Tag Archives: Children’s Literature

Our Data: In and Beyond the Gender Binary

A particularly challenging part of our project has been dealing with gender identity within our data. We have a limited amount of information about authors and protagonists, especially since our research has been affected by the spread of COVID-19, and have relied on the pronouns used in primary and secondary materials to assign gender to protagonists and authors. This has lead to issues with the labels we choose to describe our findings.

For example, our data does not show any trans or non-binary authors. This does not mean that our data does not include trans and/or non-binary authors because (1) an author’s gender identity might not be known to the public (2) an author might be misgendered by the media (3) some trans people use binary pronouns, even if they do not entirely identify with a binary gender (4) some people, gender fluid or otherwise, might use different pronouns at different times or in different situations. It’s hard to even list all the possibilities of the way this data might mislabel reality, but that is one of the realities of doing this type of work.

Gender identity has only recently become a part of public dialogue. The lack of non-binary gender identities among the authors of the older works is not surprising; however, this is not to say that no winner or honoree has had a non-binary and/or trans identity. In fact, we doubt this is the case. Further, some trans identities could be invisible in our data as a result of how we report it. If a trans woman won the Newbery next year, would labeling her as a trans woman be preferable to labeling her “just” a woman?

In more recent years, the lack of gender diversity is more worrying. When it comes to protagonists, whose genders are assigned by the author, we can more securely point to a lack of non-binary and/or trans representation rather than a lack of accurate gender information in the data itself. Although gender is not the main subject of our inquiry, we hope our exploration of this subject matter might influence others who can further examine our data for their own purposes. 

These uncertainties lead us to another important decision: what do we choose to report about an author or protagonists’ gender identity, and how do we choose to report this? Right now, we have protagonists and authors listed as either male or female. We have assigned these genders using the pronouns in the books or author biographies we have looked at.

We have struggled with how to use this label… the terms male/female are pretty explicitly connected to biological sex, but they present a much more elegant way to describe gender identity because they can function as adjectives as well as nouns. Outside of academia, these terms are probably more easily digestible and require less explanation. But the issue is… when it comes to authors, we are assigning genders based on incomplete data then using labels which don’t actually describe gender but biological sex.

I have suggested that we simply report which pronouns we have found in primary and secondary materials for both authors and protagonists, as this approach does not require us to make an assumption about gender. It remains to be seen what decision we make as a group, but we will definitely comment on it during our blogs so stay tuned!

The Inner Worlds of Children’s Literature

With more parents staying at home as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, shared reading time is more important than ever. Although children do really love consuming the same piece of media over and over (my speciality was a once-a-day viewing of 101 Dalmatians), parents might find their kids running through more repetitions and tiring things out quicker. Variety is the key to keeping everyone sane! 

It’s probably not surprising that within children’s literature, however, there isn’t much variety when it comes to the ethnic and racial background of authors and characters. In the early stages of our research, we have discovered that diversity and authorship interact in surprising ways. While nearly 70% of Newbery Medal and Honor authors have been female, only about a third of the protagonists of those books are. We’ve also learned that fewer than 10% of those authors were people of color, and, perhaps most surprising still, just over a quarter of protagonists are. Stayed tuned for more analysis of our findings! 

It’s important that, when isolated, we people our inner worlds with an array of backgrounds and voices. We want to see ourselves, but we want to see others too. So, consider an array of authors, from Jacqueline Woodson to Matt de la Peña, and a host of characters, from Wonder’s Auggie Pullman to Meg Medina’s Merci Suarez. Make sure your children see themselves in the books they read and that they see a range of others. 

Book awards, like the Newberys, can bring good literature to our attention, but we need to sample from them widely. Here’s a good list from the ALA that includes well-known awards like the low-diversity Newbery and slightly more diverse Caldecotts, but links to other types of awards such as the Pura Belpré Medal which “honors a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose works best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth” or the Schneider Family Book Award that recognizes “books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience.”

We are looking forward to discovering other surprising trends in our data and discussing its implications with our community of educators, librarians, parents, and others. Check back for updates and make sure to follow our social media accounts. Until then… happy reading!