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- Anant Anupam

Distressed Damsel and Chivalrous Knight: Gender Agendas in Childrens Literature

A Review
Fairy tales, fables, poems, and stories, too many times we have witnessed in our childhood these characters of a damsel
in distress being rescued by her knight in shining armour to be married together and to live happily ever after. Without
giving a second thought to it, we accepted the fate that these characters had in the story, and somewhere inside even
prayed for our own damsel, our own prince charming. This literature review attempts to give these characters in various
forms of childrens literature that much elusive second thought, in order to understand the various themes and aspects
of gender that play into the construction of the genre of childrens literature.
With reference to the content of the studies from the search results, as seen from the abstract, conclusions and themes
addressed in the studies, a total of 17 studies and one chapter from a book were shortlisted for review. These were
carefully read through and common observations were recorded with respect to various cross cutting themes.
The review begins by looking at literature in general and the kind of fundamental indicators of influences of gender
stereotypes that are witnessed in children. The review continues to uncover the various ways in which gendering
generally goes on in textbooks which the children read, and reveals the evidence of the same seen from a widespread
genre of childrens literature books, picture books, fairy tales and folktales.
A look is taken on the queer content in young adult literature, as well as the previously mentioned forms of literature,
and the influences it can have on children. The review moves on to observing the South Asian context of gendering
done in childrens literature.
A view of the changing trends world over of gender representations in childrens literature is given, followed bringing
forth the need of, the ways to, and the problems with intervention in the state of gendering in childrens literature. A
conclusion mentioning strengths, limitations, and hopes from this review will be the end of the review.
In order to accumulate the literature surrounding gender agendas in childrens literature, a few resource bases were
looked up. Keywords such as gender representation in childrens literature, gender roles in childrens fiction, gendered
literature for children, childrens literature in India, childrens literature in South Asia, impact of literature on children,
and gender construction in childrens literature were looked up in JSTOR, which yielded various studies in directories
of Taylor & Francis, Sage Journals, among other journal collections. A wide net cast in the Google and e-book search
engines also returned back useful books and studies relating to this genre. A full list of materials referred to for this
literature review has been attached in the references.
Literature, Gender Stereotypes and Children
Literature is ubiquitous in a childs life. Be it through stories told by grandparents, stories of grandparents recounted,
bedtime stories being read out to children, children play-acting plots of popular stories, even children coming up with
self-conceived storylines literature is everywhere for them. Many of us are also introduced to published literature from
when we are as young as three or four years old. Reading, or being read to, makes us aware, conscious and inquisitive
of things around and beyond us. Thus, literature becomes a vital tool of knowledge acquisitions, of not just material

things, but also intangible necessaries, such as behaviours, norms, practices, etc. So clearly, as Peksen (2012) is right in
pointing out, literature invigorates acquisition of certain knowledge in accordance with the demands of society.
As mentioned, children come in contact with literature as early as ages three-to-four. And as Tibbetts (1978) makes the
case, this is the time in the childrens lives when they are especially impressionable and imbibe very effectively the facts
and attitudes that literature brings to them. Therefore it becomes paramount to know the kind of things that are getting
impressed upon in the minds of children at such an early age, because these become the foundations of further knowledge
gained by them, and almost all things thereon are filtered through the initial basic schemas that the children develop.
A whole lot of knowledge that is propagated in the society has for some time now being studied through the lens of
social construction, i.e., the continuous construction of knowledge by members of society together, so as to give a
rationalised meaning of things, and doing so primarily through the use of language. The emphasis on the tool of language
in this lens brings forth our attention to literature and the socially constructed knowledge imparted to children from it.
Peksen (2012) brings these two strands together in saying that literature fulfils one of its functions which is to promote
gender roles among children, so that children do not question existing social relationships... and behave in ways that
are gender appropriate. This aspect of influence of literature is necessary to look at because if not originating from it,
childrens conceptions of gender stereotypes are furthered and solidified from whatsoever sources they first attained
them. Vesel (2014) quotes studies which noticed that children start to give preference to certain toys in compliance
with gender stereotypes already at the age of eighteen months.
Common sense prevails in agreeing with Tibbetts (1978) contending that individuals may already have been
indoctrinated by other environmental factors, before being exposed to literature. Whatever prior exposures a child might
have had, but regular dosage of literary exposures, through textbook lessons in schools and nightly rituals of reading
stories to children by parents, according to Anderson & Hamilton (2005), influence the socialisation of both the
children and the adults involved.
A spillover of such socialization is seen in various instances of studies recording aspirations of fifth grade girls were
revolving around professions like secretary, nurse, teacher, actress, stewardess and singer (Pyle, 1976), making
stereotypic toy choices (Anderson, Broaddus, & Young, 2006), and even persisting up to adulthood, such as college
students using a default make main character and including traditional stereotypes when writing their own stories for
children (Anderson & Hamilton, 2005). The idea that literature plays into building up of stereotypic thinking in
children and sustaining in them long after is inescapable.
Childrens Textbooks Stepping Stone for Gendering
Schools are often seen as the welcome site for socialization of children by the norms and behaviours that society intends
to prescribe for its members. This is so because schools aim for uniformity in the knowledge learned by students, most
of which is owing to the textbook-education.
Since society intends to socialize into its members gender expectations, textbooks become the prime accessory in the
execution of this. While it is acceptable to an extent that uniformity which is characteristic of textbook education is done
so that a bare minimum standard of knowledge and education is imparted to children, in doing so a lot of unjustifiable
generalisations are made.

Paynter (2011) highlights the use of he as opposed to she when referring to a theoretical person, which is in line
with how representation of unnamed characters or usage of pronouns have been in textbooks an literature. Reading of
literature, be it childrens or textbooks, or even scholarly material, shows that there is an inexplicable need for the
authors to refer to the male pronouns. Gender sensitisation has lessened such usage, but it doesnt help that the educators
often unknowingly adopt such male usage (Narahara , 1998), resulting in 18 admitting that knowledge children are
taught in schools is male knowledge written largely by men, about men and from a male perspective. Teachers
unwittingly choosing gender-biased books for reading to children by teachers is also contributing to this phenomenon
(Narahara, 1998).
Content wise too textbooks indicate a strong gender-bias. Paynter (2011) mentions that men are mentioned seven times
more often than women in history textbooks, and that makes were more likely to be celebrated with stereotypical
masculine traits. While the primary effect of this, that children associate successful traits with being a male, is clearly
evident, what is missed by many is that the women are made relatively invisible against the portrayal of men in history
textbooks. Their contribution to historic events, ranging from cultural importance to participation in freedom struggles,
get considerably sidelined to the point where these texts unavoidably become agents of propagating male knowledge.
Thus, Ullah, Ali, & Naz (2014) are right in pointing out that textbook contents affect both the conscious and the
unconscious of the readers, resulting in effects that last lifelong in the readers mind.
How to be men and women Learning from Picture books and Fairy Tales
Sexism is abundantly present in childrens fiction from the longest time. Be it portrayal of princes and princesses, or
house maidens, or parents or even children doing things in their limited capacities and understandings various means
have been adopted to denote sexist presentation, both blatant and subtle, of characters.
Primarily featured in childrens fiction are picture books. Narahara (1998) significantly establishes that when text is
too complex for a young reader to comprehend, pictures serve the purpose of conveying the story. So, the reader highly
depends on the images to understand the text, and thus also subjected to the explicit portrayal of strictly defined gender
roles, for simplicitys sake, in the stories. Mushtaq & Rasul (2012) add support to it by saying that pictures do more
than context in a story by occupying a larger part of the page of the literary piece, they elaborate the piece and attract
the attention of the reader before the text.
Such portrayal includes showing women either as housewives and mothers doing dull or uninteresting tasks, or in semiprofessional occupations that are considered appropriate for females. There is no synchronicity with the diverse kinds
of professions that women are engaged in today. Pyles (1976) research, which analysed 154 of picture books noted that
while 13 of them had no mention of women at all, 83% of the remaining portrayed women in homemaking roles and
the remaining in gender stereotyped occupations such as teachers, maids and nuns. Defenders of these kind of
representations may present the argument that they are depicting those occupations that the children most often interact
with, however that is not a convincing line of argument. Such reasoning is what leads to ethnocentric views as the
definitions of world are scaled down to the limited experiences of the individual, hence defeating the entire purpose of
knowledge imparting and education.
Another aspect of gender representation in childrens literature is seen through fairy tales. The rewriting of various fairy
tales, by literary figures such as Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, were done to teach females to submit to patriarchal

rule (Peksen, 2012). By rewriting these tales along the lines of what was proper for children to learn, these fairy tales
reinforced revised patriarchal notions of power distribution and distribution of labour among the two genders. Like in
the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, women were limited to household work, and the virtues of submissiveness,
suppressed desires, and docility were shown to be praiseworthy and considered markers of beauty. By doing so, they
make such women desirable to men and also, automatically, inferior to men, as they would then be unable to act on their
own accord and would have to wait for the princes or the male characters to rescue them from their inability.
The solution of this lay in the happy ending of marriage, which came to be seen through fairy tales as the ultimate lifegoal for a well-mannered girl. Peksen (2012) tells us that the language used in these fairy tales was patriarchal and
authoritative as if prescribing a lifelong course of action and that through these, children learn that while females
should remain passive and wait for the prince to save them, males should always take action and save the world. Such
a rigid characterization not only makes women appear spineless for the reader, but also places unjustifiable responsibility
on the men, which boys get accustomed to, and unconsciously irrationally burden themselves with as they grow up
attempting to emulate these.
As for power distribution, being the good girl disempowers the women in favour of patriarchy because according to
the patterns in the fairy tales, Vesel (2014) says, good women are never active and never have power and their goodness
lies in their obedience to their husbands. The flipside of this is the reason why evil women are the ones who are
portrayed to be wielding some amount of power or control. The other side of this gender imbalance of power distribution
is toward boys and men, who are considered good when they aggressive, handsome, wealthy and thus are powerful
to be the dominant saviour to the humble female (Peksen, 2012). This is furthered by the adjectives that are used to
stress these gender roles of characters - big, horrible, fierce, great, terrible, furious, and proud were used for males,
whereas beautiful, frightened, worthy, sweet, weak, and scared were used for females (Peksen, 2012).
Such descriptions extended into the description of parental duties in a household. The consistent power differential and
the stereotypic roles yielded to regular depictions of the mother as care taking and emotion expending Anderson &

Hamilton (2005) as compared to the fathers, who were not only much under-represented as compared to mothers, but
were also markedly unaffectionate, and indolent with respect to child care. Such representations would take immediate
effect on the children exposed to this as they would try to recognise similar patterns in their own households, maybe
even impose their newly developed schema upon their parents and be more amicable with their mothers and more
hesitant towards their fathers.
Such constructs contribute to the internalisation of traditional gender roles in children. It doesnt help that these tales
are further improved upon and presented in the film genre and termed classics there is now a generation of children
who are growing up listening, reading and watching these classics with recommendation from their parents who were
the initial recipients of such gendered propaganda, and are happy to pass it on to their offspring in the form of classic
childrens fiction which teaches good manners.
Queer Characters in Childrens Literature
Queer characterisations in childrens literature, specifically in adoloscents literature, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Queer in this review refers to the gender concerns of people who break away from the socialised gender binaries, and
not with reference to sexual orientations. Such a view is necessary because studies have been carried out to note
childrens responses to gender neutral and gender undetermined characters, and how they understand and respond to

such characters. Furthermore, this review covers some transgender issues uncovered in the Parrotfish through the
transformation of the protagonists gender.
However, a queer reading was possible when looking into some of the conclusions from the study carried out by Paynter
(2011). In that study, it was found that several books in the sample featured characters that were gender neutral, and that
there was an increase in the androgynous characterisations. The presence of characters in childrens books which are
neither specifically feminine nor masculine would bring the children to attempt to place these characters in their
internalised gender stereotypes and find them to be a misfit. Since Paynter (2011) mentions that the authors and
illustrators leave the gender determination up to the reader, the children of both genders may be able to either see
themselves in any of these characters or may even free themselves from their stereotypic categorisations and see these
characters as a new category with greater possibilities as adults. Such a development would be in line with various
governments around the world making the provision of a third gender in their countries. Paynter (2011)s conclusions
were similar as to notice that when children identify with ambivalent and egalitarian book characters, their stereotypical
thinking may decrease and they may envision themselves in a wider array of occupational roles as adults.
In a more serious queer view at things, instead of such passive approach of authors and illustrators in childrens books,
authors of literature for adolescents, such of the book Parrotfish, base their writing by rejecting the traditional narrative
that holds back the recognition of transgenders. Mallan (2009) sees Parrotfish as an attempt of its author to explore
transgenderism in a family. The struggle of the protagonist Grady, a FtM (female-to-male) transgender teenager, to be
accepted in a binary system of gender is covered in the book.
An important point to bring up here is the contradiction that transgenders come across attempting to transition from
one gender stereotype into another so as to reject their belongingness of the gender they were ascribed at birth, as
opposed to the queer subjectivity that attempts to dismiss gender categories altogether which is highlighted by Mallan
(2009) citing Gradys feeling that my appearance was finally going to match my sense of who I really was, as opposed
to his exasperation about why the first question in relation to a new born child is whether it is a boy or a girl and why
we have to act as a girl or a boy, because Not all of us fit neatly into the category we get saddled in on Day One.
This is an important theme of the queer discourse in literature of little and young children as it opens up various routes
for the child to think about gender and its stereotypes. When they would come across a gender representation of this
kind and then attempt to relate to the characters exasperation with the dichotomy that the character is caught in, maybe
they too would respond the way Mallan (2009) reports Grady saying I wish there wasnt that big division between the
two. Such an exposure would bring children to question the gender dichotomy that previous literature, among other
societal agents, have been imposing on them and might bring them to, innocently if not consciously, bring it to the
attention of the socialised members of society around them, be it friends, family members, or complete strangers even.
Also, anthropomorphic childrens pictures books have been used in childrens literature to expose children to
transgender issues, often through allegory. Mallan (2009) again brings forth the story Odd Bird Out which talks about
Robert, a raven, who doesnt like to restrict itself to the dull black colour of a raven, wears bright colours, likes to dress
up, etc., which sets him apart from his sombre community. Robert is continually ridiculed and laughed at until he is
ostracised by the raven community for disturbing their norm. Roberts journey of rediscovering himself with a new
community of similar birds, renaming himself Bobby Raver, becoming popular with the raven community and then
being accepted by them forms the outline of this childrens picture book story. In narrating such a story the author is

able to cover very serious themes of transgender issues of rejection from their own community, needing to
remodel/restyle themselves in a way acceptable to them, and then seeking acceptance from the society they were
prejudiced from. Exposing children to such serious themes in still innocent ways would enable the children to be
conscious of the diversity that could exist in appearances and gender representations, letting them be freer of gender
stereotypes than their earlier generations could have been.
Childrens Literature Gender in the South Asian context
Usually when we contrast an Eastern perspective versus the western perspective we expect to find more dissimilarities
than similarities. However, in the case of gender stereotypes and their representations in children literature in South
Asia, the picture doesnt change much relative to their western counterparts.
Just as in the west, toys are considered an important part of childhood, and Mushtaq & Rasul (2012) point out that
gender stereotypes exist here too as parents and children fixate on certain toys for girls and boys, which in turn enhances
these stereotypes. Similar standards of beauty are imposed upon the female readers of childrens literature, recognising
household as the domain of the adult female whose appearance is confined to being beautiful, identity confined to being
homemakers, and roles confined to being the protector of the child (Mushtaq & Rasul, 2012).
The continuity of these representations becomes a matter of concern since women in south Asia have ever since
progressed in their education, employment and empowerment in general, however, the kind of themes that run rampant
in the nursery rhymes and picture books in South Asia still denote a much regressive image of women in the society. It
is compounded by the fact, Nasiruddin (2013) reports, that the traditions of these rhymes and stories, which adults are
also very cognizant of, are so ingrained that teachers and parents appear to overlook the stereotypic messages conveyed
through them.
This is true of the Panchtantra stories too, a source of moral stories which is widely read to Indian children, has strong
dpictions of the patriarchal social systems which, Shinde (2015) are key to womens inferior position. Through various
represntations of women as sexual objects, vices, and quotes such as She is a true wife, who does as she is told (Shinde
2015), these stories persistently reinforce the roles that befit womankind. While such goes on in the private sphere, the
education sector in the public sphere is no less spared, with similar male-exclusive language used to signify all
humanity (Ullah, Ali, & Naz, 2014), both in textbooks and by teachers. It is no wonder that despite being among best
English speaking regions in the world, South Asians in general continue to use the He pronoun in their speech and
With consistent emphasis on these gender stereotypes in both the private and public sphere through the medium of
childrens literature, a gendered social order is instilled in the minds of the children which gradually get predisposed to
not questioning and abiding by almost robotically.
Changing trends of Gender Representations in Childrens Literature
Research studies covered in this review reiterate the point of improvement in the depiction of females with respect to
their ambitions, appearance, and descriptions mentioned. However theres always a catch to this phenomenon Peksen
(2012) concluded they are still depictes as more interested in domestic life than boys are. A study covering the range
of childrens literature in the 20th century concluded that the earliest and most recent periods reflected greater balance
in ratios of males to females in title roles and mention in the books than did the middle decades ( Grauerholz &

Pescosolidop, 1989). The observation by Mushtaq & Rasul (2012) that childrens literature in South Asia are lagging
far behind the actuality in society comes into play here. Grauerholz & Pescosolidop (1989) hypothesized that the
various waves of feminism must have been depicted in the childrens literature of that time, but however found that
changes in childrens literature toward gender equality used to be slower in reflecting established social values, because
of being gradual in responding to social changes (Grauerholz & Pescosolidop, 1989).
A point regarding intersectionality in childrens literature comes to surface here. Narahara (1998) pointed out that in
picture books in the US, Mexican American females were mentioned only about 3% compared to the mentions of women
in general. The statistics were a little better for African American women, but both were stereotypically represented in
roles of maids and disciplinarians, respectively. The picture however slightly improved as women began to be more
accurately portrayed in response to the third wave of feminism, there was a noticeable improvement in the portrayal of
Mexican American females, with books about them increasing over a 90s decade. Minority females in the west thus
faced a double edged sword, being under-represented as women, and then under-represented due to their identity as
Mexicans. The stereotype that was popularized among young populations in the US could have been rooted in these
literature, compounded by stereotypic references to such women in the movie genre.
While some changes are taking place in the ecosystem of childrens literature, as mentioned above, there are other things
that are still travelling as undercurrents that the members of society havent been able to escape from. Benevolent
patriarchy is one such mechanism by which patriarchy has been able to bend itself to the new forms of gender
egalitarianism so as to maintain its hegemonic hold onto literature.
Researchers would study changes in childrens literature in many ways including the word descriptors used for female
characters, and Narahara (1998) reports that although the descriptors for women had become positive, such as
hardworking, it was to show that the role fulfilment was done successfully; in many cases these roles were still limited
to homemaker, laundress, etc. It was in these subtle ways that patriarchy had been remodelled in childrens books that
it was almost undetectable if one wasnt looking for it.
Changes also include a stress on bringing out non-sexist books, and it is indeed an appreciable effort, but much like any
other means of upwards mobility, this has also resulted in blind copy-cat behaviour of writers to have women characters
adopt masculine characteristics without the same being done in the reverse direction for male characters. While female
characters held onto their feminity, and male characters onto their masculinity, Diekman & Murnen (2004) report that
although girls were in addition shown to possess masculine traits, boys were not shown to possess feminine traits. Such
a scheme for deciding upon a books sexist nature misses the point by a good margin as it still keeps men locked up
in the gender stereotype that they should belong in.
Fox (1993) makes a valid point that subtlety has conditioned us thus far and that to undo its negative effect, writers have
to be equally subtle in their approach, which is what leads us to look into the scope interventions in this genre.
Interventions Why, How, and Why not?
There have been various utterance till now of the effects and influences that children may end up having with the kind
of literature that they are exposed to. However, there are more urgent observations that researchers have pointed out.
Pyle (1976) reasoned that boys through their readings assimilate attitudes and thoughts which have negative

connotations regarding the female role these are the connotations which girls needs to be freed from to explore and
make choices and decisions which need not follow the traditional sexist path society expects them to follow.
Furthermore, with respect to changes in the trends of childrens literature, while non-traditional characters and even
transgender characters are being introduced into childrens literature, Peksen (2012) raises a point of concern while
pointing out that once socialised to gender identities and stereotypes, children are only able to view these non-traditional
entities through their ingrained perceptions of traditional maleness or femaleness. This way, despite whatever
interventions may be planned, unless they counter the initial gendered socialization process, the children will only
remain stuck in the inescapable gender dichotomy.
Also, while children stay caught in binary gender system, parents also get caught in this trap. Parental stereotyping also
takes place in childrens literature and through that parents risk being subject to their childrens gendered expectations
by being categorised, Anderson & Hamilton (2005) say, in the spectrum from an affectionate caregiver to a deadbeat
absentee. The impact these can have on childrens behaviour, and thereby on the psyche of the parents can be too
sustaining in the parent-child relationship.
These concerns drive us to look into the interventions that required in this genre of literature. A major role is to be played
at the very beginning, by authors who write childrens literature, by being sensitive to the issues of sexism and gender
stereotyping. Even though strong strides have been taken in order to portray women in more powerful positions as
characters, authors have to, Narahara (1998) suggests, be able to counter the more subtle gender violations that current
books have. Along these lines, redefining the roles of fathers which tend to be oppressive due to the heroic character
male characters generally possess in childrens literature is probably a good place to start.
Teachers and parents also have a vital role to play in this part by being aware of the stereotypes that are portrayed in the
books they read or refer to children, and at various points raise questions and have discussions with the children to make
the latter more aware and urge them to be conscious and questioning about these constructions.
There are, however, some problems with these kind of interventions too, if done without extra precaution. If books are
only written to uproot the sexism in them, then in doing so, Pyle (1976) comments that there develops the potential for
producing poor writing style and quality in childrens books. Also, being non-sexist shouldnt be transformed in to
female superiority and male subjugation being portrayed in the literary characters balance in the scales cant simply
be brought about my tipping them in the opposite sides favour but by deliberately maintain them at an equal standard.
This review uncovers various aspects of gender agendas that are brought up in childrens literature and studies done on
them. The study wasnt able to cover many recent findings of the genre, however it benefitted with a comprehensive
availability of material relating to historical pieces of childrens literature, as it enabled the reviewer to look at the trends
that childrens literature went through. The look at South Asia was done at first to make up for the limited material on
childrens literature in India, however taking a look at the materials from Pakistan enabled to let the reviewer
simplistically generalise about the condition of childrens literature in the Indian subcontinent (here denoted by South
Asia) by itself and in relation to the western contents.

Overall, this review would help a researcher interested in a review of a global historical as well as contemporary look
at childrens literature to see what all has been written about this subject, and thereby build on it to carry out their
The reviewer feels that it is necessary to look into the gender agendas of childrens literature as it is a vital avenue for
children to gain knowledge and learn about how society works. This can serve as a useful juncture to revamp the
patriarchy-influenced constructions of gender that currently keep most individuals in their grip, and thereby liberated
all sections of the populations from sticking by the gender roles and stereotypes they subconsciously hold themselves
locked within.
[5010 words including parenthesis]


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