USING PICTURE BOOKS TO ADDRESS SOCIAL ISSUES
BY NATALIE STROUD
I have heard the phrase, “But girls can’t do that!” quite a few times in my classroom. This declaration has referred to wearing a Batman costume, using the left sink in our classroom, playing hockey, and peeing standing up, amongst other things. Most of those exclamations are nonsense and completely untrue. Gender has nothing to do with one’s ability to do any of the things on the list (although one of them might be physically easier than the others).
But these notions did not come out of thin air. When children are figuring out how the world works and their place in it, they often repeat things they have heard grown ups say. This group of children must have heard somewhere that girls cannot do the same things boys can do. I believe that these children are trying to sort through the confusing information they have heard about typical gender roles and expression. It is possible that someone told them that girls can’t play hockey, so they come to school and tell another female child that girls cannot play hockey. They are testing theories they heard about gender roles for themselves in the safety of their classroom setting with their friends. Maybe they feel like they should be able to wear a Batman costume but someone gave them a princess dress instead. And we all know that girls often do try to pee standing up even after someone told them they couldn’t.
From a young age, children (particularly females) try to figure out where they fit into all the stereotypes and limitations pushed upon them. But I admire that young children keep trying to do the things that they want to do, even when someone tells them they can’t. I believe it is time to reconfigure stereotypes about gender and support the children’s natural curiosity in order to help each child feel limitless regardless of gender.
And what do I do when I want to tackle a tough subject? I go to the library. With the right picture book, preschool-aged children can access many complicated subjects. For example, when our class discovered the power of exclusion in their social lives, the teachers discovered The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig.
It seemed almost too perfect that this story talked about how the main character, Justin, felt invisible and small when he heard other kids talking about a birthday party he had not been invited to. Birthday party conversations happened to be the preferred method of exclusion in our classroom.
Through many active readings of the book, countless conversations and ceaseless teacher support, our classroom culture changed for the better. When we get to the page about the birthday party, the children say things like, “That’s excluding!” or “I would invite him to my birthday party!” or “That’s why he feels invisible.” Our class decided together to stop talking about birthday parties so no one here feels invisible.
With the “but girls can’t do that!” topic in mind, my first sweep of the library led me to books featuring strong female leads. Girls who stand up to bullies, girls who are endlessly kind to the unkind teacher, girls who fight off the dragon with no help from a prince, girls who make the world more beautiful.
The children consumed these readily and engaged in conversations about what they admired about these characters. However, there was still a sense that I was not striking quite the right chord with these lighthearted depictions. In order for the author to make a point clear to young children, the female leads were generally a foil for someone or something else. The girls did not necessarily stand on their own as realistically fierce females. They were more or less reduced to a stereotype of a “strong” or “independent” female. There was no complexity or depth. Of course, I do understand that picture books for young children are often written in a way that makes points clear and accessible to even the youngest reader. But I thought we could do better.
I wanted to teach the children about real life women shattering real life glass ceilings. So this next mission led us back to the library and we found a biography about Frida Kahlo. The children were mesmerized by her true life story. “So she is a real person?!” the children asked after reading Frida by Jonah Winter.
Their amazement at her story felt authentic and important. Here was a real woman who fought through her life’s heartbreaking setbacks to become an incredible artist. From there, Frida led us to Ruth Law in Fearless Flier by Heather Lang, Katie Casey in Players in Pigtails by Shana Corey, Nadia Comaneci in Nadia: The Girl Who Couldn’t Sit Still by Karlin Gray and Rosa Parks in Rosa by Nikki Giovanni.
Now we weren’t just having vague conversations about how girls can do anything they set their minds to, we were proving it by exploring the incredible true stories of great women through history. My hope is that while we are reading biographies about amazing women in history it will become clear to all children in our classroom that all people can do anything that they work hard for.
I cannot wait to see where this literacy thread takes us next!