• by Juanita C. Garcia • IDRA Newsletter • May 1998 • Juanita Garcia

The Aztec legend of the quinto mundo, or fifth world, tells us we must balance all sides of our nature, including the masculine and feminine forces inside us all.

Gender sensitive children’s literature offers exciting, positive role models for boys and girls today. Thus, many educators are expanding their knowledge base regarding gender issues and their influence on literacy education.

The Aztecs believed there were four historical ages called worlds or suns. Each was ruled and then destroyed by a god. Three new life forms resulted. The fifth world is ruled by all four gods, so it is more stable but also prone to doom unless we bring all of the forces into balance and banish evil from our hearts. According to legends of the Aztec elders, this present epoch, or the fifth world, is known as the sun of movement that brings constant change. We must learn to balance the four forces of nature – air, earth, fire and water – in their destructive and constructive forms to reach our full potential as spiritual and physical beings (Green and García, 1995).

In her book, Massacre of the Dreamer, Ana Castillo writes that around 5,000 years ago humanity began moving toward the deliberate omission of the feminine principle. We all have masculine and feminine within us, but the masculine has been allowed to reign. In the 1970s, the United States began to realize the effects of sex role stereotyping in US society, including in education (Cassidy, et al., 1994).

However in general, reading educators have not addressed the issue of sex role stereotyping and gender bias. Out of 665 reading education articles published between 1988 and 1993, only five dealt with gender issues and their relationship to literacy education (Cassidy, et al., 1994). Gender roles in our society have usually been defined by stereotypical views of female and male roles learned in childhood. Changing roles have received little attention in children’s literature until the last decade, but today many exciting books portray interesting, strong characters who are both female and male.

Children are aware of role differences at a young age. They know there are differences in gender, language, color and physical ability. They have learned this by observing the differences and by taking in the verbal and non-verbal messages about the differences. These negative stereotypes short-change children’s development. Children will be unprepared to interact effectively with many people in the world. Gender sensitive children’s literature seeks to nurture the development of every child’s fullest potential by addressing issues of equity and diversity in a pleasant and instructive way.

One of my favorite gender sensitive books for young children is The Piggy Book (El libro de los cerdos) by Anthony Browne. In a family with two sons, the mother does all of the housework and works outside the home, too. After years of silent servitude, she leaves her husband and children to fend for themselves. They transform into pigs and the house becomes a pigsty. When she decides to come back, they all share with the housework and she enjoys fixing the car.

Before reading to the children, I find out what preconceived ideas and opinions students have about gender roles by reading a series of carefully worded statements that focus attention on the concepts covered in the book. Using statements that are controversial or address common preconceptions creates conceptual conflict and challenges commonly held beliefs.

This is a motivational technique to get students involved in the book. The three statements I use for The Piggy Book are:

  1. It is mom’s job to do all the housework;
  2. Girls cook better than boys; and
  3. Only boys can fix cars.

Students have to agree or disagree with the statements and then justify their position. The curiosity aroused about the topic can only be resolved by reading the book to corroborate students’ prereading stance on the issue.

After reading, we revisit the statements and respond to them again, this time using additional information gleaned from the book. Many of the children change their positions after listening to the story, but some maintain their stereotypical roles of boys and girls. Therefore it is important to integrate other gender sensitive children’s literature into the curriculum. Teachers can use these wonderful books to help their students overcome preconceived ideas.

Through the imagination, literature shapes life and thought. Literature can educate the heart as well as the mind and foster compassion and humanism and banish evil from children’s hearts. Gender sensitive children’s literature can identify the characteristics of positive role models, and literature extension activities can enrich students’ expectations for themselves.

Bibliography of Gender Sensitive Children’s Literature

Kindergarten to second grade
Waddell, Martin. Farmer Duck (Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 1991).

First to fifth grade
Browne, Anthony. Piggy Book (New York: Dragonfly Books, 1986).

Browne, Anthony. El Libro de Los Cerdos (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991).

Second to fourth grade
Cole, Babette. La princesa listilla (España: Ediciones Destino, 1986).

Cole, Babette. Princess Smarty Pants (London: Harper Collins, 1986).

Second to fifth grade
Lachtman, Ofelia D. Pepita Talks Twice. Pepita Habla Dos Veces (Houston: Piñata Books, 1995).

Munsch, Robert N. La princesa vestida con una bolsa de papel (Canada: Annick Press, 1993).

Munsch, Robert N. The Paper Bag Princess (Canada: Annick Press, 1993).

Third to fifth grade
Caines, Jeanette. Just Us Women (New York: Harper Trophy, 1982).

Williams, Vera B. Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe (New York: Mulberry Books, 1981).

Third to sixth grade
De Paola, Tome. Helga’s Dowry (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).

Fourth to fifth grade
Cole, Babette. El Principe Ceniciento (España: Ediciones Destino, 1987).

Fourth to eighth grade
Anzaldua, Gloria. Friends from the Other Side/Amigos del Otro Lado (San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1993).

Baylor, Byrd. I’m in Charge of Celebrations (New York: Scribner’s and Sons, 1986).

Beremzy, Alix. A Frog Prince (New York: Henry Mott and Company, 1989).

Grifalconi, Ann. The Village of Round and Square Houses (New York: Little Brown and Company, 1986).

Johnston, Tony. The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea (New York: Putman’s Sons, 1992).

Myers, Bernice. Sidney Nella and the Glass Sneaker (New York: MacMillan, 1985).

Seventh to 12th grade
Phelps, Ethel J. Tatterhood and Other Tales (New York: The Feminist Press, 1978).

Tashlik, Phyllis. Hispanic, Female and Young: An Anthology (Houston: Piñata Books, 1994).

Compiled by Dr. Laura Chris Green at IDRA


Cassidy, J., N. Smith, R. Winkeljohann, R. Ball and K. Blouch. “The SIQ-R Test: Assessing Knowledge of Gender Issues in Literacy Education,” Journal of Reading (International Reading Association, October 1994), 38(2).

Castillo, A. Massacre of the Dreamer (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1994).

Green, C. and J. García. “Hijas del Quinto Sol: Redefining Feminine Roles through Children’s Literature,” National Association for Bilingual Education conference presentation (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995).

Hohensee, J. and L. Derman-Sparks. “Implementing an Anti-Bias Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms,” ERIC Digest (ED351146 92).

Huck, C., S. Hepler and J. Hickman. Children’s Literature in the Elementary School (New York, NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1987).

Juanita C. García, MA, is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]