Gender, race and sexuality are prevalent stereotypes in children’s fiction, from picture books to young adult fiction. The books we read in our formative years continue to shape the people we grow up to be and set the foundations for the social norms we take into adulthood. Malorie Blackman, David Levithan and Raghava KK look to challenge these stereotypes by introducing alternative narratives surrounding these three issues.
A recently published US study found a cross-section of 300 books throughout the 20th century upheld gender stereotypes. They found mothers played the nurturing, caring role, and the fathers played the role of provider in the majority of texts. These stereotypes are harmful to children growing up. Young girls growing up to believe that their place is in the home can inhibit their ambitions, and boys can be made to feel effeminate and question their own place in society.
The report discusses the significance of children being ‘socialised’ by the books they read and the tropes they learn from these texts during their formative years.
Malorie Blackman, the current Children’s Laureate, discusses gritty issues in her novels and her protagonists are always ethnic.
“I generally make my major characters black because that’s who and what I am and I’m seeking in part to redress an imbalance regarding ethnic diversity in children’s literature that I felt acutely when I was a child” – Malorie Blackman
Books like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ tackle both race and gender convention. Putting the teenage, single parent in the hands of the boy opens up a new discourse, provides a different outlook to the stereotypical view of teenage pregnancy and reverses our perception of the ‘norm’.
“Stories promote empathy, a sense of being able to see through the eyes of others and being able to walk in another person’s shoes.” – Malorie Blackman
The ability to empathise with people different from you is an important life lesson but also reading about people like yourself aids the young person feel part of the social dialogue. David Levithan writes LGBT texts that normalise gay relationships, breaking the stereotype of the usual ‘boy meets girl’ story and even the way homosexuality is currently represented in literature and the media.
“With Boy Meets Boy, I basically set out to write … a book about gay teens that doesn’t conform to the old norms about gay teens in literature (i.e. it has to be about a gay uncle, or a teen who gets beaten up for being gay, or about outcasts who come out and find they’re still outcasts, albeit outcasts with their outcastedness in common.)” – David Levithan
Raghava KK, an artist from India, aims to challenge these stereotypical notions of gender race and sexuality through his app “Pop-It”. Shake the app and the family changes ethnicity; shake the app and the parents become gay; shake the app and the parents are lesbians; shake the app and the child changes sex. His theory is that every story is biased because we each enter into the telling with preconceived notions, however, we must always challenge this bias, view someone else’s bias in in order form a balanced opinion that breaks stereotype.
“I can’t promise my child a life without bias — we’re all biased — but I promise to bias my child with multiple perspectives.” – Raghava KK
Check out his TED Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/raghava_kk_shake_up_your_story.html?quote=1059
David Levithan puts it beautifully in his discussion of his first novel Boy Meets Boy:
“I’m often asked if the book is a work of fantasy or a work of reality, and the answer is right down the middle – it’s about where we’re going, and where we should be.” – David Levithan
The ‘where we should be’ is a world where stereotypes are broken and individualism is celebrated.