groups. Amber directed her group’s performance and chose to do "Jamie and Giant Pea" mimicking James and the Giant Peach (Dahl, 1961). Amber cast herself as the lead character and pretended to be terrified of bugs, insects and anything that crawled. Due to her huge "girly" fear of bugs, she refused to enter the giant pea. She and group decided to change James from an adventurous little boy into Jamie, the wimpy girl afraid of bugs.

Tyler’s group chose to perform "Don and the Wizard of Harleyland" as a twist on The Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1958). Don, played by Tyler’s best friend, entered riding a Harley motorcycle with a black leather jacket, on a quest to find Harleyland. On his journey, he purposefully ran over the Wicked Witch of the West with his motorcycle and was too "manly" to have a dog. Tyler’s group transformed Dorothy from a wholesome, determined girl into a teenage punk

with an attitude. Although I was surprised at their changes, the "Fractured Fairytales" were fun for the students to perform and were interesting portrayals of their views on gender.
After these stories and follow-up activities, I was still curious how my students would respond to stories that had nontraditional male protagonists as the main character. So, I read two stories similar to William’s Doll (Zolotow, 1972), entitled Oliver Button is a Sissy (dePaolo, 1979) and Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge (Fox, 1985) and we discussed them. I later penned in my journal,

They seemed much more accepting of a nontraditional male protagonist than a nontraditional female protagonist. They merely accepted the fact that Oliver was a "sissy" and appeared to have no problems with it. Same with Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, they had no hang-ups that he was attached to an elderly home and individuals. They almost didn’t notice that he was a boy. This contrasted with their outrageous reaction from Kate and the Beanstalk (Osborne, 2000) and The Paperbag Princess (Munsch, 1980). Most children seemed to prefer a traditional male hero story. They like the "Damsel in Distress" scenario. This was very surprising!

Next, I read to a chapter book to the children and planned to spend more time on this particular book, Riding Freedom (Ryan, 1998). As I read the chapters to the students, I wanted to find out how their views would change during the course of a book. They instantly loved the main character, Charlotte. Tyler wrote, "I liked the way she wasn’t afraid to cut her hair. I also liked the way she wasn’t afraid to run away from the orphanage. I also liked the way she wasn’t afraid to dress like a boy." He was impressed that she could be so brave. After completing the book, in an interview with Tyler, I asked him if the story have been reversed and had a boy dressing up like a girl and he said, "That probably wouldn’t work because probably only girls can dress like boys, probably boys wouldn’t dress like girls" (Interview, May 2, 2003). I wondered about his comment that girls wanted to dress and act like boys, but boys would never even want to dress or act like girls.
One final story I read to children about nontraditional male gender roles was a story called Max (Isadora, 1976). Max is a star baseball player who discovered he enjoyed warming up for baseball each Saturday at his sister’s ballet class. One Saturday, as Max was up to bat with two strikes, he performed a ballet move, and hit the ball to score and win the game, thus proving to everyone that ballet class was worth it! A girl theorized in her journal that, "The main part was to know what a girl and a boy can both do!" When I read that, I thought, "Wow! She really understood the deep, underlying message! She got it." Then I read a little boy’s reflection on it which said, "I liked that Max could hit the home run, but I didn’t like that he went to dancing class." What complete opposite points of view! I was surprised at his traditional point of view. I wanted another student’s opinion, so I decided to bring it up in Tyler’s interview; however, I decided that instead of asking him what he thought, I would ask him how he would respond if his best friend on his baseball team wanted to warm-up at ballet school before the game. He replied by saying, "I would think that he was doing a girlish thing. Well…actually…that’s sometimes a boyish thing. Because boys and girls can do anything they want to." (Interview, May 2, 2003). When Tyler said that, I almost burst into tears and jumped up and down in the air shouting, "You got it! You really understood the underlying theme in all this!" This was major breakthrough!


Amber and Tyler.

Amber thought "outside the box." She was not persuaded by a character’s gender in literature because she saw them as individuals. She analyzed each character and judged their actions independent of their gender. If she didn’t like a character, a reason she gave was based on personality, not gender. She exemplified this when she said in her interview, "I was disgusted when Ronald said all those mean things about Elizabeth." I don’t think that Amber had any major prejudices about boys or girls because in her interview she said she liked to read about boys and girls equally, said that boys and girls both value personality not just appearance, and she chose to associate with boys and girls equally in play at school. Amber came to our study with a very open mind and was able to apply that to characters in literature.

I believe that Tyler had more of a journey through our study. He stated early on in a journal entry, speaking of Ronald and Elizabeth that he "didn’t like it when the girl saved the boy. I would like Prince Ronald to save Elizabeth." He was familiar with the traditional protagonist and it took some time to have him open his mind to nontraditional gender roles. Even though his "Fractured Fairytale" of "Don and the Wizard of Oz" showed a traditional male protagonist, I feel that near the end he was more aware of his thoughts, clearly shown by his revelation during the interview. I feel the study was an eye-opening experience for him, and I saw a lot of growth in his independence during class discussions. Early on, I marked him as rarely making comments at the carpet, typically he went along with whatever judgment the other boys were going along with. However, near the end he was raising his hand all on his own and making insightful comments. During a discussion on the book Max (Isadora, 1976), he confidently raised his hand and defended Max’s right to attend ballet class before their baseball games. Tyler is much more aware of gender bias in children’s literature.

Whole class.

As I sifted through my data, I immediately recognized that I jumped to conclusions early on and those conclusions were not always accurate of the real thinking that was going on by the children. For example, in the journal entry I cited, I concluded that most children preferred a traditional male hero story; however, I wasn’t correct in saying that. I realized later that I was only hearing the voices that were speaking up, those of the boys. I later realized that the girls hadn’t said a great deal during that discussion and so their feelings hadn’t been fully represented. I learned that I needed to be more careful when I was getting information from my class, that I make sure I get a fair representation of all the students.

I reflected on Peggy Rice’s study frequently during my study and how her results showed that "in order for children to expand their definitions of masculinity and femininity, conversation about gender needs to be a part of the school discourse from the time children enter school." I felt that our group discussions were vital in the change in their thinking patterns. As they heard their peers re-state what they were saying or thinking, they saw the bigger picture. Rice stated, "As children develop, critical literacy activities in which children ‘read against the grain’ to question the authority of texts can increase their awareness of gender issues" (2002). I saw took heart at how my students viewed stories I first introduced to them, such as William’s Doll, and then how they viewed stories near the end of our study, such as Riding Freedom. I realized that much of their change in thinking came from their peers during group discussions. My role is to be a facilitator of these discussions.

Teaching and Teacher-Research.

I found a new level teaching! It’s called Teacher-Research. I am a better teacher now because I know what kinds of topics, issues and areas that I can explore further in my very own classroom. More importantly, I know what to do with the research and how to balance playing the dual role. There were sometimes that I did not want to be a researcher, and there were sometimes that I didn’t want to be a teacher, but rather a researcher! Now I feel more comfortable being a researcher at the same time as being a teacher because I’ve had some experience learning to do both at the same time. The best part, and where I learned the most, was in talking with my students. Typically during the day we get so busy and caught up trying to accomplish all that we must, that I rarely get to talk and bond with my students. I think I got to know them on a more intimate level than what we were on before the study started.

Future Goals

I would like to continue this study with my next year’s class and see how my data differs between two classes. There are many areas of gender in children’s literature that I haven’t even thought of doing yet and still so much of other teacher’s research that I would like to look at. I have realized the importance that educators have in wisely choosing the literature they read in their classrooms. It affects the students whether we believe it or not.


Baum, L. F. (1958). The wizard of Oz. New York: TAB Books, Inc.
Chick, K. A. (2002). Challenging Gender Stereotypes Through Literature: Picture Books with Strong Female Characters. Journal of Children’s Literature, 28(2), 19-24.
Cleary, B. (1965). The mouse and the motorcycle. New York: Avon Camelot.
Dahl, R. (1961). James and the giant peach. New York: Puffin Books.
Dahl, R. (1964). Charlie and the chocolate factory. New York: Penguin Books.
dePaola, T. (1979). Oliver Button is a sissy. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.
Davies, B. (1993). Shards of Glass. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Davies, B. (1992). The gender trap: a feminist poststructuralist analysis of primary school children’s talk about gender. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 24(1), 1-25.
Fox, M (1993). Radical reflections: Passionate opinions on teaching, learning and living. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
Fox, M. (1985). Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. New York: Kane/Miller.
Gurian, M. (2001). Boys and Girls Learn Differently! San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Isadora, R. (1976) Max. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., Inc.
McDonald, M. (2002). Judy Moody. Candlewick Press.
Munsch, R. (1980). The paperbag princess. Toronto: Annick.
Osborne, M. P. (2000). Kate and the beanstalk. New York: Antheneum.
Rice, P. S. (2002). Creating Spaces for Boys and Girls to Expand their Definitions of
Masculinity and Femininity through Children’s Literature. Journal of Children’s
Literature, 28(2), 33-42.
Ryan, P. M. (1998). Riding Freedom. New York: Scholastic.
Thorne, B. (1993). Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Jersey: Rutgers U.P.
Zolotow, C. (1972). William’s doll. Harper & Row.
Suggested Titles for
Children’s Literature with Non-Traditional Gender Roles
Barker, M. (1989) Magical hands. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Browne, A. (1986). Piggybook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Climo, S. (1989). The Egyptian Cinderella. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Cole, B. (1986). Princess Smartypants. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Cole, B. (1987). Prince Cinders. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Cooney, B. (1982). Miss Rumphius. New York: Viking Penguin Inc.
Ernst, L. C. (1983). Sam Johnson and the blue ribbon quilt. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books.
Fox, M. (1994). Tough Boris. New York: Scholastic.
Graham, B. (1987). Crusher is coming. Melbourne: Lothian Publishing.
Hoffman, M. (1991). Amazing Grace. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.
Houston, G. (1992). My great-aunt Arizona. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Howe, J. (1999). Horace and Morris but mostly Dolores. New York: Scholastic.
Jackson, E. (1994). Cinder Edna. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books.
Johnson, A. (1993). The Girl who wore snakes. New York: Orchard Books.
Levitin, S. (1998). Boom town. New York: Orchard Books.
Levitin, S. (1998). Nine for California. New York: Orchard Books.
Louie, A. L. (1982). Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella story from China. New York: Philomel Books.
McCully, E. A. (1998). Beautiful warrior: The legend of the nun’s kung fu. New York: Scholastic.
Munsch, R. (1996). Stephanie’s ponytail. Toronto: Annick.
Nolen, J. (1998). Raising dragons. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Winthrop, E. (1985). Tough Eddie. New York: E. P. Dutton.



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