Childrens Responses to Nontraditional
Gender Roles in Childrens Literature
DCI 510 Teacher as a Researcher
DCI 593 Applied Project
May 7, 2003
Im 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!
Its been my experience that my classes bond as we
live through books together. Typically, the memory of a book that weve
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 childrens author wrote, "Everything
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
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 wasnt the case, but
I wasnt 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 wed 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.
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 childrens 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
* 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 didnt 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 Ive watched her grow throughout
the year, I witnessed a girl wasnt 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. Ambers 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. Ambers
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. Tylers 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.
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 childrens literature that portrayed characters in
nontraditional gender roles had been around since the early seventies,
with the hopes of expanding childrens 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). Rices 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 Id 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.
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
wed 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.
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 Williams 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 Ambers interview on her thoughts about how these two characters
parallel real-life boys and girls.
T. Do you think most girls act like Elizabeth?
T. How do some girls act like Elizabeth? What characteristics do they
S. Theyre brave and they count like whats 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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 Youre
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 Ambers 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 groups 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.
Tylers group chose to perform "Don and the Wizard of Harleyland"
as a twist on The Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1958). Don, played by Tylers
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. Tylers 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 Williams
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 didnt
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
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 wasnt afraid to
cut her hair. I also liked the way she wasnt afraid to run away
from the orphanage. I also liked the way she wasnt 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 wouldnt work because probably only girls can dress like
boys, probably boys wouldnt 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
sisters 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 boys reflection on it which said, "I liked
that Max could hit the home run, but I didnt 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 students opinion,
so I decided to bring it up in Tylers 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
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
characters gender in literature because she saw them as individuals.
She analyzed each character and judged their actions independent of their
gender. If she didnt 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 dont 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
"didnt 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 Maxs right to attend
ballet class before their baseball games. Tyler is much more aware of
gender bias in childrens literature.
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 wasnt 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 hadnt said a great
deal during that discussion and so their feelings hadnt 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 Rices 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 Williams 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
Teaching and Teacher-Research.
I found a new level teaching! Its 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 didnt 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 Ive 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.
I would like to continue this study with my next years class and
see how my data differs between two classes. There are many areas of gender
in childrens literature that I havent even thought of doing
yet and still so much of other teachers 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 Childrens
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
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 childrens 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
Masculinity and Femininity through Childrens Literature. Journal
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:
Zolotow, C. (1972). Williams doll. Harper & Row.
Suggested Titles for
Childrens 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. Putnams Sons.
Cole, B. (1987). Prince Cinders. New York: G. P. Putnams 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
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:
McCully, E. A. (1998). Beautiful warrior: The legend of the nuns
kung fu. New York: Scholastic.
Munsch, R. (1996). Stephanies ponytail. Toronto: Annick.
Nolen, J. (1998). Raising dragons. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Winthrop, E. (1985). Tough Eddie. New York: E. P. Dutton.