Back in June, Laura Reiko Simeon wrote about how race is handled in Swedish picture books. We’re thrilled to host Laura again as she sheds light on how Swedish picture books handle gender and gender-ambiguous characters.
You sit down with your favorite 4-year-old to read a sweet, wordless picture book featuring a little duck swimming down the river. Quickly, without thinking too hard, what pronoun do you use to describe the duck? Do you say, “Look at him paddle past that shaggy dog!” or “What does she see in the sky?”
If you were like the mothers in a 1985 study, you would use masculine pronouns for 95% of animal characters with no gender-specific characteristics. A follow-up study from 1995 examined children’s use of pronouns and found that by age 7 they had absorbed and were repeating these same gender stereotypes. Listen to those around you: has it changed much since then?
In the US, Sweden is widely regarded as a leader in gender equality, although many Swedes still see a need for greater progress. Meanwhile, our own biases are apparent, for example when we consider gendered toys. Compare this 1981 Lego ad, with its blue jeans and t-shirt-clad girl to the pink-infused products targeted at girls today. As with other social issues, picture books reflect concerns in society at large – but how they’ve done so is dramatically different in the US as compared to Sweden.
The daughter of an anthropologist, Laura Reiko Simeon’s passion for diversity-related topics stems from her childhood spent living all over the US and the world. She fell in love with Sweden thanks to the Swedish roommate she met in Wales while attending one of the United World Colleges, international high schools dedicated to promoting cross-cultural understanding. Laura has an MA in History from the University of British Columbia, and a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Washington. She lives near Seattle.
As the Librarian and Diversity Coordinator at a school with a global population, my guiding vision is that the books I offer must be both mirrors that reflect children’s lives and windows that open up new worlds. This is a challenge when the small percentage of children’s books in English showing people of color is largely restricted to stories of oppression far removed from my students’ daily lives of homework, soccer, and wishing for a puppy. Of course it’s important to be aware of injustice, but it sends a powerful message if we only show racial diversity in settings of suffering and conflict.
While “diversity” is not generally the first word that comes to mind when Americans think of Sweden, today fully 20% of Swedes are either immigrants or children of immigrants, many from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Combine this with Swedes’ commitment to children’s rights and a vibrant literary and artistic community, and you have the perfect setting for stimulating debates and boundary-pushing creativity.