Challenging the Gender Debate through Children's Reading

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An article about challenging gender stereotypes at an early age through children's books.

Submitted: April 17, 2017

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Submitted: December 05, 2015



The concept of gender stereotypes begins from an early age in terms of how young children are socialised both inside the home by parents and outside the home at school. Gender stereotypes stifle both children and adults choices and behaviour, therefore it could be suggested that challenging these stereotypes, particularly from an early age will serve to improve both educational and life outcomes for both sexes. The National Union of Teachers (2013) suggest that most gender distinctions serve little logical purpose and exist as a method of reinforcing differences on the one hand, whilst lessening the similarities between the sexes. Many children tend to accept gender differences unquestioningly whilst holding set views judged as being appropriate to a particular sex. It could be argued that the longer these assumptions go unchallenged, the harder it becomes to enforce a change of viewpoint in children that has been instilled in them through socialisation processes in terms of parenting and the environment around them.


Gender stereotypes are both promoted and endorsed through the media through programmes children watch at home and in the books children read at school, suggesting that many parents and teachers feel uncomfortable challenging these beliefs about gender. It could be argued that gender stereotypes need to be challenged within the classroom as a first port of call. Teachers need to explore children's attitudes to gender at primary school, particularly through reading and get children to question why certain books are perceived to be gender specific. In the book 'Zog' (Donaldson 2011) children assumed that the pink dragon was a girl and the blue dragon was a boy, the orange dragon had no gender. In the book 'The Paperbag Princess' (Munsch 2009) the traditional story becomes subverted with the Princess rescuing the Prince from a dragon. At the end, the Princess is rejected by the Prince because she is too dirty and untidy after the escapade, thus also subverting the 'happy ending' scenario familiar with many fairy stories. Teachers used 'The Sissy Ducking' (Fierstein 2005) to highlight the idea that gender does not have to be fixed and reinforces the fact that 'being different' is okay, you do not have to do things or act in a certain way just because other people think you should. The central character of Elmer does what he wants, people who are their own person have their own style and personality and do not bother about what other people think.


In the world of many primary school age children's books, boys aspire to becoming a fireman or a footballer, whilst girls are happy wearing pink and being princesses. Children's books tend to identify as being for either sex, but definitely not both and children who enjoy reading books unassociated with their own gender is discouraged and viewed as odd. Thankfully, with a new generation of children's authors and teachers becoming more open to thinking outside the gender box, children's perceptions regarding the gender issue can be challenged. A few good books include, Red Rockets and Rainbow Jelly (Heap and Sharratt 2004) which questions as to whether we can all like a particular colour regardless of gender. Dogs Don't Do Ballet (Kemp 2010) questions gender stereotypes and how things should not be seen as gender specific. William's Doll ( Zolotow 2011) questions as to whether the differences between boys and girls is learned, rather than in built and why someone who is different is frowned upon. The Sissy Duckling (Fierstein 2005) is a story that promotes the affirmation of difference. The character of Elmer knows that people have a problem with his identity, Elmer likes who he is and does the things he likes, rather than what other people think he should do. The Paperbag Princess ( Munsch 2009) challenges the traditional role of what it is to be a princess and questions assumptions regrading how girls should behave. In essence, it inverts the fairytale story. The Boy with Pink Hair (Hilton 2012) highlights the things that people can choose for themselves such as hair colour and clothes, alongside those which people are born with, such as race or gender. 10,000 Dresses (Ewert 2008) is about a person who feels they have a different identity from the one they were born with. The author of the book describes Bailey as a girl, however, some of the characters in the story think that she is a boy. Laurel accepts Bailey just as she is. The book highlights how the gender that someone is born with is not necessarily the one that the person feels comfortable with.


The above highlights a few of the multitude of books out there available for primary school children to read on their own or be read to by a teacher. Children need to know from an early age that gender stereotypes need not exist, people should be able to look, act and sound however, they feel comfortable and be whoever they want to be without fear of persecution or ridicule from others. Gender should not be culturally dependent and children should be educated to know that gender need not govern behaviour, people are free to pursue the life they want, rather than what is expected of them by others. Schools should actively challenge gender stereotypes through books, so that children have greater life experiences in terms of achievement, opportunity and contentment as they go through school and into adult life. Although there is still more to be done, the latest generation of children's authors have made a great start that can be developed and added to further in order that primary school children can learn that gender stereotypes need no longer exist and serve no real purpose.








Donaldson, J. (2011) Zog. London: Alison Green Books

Ewert, M. (2008) 10,000 Dresses. New York: Triangle Square

Fierstein, H. (2005) The Sissy Duckling. London: Simon & Shuster

Heap, S. (2004) Red Rockets and Rainbow Jelly. London: Puffin

Hilton, P. (2012) The Boy with Pink Hair, USA: Celebra

Kemp, A. (2010) Dogs Don't Do Ballet. London: Simon & Schuster

Munsch, R. (2009) The Paperbag Princess. Toronto: Annick Press Ltd

National Union Teachers (2013) Boys Things and Girls Things. London: The Strategy & Comminications Dept – NUT

National Union Teachers (2013) It's Child's Play. London: The Strategy & Communications Dept – Nut National Union Teachers (2013) Stereotypes Stop You Doing Stuff. London: The Strategy & Communications Dept – NUT

Write4Children (2013) Vol 4 (2)

Zoloto, W. (1991) William's Doll. USA: Picture Lions

© Copyright 2019 Val Mansell. All rights reserved.

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