Promoting gender equality is an essential element of every early childhood program. One of the ways we can do this is through deconstructing and counteracting the gender stereotypes children are absorbing. There are many ways to do this. Books can be a useful tool to present a range of gender roles and expressions, or for prompting discussions that identify stereotypes and their impact. When children learn to critically reflect on the gender stereotypes around them they have improved wellbeing outcomes, more respectful relationships, improved self confidence and increased life opportunities.
For books that promote gender diversity see:
All the Ways to be Smart
By Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys
All the Ways to be Smart is inclusive poetry based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences which recognises a range of skills as intelligence, rather than solely focussing on academic merit. Although not specific to gender, this book disrupts a range of stereotypes such as the tendency to praise girls appearance rather than their abilities. It celebrates individuality and reduces the need to conform, which gender inclusion work is also all about.
Extension Ideas: This is an opportunity to celebrate individuality! Have a discussion where children are encouraged to share ways they’re smart. Document their answers and collate them into a book or display with their illustrations to share with families.
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink
by Heidi E. Y. Stemple and Jane Yolen (2010)
Not all Princesses Dress in Pink is an empowering portrayal of princesses getting rough and dirty. Children will be engaged by the bright images and rhyming rhythm. This book is useful for breaking down gender stereotypes regarding clothing and gendered expectations of behaviour. I used it recently after observing a group of kinder children playing tentatively in the sandpit, trying to keep their dresses clean.
Extension Ideas: Look up images of real princesses wearing pants and getting their hands dirty, for example gardening or playing sport. Extend to show images of princes in kilts and engaged in other everyday activities such as cooking. Bring the discussion back to the children and notice clothing choices and activities all children enjoy doing, highlighting how some clothes can be restrictive to play.
Pink is for Boys
By Robb Pearlman, illustrated by Eda Kaban (2018)
This a nice simple book that would be great for younger children (around age 3) or teachers wanting to start their gender programming somewhere they feel comfortable. It presents all the colours as suitable for “boys and girls” and makes the effort to depict characters in gender non-stereotypical ways, such as girls playing baseball and boys holding flowers. However, the repetition of the words “boys and girls” really reinforces the gender binary system (the stance that there are only two genders) so it’s not one I’d choose for older children or children who may be questioning their assigned gender.
Extension Ideas: I’d be more likely to use this book as an extension idea, in response to children saying ‘that’s a girl/boy colour’ rather than to a group of children who may not be already spreading that message. The conversation can be extended to see images of children 100+ years ago when blue was considered a girls colour, and pink more masculine for boys.
The Paper Bag Princess
By Robert Munsch, Illustrated by Michael Martchenko (1980)
This is the classic, and potentially original flipped fairy tale. Princess Elizabeth is resilient and brave in the face of the dragon, outsmarting him to save Prince Ronald. Ronald, who should be grateful to be saved, instead berates Elizabeth for her appearance and not looking like a “real princess”. Instead of succumbing to his expectations, she calls him a “bum” and dances off into the sunset. The brilliance of this book, and flipped fairy tales in general, is that they effortlessly depict how ridiculously stereotypical traditional fairy tales are.
Extension Ideas: Flipped fairy tales are wonderful tools to highlight gender stereotypes in traditional fairy tales. You could follow the Paper Bag Princess with a traditional tale then reflect on the fairness of the stereotypes it presents. Ask questions such as, is this prince being kind? What do you think the princess does all day in that tower? Do you think she’s happy? Why?
Gender Swapped Fairy Tales
By Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett (2020)
These authors created an algorithm that swaps the gendered terminology in stories and here they have used it for traditional fairy tales. People familiar with the originals will recognise their extreme gender bias and how it constrains gender possibilities. Aside from the obvious differences such as the prince always saving the princess, we realise other aspects, such as the male name always coming first e.g. “Hansel and Gretel”. We see how stories reinforce societal moral codes, such as boys should be brave and claim the land as rightly theirs, and girls should make sure they’re attractive so they can aspire to a life of serving their husband.
Extension Ideas: These stories are a bit long for the average kindergarten group time but are wonderful inspiration to see how we can swap the genders in other books we are reading.
My Princess Boy
By Cheryl Kilodavis, Illustrated by Suzanne DeSimone
My Princess Boy depicts a gender expansive child. Biologically male, with an asserted male gender identity, but a preference for traditionally feminine clothes such as dresses. The child’s family are accepting and supportive of his choices, but he is teased by others. The story includes suggestions for discussions with children.
Children with cross gender interests or non-traditional gender expressions are common, the two most important aspects of supporting these children is to not lead them in any way, and to create an environment supportive of them, which might involve educating those around them.
Just as they should not be encouraged to conform to expectations of their biological sex, they should also not be encouraged to reconsider their assigned gender just because of their interests or gender expression. They might eventually assert their gender identity as other than their birth sex, but they may not. It is for children such as these that aiming to reduce gendered collective nouns and pronouns is important. Avoid segregating children based on sex and aim to use neutral pronouns such as they/them unless a child informs you of their pronouns.
The following books aren’t specific to gender but celebrate individuality in all its forms which is a part of breaking down gender stereotypes:
Do you have recommendations for books that disrupt gender stereotypes? Send them through below!