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Boy Troubles? Male Literacy Depictions in Children’s Choices Picture Books

Children’s literature, like all art, is a reflection of or resistance to the cultures from which it emerges. Picture books, particularly those chosen by children themselves, can be viewed as reflections of larger cultural trends and views. As such, they can be seen as objects of art, examples of literary merit, conduits for classroom socialization, and important tools to enact critical pedagogies (Crawford & Bhattacharya, 2014). Critical pedagogies can be constructed around how race, class, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity are portrayed in picture books to make assertions about the world we live in, have experienced in the past, or desire to experience in the future. With the guidance of teachers, young children can learn how to critically read picture books (Paley, 1998).

The construct of gender is important to helping children read critically about the kinds of people portrayed in picture books. Butler (1990) defined gender as “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (pp. 43–44). In picture books, gender may be indicated through action, including acts of reading and writing, in both words and illustrations. When teachers and students track acts of literacy and language, they can make assertions about how literacy can be used to construct and potentially transform protagonist identity.

Analyzing the ways literacy practices in picture books are portrayed is important because research has shown that boys do not often identify as readers. Several streams of recent data have suggested that girls outperform boys in early reading assessments. Recent research has posited that boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and end up in special education programs by a ratio of 2 to 1, to be retained in school, and to eventually drop out of high school (Serafini, 2013).

Lower literacy assessment scores for males may also be due to the kinds of literacies boys experience in school that fail to motivate them to read and write, particularly when compared with literate activities they choose to do outside of school. Boys’ literacy activities outside of school are often markedly different than what they experience as literacy in school. In school, literacy comes to represent reading and writing that has a future orientation, that is separate from immediate uses and functions, and that emphasizes knowledge that is not valued outside of school (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). Boys’ out-of-school literacy activities, in contrast, tend to be social in nature and have immediate uses and functions. School curricular choices and pedagogical activities can lead, then, to boys’ literate lives being unrecognized and undervalued, which contributes to boys’ literacy underachievement (Love & Hamston, 2004; Serafini, 2013; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002).

In this article, we wish to show that deficit views of young male literacy practices still appear in select picture books but are becoming more complex and positive in recent years. As the portrayal of literacy practices in children’s literature becomes more complex, this study provides evidence that deficit views of young male literacy practices persist in notable picture books.

Depictions of Males in Children’s Literature

Across nations, stereotypes for male literary characters tend to be less positive than for female characters. Taber and Woloshyn’s (2011) analysis of gender and ability in award-winning Canadian children’s literature found that gender stereotypes continue to thrive in books in which men encountered violence and women protected their families. They observed that female characters were more likely to take on nontraditional roles and that male characters did not resist stereotypical behaviors unless a female character encouraged them to do so. A survey of Israeli children’s literature (Shachar, 2012) indicated that recent literature tends to portray female characters as “sensitive, pleasant, mannered, concerned, calming, and gossipy,” whereas male characters are depicted as “violent, nervous, boisterous, belligerent, irritating, insecure, embarrassed, tight-lipped, happy, enthusiastic, joyful chatterer, diligent, friendly, generous and good” (p. 249). In a 50-year study of New Zealand basals, Jackson and Gee (2005) concluded that girls are allowed to snuggle (associated with emotionality, kindness, and softness) while expressing through words and pictures that they also could be powerful. Boy characters did not present such emotional nuance.

We wanted to understand how male characters and their literacy activities were portrayed in text and illustrations in Children’s Choices picture books. The Children’s Choices reading list is composed of picture books and chapter books chosen by children who annually vote for their favorite books based on the previous year’s picture books and chapter books. In this research, we only analyzed picture books. A list of children’s favorites is compiled by the International Literacy Association and the Children’s Book Council and published in The Reading Teacher every October.

We asked the following question in this research:

How are male protagonists’ literate identities manifested in recent Children’s Choices books?

We co-opted the following definition of literacy from Alvermann (2001) because it highlights the situated nature of literacy: “Reading, writing, and other modes of symbolic communication that are often valued differently by people” (p. 4). As such, literacy is dependent on the sociocultural context of a literacy act and the values and beliefs of the individual or community reading, writing, or engaging in symbolic communication (Street, 1984). Literacy practices or beliefs undergirding literacy can be better understood in the context of stories when readers do the work of critical literacy to systematically determine how language and literacy can be used to enhance or detract from the power of characters. We are interested in how recent notable texts reveal values of literacy and gender when male protagonists read or write or engage in symbolic communication.

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