Friday, October 7, 2016

Librarian inspiration

Welcome back to school! Now that we’re in October and theoretically all settled in (Do you feel settled? I feel both like I’ve been back forever and just started…), I thought it would be a fine time to think about how we librarians inspire each other. Last year, fellow HVLA’er Kyle Lukoff sent a link to an article on gender disparity in picture books. One of the parents at his school was the author and Kyle not only came up with the last line of the piece but helped provide resources (with an assist from HVLA colleagues, of course!).
I was fascinated by the article and thought my 4th and 5th graders would be as well. With a lot of guidance (so, so many new vocabulary words!) my intrepid students followed me on a two month project.  Inspired by the pivotal 2011 study of picture books from Florida State University, the class spent over a month reading picture books, informational articles, and having discussions about gender bias in children's literature. The FSU study found a major disparity in gendered characters (with the vast majority being male) in picture books; we spent some time thinking and looking into this. 
Thanks to Kyle, we were able to make contact with journalist and editor Jennie Yabroff, whose Washington Post article "Why Are There So Few Girls in Picture Books?" was the jumping off point for our project. Jennie volunteered to answer questions from the students about her experiences writing and researching the topic. They class asked some incredible questions and were very inspired by her answers. UPDATE: Below please find the transcript of our Q&A!
In addition to inspiring the students, the project also introduced and expanded some key reading skills:
  • help students articulate characteristics of the text
  • uncover messages and theme
  • refine critical thinking skills
One of the most exciting and engaging parts of this project was using technology to redo popular picture books. Students selected a favorite book and used iPads to literally gender swap characters by changing names and pronouns. We then visited a Kindergarten class (who had also been doing a gender study) and read aloud both versions of the book. The 4th and 5th graders discovered that the younger children most enjoyed the books in which their own gender was reflected. This sparked fantastic conversations and awareness around representation.
As I often say, I don’t need my students to think like me, I just need them to think. This project gave my students opportunities and tools to look at picture books in a new way. It was a real privilege to hear their conversations and see their work. Inspiration from HVLA and Kyle made it happen!
Do you have any projects that have been inspired by other librarians? Please share!

-Karen, Williamsburg Northside Schools

UPDATE: Thank you to Jennie Yabroff for granting permission to share her Q&A!
Q&A with journalist Jennie Yabroff:
1.     How did you come up with the idea for the article?
I know I have a good idea when I have a question about something I’ve noticed in the world, and no one I talk to seems to have an answer. I started noticing that nearly all the characters in the books I was reading for my daughter were male, and it was actually hard to find books with female characters once I got past Olivia the pig and Lilly the mouse. I talked to other moms about it, and they said they’d noticed the same thing, but no one had any idea why. So I started calling people who write and publish children’s books, to see if I could get an answer.
2.     When did you figure out that more characters in picture books were male?
When I was pregnant, my friends all gave me their favorite children’s books as a baby shower present. I noticed pretty quickly that despite the fact that these were books picked out by women, for another woman to read to a baby girl, most of them, whether they were classics like “Are You My Mother” or new books like “Oh No, George,” featured male main characters.
3.     Do you like the books where you have to swap the genders?
Yes. I’ve found that there’s nothing inherently ‘male’ about these characters, and changing the gender does nothing to change the story. So I tend to just read books that I think are great already, and then swap the genders if I feel like I’ve read my daughter three books in a row with male main characters.
4.     Do you enjoy swapping the genders when you read?
I think it’s interesting, because I definitely notice my own gender assumptions. I am always curious, when I’m reading a new book, to see how many pages go by before the writer uses a gender pronoun, and if that changes my ideas about whether the character is male or female. But it’s also hard, because I have to pay attention and be careful to remember to change every he to she and every his to her!
5.     Has this affected your awareness of gender disparity in other media?
Definitely! It’s really pervasive. If it weren’t everywhere, I wouldn’t feel the need to be so vigilant with the books, but it does make me sad that in general, our culture seems to think stories about boys are more interesting or important than stories about girls.
6.     Do you feel bad for your daughter that you gender swap the books?
A friend told me my daughter was going to get really confused when she starts learning to read. I’m not really worried about that, but I do wonder if she will start correcting me every time I swap genders once she can recognize the words. I hope when that happens we can have conversations about why I’m changing the genders, and talk about whether it matters if the characters are boys or girls, and if that changes the story. I certainly don’t expect her to only read books about female characters, but I think it would be great if, as she gets older, she is aware of the issue – and, ideally, there will be more options for her in the future!


  1. Kudos! I never wanted this post to end. Have you seen this blog? (I'm sure you have, but just in case!)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks so much! And I hadn't seen that blog - very interesting. As a parent to twin girls (who love ninjas, dinosaurs, and kung fu) I'm always on the hunt for books in which they can see themselves.