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Race, Gender, and Disability in Today's Children's Literature
by Kira Isak Pirofski, San Jose State University


Growth in immigration, rising birth rates among Hispanic women, and yearly increases in the number of disabled students mainstreamed into general classrooms have changed elementary and secondary school classrooms from "homogenous" to "diverse" settings. This demographic change forced educators to rethink language arts curriculum and dispense with standard texts that had been use for decades. The "new" classroom necessitated literature that is multicultural, inclusive, and gender bias free. While most educators advocate using said childrens literature, it simply is not available, and our literary canon seems bereft of books depicting minorities, African-Americans, disabled, and non-sexist literary characters.

This paper reviews the literature which underscores the lack of non-gender biased, multicultural, and inclusion literature. It also includes a list of childrens books that are appropriate for the mixed classrooms that are increasingly becoming the norm.


Elementary and secondary school classrooms in the United States are rapidly becoming a more diverse learning environment. Key factors contributing to the explosion of diversity include increases in Hispanic population, which jumped thirty five percent from 1990 to 1998 and will continue to rise. Each year Hispanic women ages 15 through 44 average 106.3 births per 1,000 women, non-Hispanic women average 67.7 births per 1,000. This too will contribute to the growing diversity in classrooms today (NCLR).

Immigration rates have also changed the classroom environment, each year one million persons immigrate to the Untied States, many of them have school age children (NPG, 2001). Increases in mainstreaming has contributed to classroom diversity. During the last 5 years, mainstreaming increased 10 percent. Presently 50 percent of disabled students are educated in regular classrooms; this translates into a more varied classroom population (Price, 2000). Desegregation and busing of minority children, and lower drop out rates for African-Americans have made classrooms more diverse as well.

The growing need to educate children of different races, abilities, and genders has forced educators to find literature and curriculum that best suits the mix of students in classrooms across America. To engage an array of students intellects, increase language skills, and provide minority and children with a sense of pride about themselves and their history, educators have begun to add multicultural, inclusion, and gender bias-free literature.

Inclusion, multicultural, and non-sexist childrens literature also gives students in the "majority" an understanding of their "minority" peers struggles, triumphs, and contribution to our culture and society.

However, the current childrens literary canon is largely dominated by books that recount the experiences of white males. Researchers have documented that childrens books are bereft of Asian, Hispanic, African-American, disabled, and female characters.

Inclusion Literature

Mainstreaming of 5.8 million disabled children, notwithstanding, disability is still not adequately presented in the two most popular childrens magazines Highlights for Children and Sesame Street Magazine sample of all Highlights for Children published from 1961 through 1990 found that only sixty-three disability articles were published during a thirty year period of time.

Only five out of sixty-two disability stories featured an African-American. Asian and Hispanic characters were not represented at all. Statistics disclose that African Americans have the highest disability rates for those ages 15-54 and for those older than 65. Also, Hispanics have the highest rates of disability among African Americans have the highest disability rates for those ages 15-54 and for those older than 65. Also, Hispanics have the highest rates of disability among those ages 55-64 (Bradsher, 1996). Disability graphics in Highlight are a distortion of the true racial, ethnic makeup of disabled persons.

Disability narratives in Highlights are gender biased. Twenty-five narratives featured a male disabled . character, eighteen depicted a female disabled character, and nineteen were either mixed, or non-gender specific.

Males names dominated titles of stories. Eleven stories had titles with males names, e.g.. A City for Carl, Dannys Miracle, Michaels Secret, David and the Lame Prince, and On My Own with Alex. Five stories featured female names in the title, Tillie, Lorraines Glasses, Helens Book, Nanci Merki: The Little Minnow that Could Swim.

Blaska (1996) found that only ten of 500 award winning childrens novels published between 1987 and 1991 had a disabled character. Of that 10% of the books six had featured a disabled person as the central character.

Soloski (1985) found that there were more disability portrayals in childrens realistic fiction after passage of PL 94-142, but self esteem scale t scores, used to measure qualitative aspects of disability portrayal, did not change (Soloski, 1985).

Goldman noted that the number of books with disabled characters increased after 1975. However, most of the books offered bland depictions of disability, the tone of the books were didactic, outcomes were predictable, and the characters were one dimensional.

Moores (1984) found that childrens novels began to feature more disabled characters after mainstreaming took effect. However, basal readers continued to under represent disabled persons. Harril, et. al. found that even after mainstreaming became the norm, and incremental increases in the numbers of books with disabled characters were found, books about disabled people still relied on stereotypes to describe the disabled characters. Harril, et. al. found that after books 1975, use of the stereotype of disabled as "their worst enemy" actually increased. The aforementioned stereotype posits that disabled people are equal, and could succeed in life and overcome their disability if they tried harder.

Childrens media regarding depiction of disabitly appears to be torn between presenting authentic images of disabled persons, and maintaining the status quo notions that disabled are less equal than able-bodied. At times childrens media embraces the notion that disabled are made from "the same stuff as able-bodied, and at times it relegates them to the role of "outsiders" who are fundamentally unlike able-bodied.


Books for children still contain gender stereotypical behavior, and most of the characters in literature for children are males. Ernst (1995) surveyed the titles of books written for children to determine if boys or girls names were more frequently included in the title. His findings were that boys names appeared twice as many times as girls names. Books that did have a gender neutral name, or a girls name, were in fact books about boys (Ernst, 1995). Fox (1993) noted that eighty-five percent of childrens books published in 1973 had a male as the main character. In contrast to the passivity of female characters in childrens novels, the male characters are aggressive, physically strong, full of a sense of adventure, and able to function in complete independence (Ernst, 1995; Jett-Simpson & Masland, 1993).

Jett- Simpson & Masland (1993) assert that a gender bias exists not only in the numbers of childrens books that feature male as opposed to female characters, but in the language, content, and graphic elements of said literature. Childrens books still portray women as less aggressive than boys. Female characters in childrens novels who start out active , aggressive, "headstrong" and "defiant" soon relinquish their independence (Rudman, 1995). Female characters are in essence "tamed," either by a male character, or circumstances that occur in their lives. They relinquish their independence while boys never do. Rudman (1995) found as well that females in childrens books were the "nurturers" and often depicted as mothers, nurses, and kitchen helpers. Male characters in award winning books were adventurers, risk takers, and explorers.


The literary canon is still bereft of authentic representations of African-Americans. Newbery and Caldecott award- winning books, basal readers, classics, and best sellers have few African-American characters, and depictions of African-Americans are not true reflections of this minority group. Adams (1981) found that of fifty-seven combined Newbery and childrens classics surveyed three of the twenty-five classics were acceptable, nineteen of the thirty-two Newberys were acceptable. This constituted a thirty-nine percent level of acceptability, just over one thirds of the books surveyed (Adams, 1981).

Gary (1984) found negative African-American stereotypes in Newbery Medal and Caldecott Award books published between the years 1963 and 1983. Negative stereotypes were found in physical descriptions of African-Americans, language used by African-American character, and portrayal of African-Americans status in the community (Gary, 1984). Reimer (1992) found that most books for children tend to about non-minority groups. Her research involving trade books and basal reading programs designed for third grade school children found that none of the main characters in these books were from Asian, African-American, Hispanic, or Native American (Reimer, 1992).

Reimer (1992) documented that a recommended childrens reading list generated by Jim Treslease and former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennet did not contain any Asian, Hispanic, or African-American characters. This list of suggested reading did not reflect diversity and multicultural content, in general, was omitted. The books that did feature minorities relied heavily on stereotypes of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians (Reimer, 1992).

Larrick (1965) surveyed 5,206 trade books published during the years 1962-1964. She found that, "Of the 5,206 childrens trade books launched by sixty three publishers in the three year period, only 349 include one or more Negroes- an average of 6.7 percent" (Taxel, 246). As late as 1972, Larrick continued to assert, vis a vi childrens fiction, "Integration may be the law of the land, but most of the books children see are all white" (Taxel, 1986).

Chall et al, (1975) found that during the year, 1975, only 689 of a sample of 4,775 childrens books contained one or more significant African American characters. More of the books were multicultural however, 85.6% of the books still did not feature African- Americans (Taxel, 1986).

Grauerholz, Pescosolido, and Milkie (1997) documented that fifteen percent of 2,400 childrens picture books which were published from 1937 through 1990 featured one or more African- American characters (Forbes, 1997). Grauerholz et. al (1997) reported that since 1965, the level of all multiracial books for children has remained essentially the same (Forbes, 1997). Even the social unrest, and civil rights movement of the late 1960s did not usher in an increase of African- American centered books.

Best sellers, books that have sold in excess of one million copies are also bereft of African-American characters. During the last two decades, only 4 best sellers out of 253 featured African-Americans (Fiction, 1999). The 4 books that involved African- American characters include the Cay by Theodore Taylor Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, written by Mildred D. Taylor and Sounder, by William Armstrong and was published in Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.


In the coming decades expectations are that mainstreaming of disabled children will increase. Increases in women using alcohol and drugs, which may result in more children having learning and other disabilities, plus the recent amendments in Public Law 94-142 which permit mainstreaming of young children ages 3 through 5 will add to the numbers of disabled in general classes (Delivering, 1991).

Societal stereotypes of girls as being passive and weak are also being challenged. Passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972, added to the number of girls participating in school sports programs. One outcome of this extra curricular sports involvement has resulted in lower drop out rates for Hispanic girls as well as an overall renewed commitment by girls, involved in athletics, vis a vis completing school and attending post-secondary educational institutions. This will continue and add to the diversity of public school classrooms (Weiler, 1998).

In recent decades the drop out rate for African-Americans has declined, if the trend continues, there will be a increased need to provide a multicultural educational curriculum with will discourage school alienation and will increase the numbers of African-Americans who finish school (Vaznaugh, 1995).

Another trend that suggests classrooms will become more heterogenous is that by 2010 the Hispanic population in the United States will compose twenty-one percent of the population. It is likely that this will propel the numbers of Hispanics in public schools higher than the present rate (Vaznaugh, 1995).

No one benefits from a continued misrepresentation and under-reporting of disability, gender, and race. Because childrens medias power to educate and inform, and because it is the transmitter of our societys culture and values, it must mirror the diversity of its readers and the diversity of the larger, aggregate society it theoretically represents.

The lack of African-American, female, and disabled characters in childrens media has a detrimental effect on children of all races and creeds. The combination of exclusion and distortion regarding said groups of people, minority and disabled children are denied the opportunity to find literary characters with whom they can form an emotional connection. The lack of diversity in childrens books prevents children who do not belong to a minority group, or are able-bodied, from learning about and respecting the cultures and behaviors of people different from themselves. They develop an elitist sense and learn to disregard those who do not look and act like themselves.

There are some books that offer a realistic, engaging, and highly readably books that address varying genders, races, and abilities. Books that deal with African-American experiences like to Jambo Means Hello, by Muriel Feelings, Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold, and She Come Bringing me that Little Baby Girl by Eloise Greenfield need to be introduced to young children.

Non-sexist literature such as Nettie Hiltons The Long Red Scarf , Anna Grossnickle Hiness Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti Russell Hobans, Best Friends for Frances and Mary E Hoffmans Mary Amazing Grace are just a few examples of the types of literature that is free from gender stereotypes and allows children to freely express their own unique pretences and abilities. Other non-sexist titles include: Frida Maria: A Story of the Old Southwest by Deborah Nourse Lattimore, The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, and Jess Was the Brave One by Jean Little.

Books that express the needs of deaf children include: Handtalk School by George Ancona and Mary Beth Miller, Tell me how the Wind Sounds by Leslie Guccione. The experiences of the blind are well expressed in James Duffys Uncle Shamus, Ruth Yaffee Radins Carver,Cerebral palsy The twelfth of June,by L. Gould, Barrys Sister by Lois Metzger, Books that deal effectively with the disability Down Syndrome How About a Hug ?by Nan Holcomb. Cookie by LInda Kneeland, Inclusive literature regarding learning disabilities include: Freak the mighty, by W.R. Philbrick, Killing the Carolyn Meyer, deals honestly and informatively with the disability of paraplegia, . My Buddy. by Audrey Ofosky handles the subject of muscular dystrophy in an appropriate way that both able-bodied and disabled can relate to.

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Baskin, B. & Harris, K., (1984) "More notes from a different drummer: a guide to juvenile fiction portraying the disabled," New York: R. R. Bowker.

Blaska, Joan K.; Lynch, Evelyn C., (1998) "Is everyone included? Using childrenšs literature to facilitate the understanding of disabilities." Young Children, v53 n2 p36-38 Mar, http//

Boyd, Candy Dawson; (1991)," Crisis time: The need for African-American literature in the world of children's books." School Library Media Annual (SLMA); v9 p49-59.

"Critique of 45 Top Sellers," (1978) Learning; v7 n2 p60-69.

Delivering special education: statistics and trends; (1991) Revised. ERIC Digest #E463, ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children, Reston VA.

Ernst, S. B. (1995); "Gender issues in books for children and young adults," Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. (pp. 66-78). [ED 379 657]

Fiction list for children, best sellers,(1999),, Fox, M. (1993); Men who weep, boys who dance: The gender agenda between the lines of childrenšs literature, Language Arts, 70 (2), 84-88. [EJ457107].

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Harrill, Juanita Lynn: and Others; (1993) "Portrayal of handicapped/disabled individuals in childrenšs literature before and after Public Law 94-142, ED357557, 16 p.

Jett-Simpson, M., & Masland, S;(1993), Girls are dodo birds! Exploring gender equity issues in the language arts classrooms, Language Arts, 70 (2), 104-108. [EJ457110].

Learning Disabilities; Curry School of Education

Mason, Joan; (1985) "The portrayal of disabled children in recent British and American fiction for young people," Adolescents, literature, and work with youth, ix,137 PP

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Pirofski, Kira;(2001) "Changes in disability narratives and images pre-and post-Public Law 94-142," San Jose State University, notes: Masteršs Thesis

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