Authors Examine Gender Roles in Children's Literature

Four authors and scholars examined gender roles and stereotypes in children’s and young adult literature at a Women’s Week 2012 event on Monday.

Panelists discussed the history and evolution of gender stereotypes in this genre of literature. They also talked about the ways in which they have attempted to subvert these norms in their own work.

Panelist Jacqueline Davies said that in one of her books she wrote the male protagonist, Evan, as a more emotive character and his sister, Jessie, as more logical.

“The brother’s the one who’s good with people, who understands people, who’s very empathic, so in that case, I actually had my male and female characters play against what people would generally think of as being gender-stereotypical roles,” Davies said in an interview.

Davies said her readers, generally between 8 and 11 years of age, responded positively to this blurring of gender norms.

“I get girls writing to me saying, ‘I love it that Jessie’s so smart,’” Davies said. “I don’t get boys writing to me saying ‘I love it that Evan’s so empathic.’ They never notice that. They just like the characters.”

Her book centers on a competition between the brother and sister, with each vying to sell more lemonade than the other. When Davies visits classrooms and asks students which of the two characters they want to win, girls often voice support for Jessie while boys get behind Evan. Davies attributed the children’s preference for the sibling of the same sex to simple gender bias.

“The boys like the boy, and the girls like the girl,” she said.

Panelist Jeannine Atkins said that Lucy from C. S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” was an example of how gender stereotypes enabled the author to weave greater emotion in his text.

“Lucy is the heart of the books,” said Atkins, a professor of children’s literature at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Lucy could cry, and she could have tea with Mr. Tumnus, and she could fall in love with him as a friend.”

The event, which was held in the parlor of the Phillips Brooks House, drew a crowd comprised of 22 women and 1 man.

Women’s Week, which is co-sponsored by the Harvard College Women’s Center and The Seneca, Inc., seeks to foster discussion about women’s current status as well as celebrate women’s history and past achievement. Women’s Week 2012 features a series of events which will culminate with the Feminist Coming Out Day Coffee House on Thursday evening. Women’s Week will conclude with its final event on Friday.

—Staff writer Maya S. Jonas-Silver can be reached at mayajonas-silver@college.harvard.edu.

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