Mar 16, 2013

Gender-Free Book Selection

In the last post I shared some outstanding titles about women who played pivotal roles in American and world history. The post included links to several admirable blogs, all in deference to Women's History Month. The always helpful blog,  Humor Me, offers a recent post featuring a cavalcade of stellar titles. But PLEASE, please, note my concern: once March is over don't let these titles languish on shelves or even be tucked away in unit boxes, not to see the light of day again until next March.

This week's TIME Magazine had a short piece titled: PLAY WITHOUT STEREOTYPES, which asserted that gender-stereotyping, mainly toy preferences, often first appear at the age of school attendance. Their report that toy-makers are tapping into new markets by developing gender-neutral versions of  various toys is encouraging. It reminded me that one reason I HATED kindergarten was the gender segregation of the activity centers. The "Girls' Corner" had a kitchen, playhouse, and various "homemaker" options. The "Boys' Corner" had, well, pretty much everything else: easel, blocks, anything on wheels, fire fighter, military, and police hats, tools, etc. (Is there any wonder I developed feminist leanings before that word even existed?)
Marshall Cavendish
Children's Books, 2012

Marshall Cavendish 
Children's Books, 2011

So, where am I going with this? I'm heading to a discussion of three titles by Sue Fliess
SHOES FOR ME  and A DRESS FOR ME are both illustrated by Mike Laughead
TONS OF TRUCKS is illustrated by Betsy Snyder. It's a sturdily constructed interactive book with delightful flaps, wheels, and folds to enhance the colorful illustrations.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

All three are written in verse that is crisp, well-metered, and tightly rhymed with very low word counts. In the first two a young hippo  has outgrown her clothing and finds lots of options, but none that work. Her frustrated mom is heading for the door when the "just-right" choice is spotted and little hippo's mission is accomplished. 

On first glance the truck book appears to be nothing more than a compendium of truck types, richly embedded with colors, sizes, shapes, descriptive words, and charming characters. Add to that loads of appealing interactivity.  Then the final spread parks the vehicles at a rest stop, and suddenly it becomes a bedtime book. All three titles are delightful additions to any collection for young readers and I recommend them to you.

Hippo shares her pages with a variety of other animal shoppers, and the trucks are "manned" by a wide array of recognizable animals, most of whom appear to be male, but several sport bows or are generic enough to be gender neutral.

asked a kindergarten-teaching friend to share these lively, colorful books with her class and let me know what they thought of them. She reported that all three received "thumbs up" from both boys and girls. Specific praise included the lively rhymes, the funny characters, the colorful illustrations. Of course, the interactive book was the favorite for both boys and girls. 
Then she asked her ultimate "rating" question: Would you take it from the shelf to reread?
The girls said they would choose any/all of the three eagerly. 
The boys said they would take the Dress and Shoe books for their sisters, but the Truck book for themselves. 

When it comes right down to it, that's not a "problem", and yet it bothers me. After listening attentively and praising many aspects of the first two books, none of the boys would actually choose to read them. Setting aside my personal gender-ization trauma from  kindergarten, I wonder if we've succeeded in helping girls find their way into activities and interests of all kinds quite easily, while allowing boys to self-limit and restrict their choices, particularly in book selection. 
When it comes to reading, CHOICE is the magic word, and I don't advocate ruling specific titles "in" or "out" for kids. But let's make sure we encourage wide reading for all kids, and never make the mistake of limiting their choices by gender assumptions.

And just as we would never suggest that only African Americans should read titles featured during Black History Month, let's never make the assumption that stories about women/girls won't appeal to boys. We need to find and share titles featuring characters and stories with such dramatic appeal that they will be snatched off the shelves by EVERY reader.
The same is true during Black History Month, Women's History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, or any "topical" focus unit. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.