The Change in Children's Literature: What For?
Metropolitan University of Denver
Mickey Mouse leered at me from the spine of the book my five-year-old daughter grasped. I told her she could keep two things with her as we packed everything else in our preparation to move. What did she choose? She held up a Disney version of Cinderella and a Barbie-pink tube of lipstick. "I want to keep these things out," she explained, "so I can play princess and practice reading words I already know." For a fleeting moment I had an image of what my daughter could become in ten years if I did not do something-immediately! I mentally reviewed a list of books professors had dubbed "diverse" and "educational" in the dozen or so teacher preparation courses I had taken. I had purchased several of these books for our daughter. Surely I could convince her to at least choose a different version of Cinderella-one told from the perspective of a different culture, a version in which the prince marries her for something other than the dress or the shoes she wears, or the lipstick my daughter is now smearing on her puckered five-year-old lips as she looks into the mirror. Maybe I should "accidentally' pack the book and the lipstick during naptime?
Before I actually read the children's literature available today in my education courses, I had assumed that girls were being portrayed differently than they were in the children's books that I had read as a child. I remember reading great books- books such as Choose Your Own Adventure, or Annie (being named Annie, people thought this made a "cute" gift for me). Like most children, I yearned to be more adventuresome than my surroundings allowed, and so I turned to books for my adventures. The Choose Your Own Adventure series provided such adventure- especially if you were a boy, like the main characters in the books in that series. AnnieAF did have a girl as the main character, and a girl with my own name, too! But like Cinderella, a handsome and rich man rescues her from a desperate life. Perhaps my life was not as adventurous as described in the Choose Your Own Adventure series, but it was certainly not desperate, nor did I know any rich men. Although I was unable to find a character to relate to in the reading I did as a child, I had been certain that now, almost two decades later, my own daughter would surely have what I did not. After all, there are more girls portrayed on book covers, and there are more girl-oriented series books than before. However, after becoming the mother of a girl, and a student seeking teacher licensure, the way that I started to pick and choose reading materials changed. There are more girls in books and on them today, but girls are still-more often than not- less. They are less able, less smart, less the main character, less heroic and less a positive role model.
Realizing that my child wanted to put colored stuff on her face more than she wanted to be Cinderella, I dug out some old face paint and painted a large ÒGÓ for Gabrielle on her face and tucked a copy of Amazing Grace under her arm. The role of females in children's literature (and our society as a whole) is changing for the better. By including those changes in the canon of children's literature, we can teach our students to be aware of the roles women (and Hispanics, and African-Americans, and Asians and other under-represented or marginalized groups) play in our world.
Grace (in Amazing Grace) is like so many other girls in that she wants to read adventure books but cannot find any with girls as the main character. Her peers tell Grace that Peter Pan is a boy, has always been a boy, and that she just needs to accept that Peter Pan has to be a boy. Including the book Amazing Grace in addition to the traditional telling of Peter Pan will help our students understand that not only does Peter Pan not have to be a boy, he doesn't have to be a white boy. Readers can experience Grace's passion for stories and how she pretends to be the main characters in them-acting out the stories at home. Grace understands what those characters are doing, but she becomes those characters, and in the process, brings to them some of her
Until recently, the female role in literature has not only been omitted, it has been called a mystery. Males wrote boy books, and the characters did things that boys would understand. Consequently, boys and girls read the literature as boys (McCracken, 1991). That is, the girls reading the stories are expected to read as boys would read. Girls are expected to understand, to accept, the maleness of the book and to accept that femaleness remains a mystery. Ugh. The role that girls have in children's literature is finally changing for the better in some cases, though. Grace, for example, is a strong character in the books in which she appears. At the same time, more changes are needed. The stories that Grace reads and acts out are still primarily about boys doing boy things. Having a male main character does not mean that girl readers have to give up their girl-ness-Grace shows us this when she becomes Peter Pan. But girls do need to see themselves in books, doing the active, positive and adventuresome things that all children can do.
After settling into our new house, I allowed my daughter to fill a shelf in her room with books of her choice. Yes, she found the Cinderella book that I had tried to hide, but Cinderella is next to Grace who is next to Arthur who is next to The True Story of the Three Little Pigs who is next to an I Spy book. Knowing that Mickey Mouse will inevitably leer at me from the spine of Cinderella a few more times from my daughter's bookshelf, I rest assured that-true to form-her interest in this too shall pass. Each next book she is interested in will be better than the last.
Borntrager, Mary Christner. (1997). Annie. New York, NY: Thorndike Press.
Disney, Walt. (1974). Cinderella. New York, NY: Random House.
Hoffman, Mary. (1991). Amazing Grace. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.
Marzollo, Jean and Wick, Walter. (1998). I Spy New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.
McCracken, Nancy. (1991). Penelope talks back to her anthology. Ohio Journal of English Language Arts, 31(2), 14-17.
Packard, Edward. (1987). Choose Your Own Adventure. New York, NY: Bantam Skylark.
Scieszka, Jon. (1989). The True Story of the Three Little Pits. New York, NY: Viking Kestrel.
Reference Citation: Namuth, Anne. (2000) "The Change in Children's Literature: What For?" WILLA, Volume 9, p. 39-40.