Advanced Storytime: Beyond the Basics of Gender Representation [Series]

This series will explore the lessons that I learned about storytime through my own self-education process–through many hours of research, attending conferences, and my favorite method of learning, hands-on experience.

At the library I work at, we have rotating collections of toys, and one of our collections includes pretend cleaning supplies, such as a broom, a mop, and a dustbuster. The following is an interaction that I had with a toddler just a few weeks ago:

Toddler: What’s this? (holding mop)

Me: It’s a mop! You use it to clean the floor, like this. (shows toddler how mop works)

Toddler: Is this a girl thing?

Me: It’s for everyone!

This may not be a word-for-word reenactment, but I’m sharing this encounter to point out the myriad ways in which children (as young as babies!) learn about gender and gender stereotypes, and the urgent need for us as storytime providers to push back on those stereotypes as often as we can.

I’d like to engage you in an exercise. Look around the space you’re in at the moment. Do you see a stuffed animal, or maybe a real animal? If not, find a cute animal on the internet. What was your first reaction? How might you describe that animal to a friend? If you have a friend nearby, how did you describe that animal? I’ll tell you what I sometimes say, because I’m guilty of this as well.

“Aww, look at him!”

“Look how cute that little guy is!”

He’s so adorable!”

I’ve been aware of this bad habit for over a year now, but my first instinct is to use the pronouns “he” or “him” to describe that cute dog that I saw when I was taking a walk in my neighborhood, or an adorable pig video that a friend sends me on the internet. I’ve also noticed that this happens in storytime quite frequently. I’ve noticed myself doing this, even though I’m actively working to correct it, and I’ve noticed multiple coworkers doing this as well. This particular phenomenon points to a couple of issues:

  1. There is an overwhelming amount of male characters in picture books.
  2. Misgendering, or assigning a gender to a character (that has not been explicitly gendered) based on our assumptions about gender, is incredibly dangerous to our children, and a habit that we don’t want to cultivate.

We know that the publishing industry is rife with inequities when it comes to race, gender, class, disability, and the list goes on. Marley Dias created the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign to combat this very issue. In the article “Why Are There So Few Girls in Children’s Books?,” Jennie Yabroff shares a study conducted by Florida State University that exposes the gender disparity in picture books:

A 2011 Florida State University study found that just 7.5 percent of nearly 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 depict female animal protagonists; male animals were the central characters in more than 23 percent each year. (For books in which characters were not assigned a gender, researchers noted, parents reading to their children tended to assign one: male.) No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal, but adult men and male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books.

There are obviously a great deal of structural inequities that thrive on maintaining the status quo, although many fearless activists are pushing to change this. I know it can be daunting to think about dismantling the systems that create and uphold these inequities, but I’d like to encourage you all to take on this work on a much smaller scale, in your communities, and in your storytime spaces.

So, we already know that it’s very common for adults as a whole to assign “he” and “him” pronouns to characters who maybe haven’t been gendered, and that there is an overwhelming amount of male characters in picture books. Of course, it’s incredibly important for female-identified children to see themselves represented in pictures books as well, so trying to disrupt that natural tendency to use “he” and him” by throwing in “she” and “her” is definitely something to strive for. But we know that simply rotating between “he” and “she” ignores those who fall outside that strict gender binary, so I’d like to push you a little bit further, and encourage you to work on incorporating gender neutral pronouns and language into your storytime practice. By using “they” when reading stories about human or even nonhuman characters, you’re modeling to children that it’s not okay to make assumptions about gender based on their appearances or personality traits.

In an interview with Huffington Post, author Maya Christina Gonzalez discusses the choice to not use gender specific pronouns in Call Me Tree:

As a parent, I see the first few years of a child’s life as a time to grow into the fundamentals of who they are. This can include gender identity. Our culture has a powerful trend toward the boy-girl gender binary and conformity comes into play from a child’s earliest possible moment. By being gender free, Call Me Tree provides for some a much needed break from the constant boy-girl assumptions and requirements. It can also provide a moment to pause and consider those assumptions, requirements and their impact.

Despite the fact that there are no gender specific pronouns, reviewers have assumed the main character is a cisgender boy. The main character is actually based on someone assigned girl. The specificity doesn’t matter as much as the opportunity to notice the assumption. Many of us assume a child with short hair, dressed in a t-shirt and pants is a cisgender boy. What does an assumption like that fully communicate? About gender requirements? fitting in? living up to expectations? being accepted? Who does it leave out and what is the impact of being excluded?

For those of us who work in or plan to work in public libraries–since we’re not in a school setting, we’re not in a place where we can intimately know each and every child who comes to storytime. It’s not as easy to have those personal conversations with children and caregivers about how they might identify and what their preferred gender pronouns might be. This is why it’s crucial for us, as people who are entrusted with the care and wellbeing of young children, even for a short period of time like storytime, to be hyperaware of the ways in which we might make assumptions about gender based on general appearance, such as hairstyle or clothing. We may not think our choices will make a huge difference, or that the time we spend with our storytime kids is significant, but we can, and it truly is. As Rosette Costello of the Peralta School, showcased in the film Creating Gender Inclusive Schools asserts, “it’s really important for us to include everybody in this community work, because everybody influences the lives of our children.” Maybe we won’t host a transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming child at every storytime, but incorporating gender neutral language into our everyday practice creates a safer and more inclusive environment for everyone, and we need that now more than ever.

Do you use gender neutral language in storytime or do you plan to? Feel free to share in the comments!


Stefanie Molinaro is a first year student pursuing her MLIS through Wayne State University’s distance program, with a focus on library services to children. She has been working in libraries for about two years, and currently works as a youth services assistant librarian at a public library in a northwestern suburb of Chicago. Before discovering her passion for library work, Stefanie studied English Language Arts in undergrad and completed some graduate work in the field of education. Stefanie is interested in the intersections between librarianship and social justice work, and some of her career goals include creating consciousness-raising programming for children and teens, and providing library services to incarcerated youth. When she’s not working or studying, she loves to volunteer in her community, hang out with her cat (the one true love of her life), and ponder ways to dismantle white supremacy. You can find her on Twitter at @stefmolinaro, or on her blog at radstorytime.blogspot.com.

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