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Review of  Language, Gender and Children's Fiction

Reviewer: Monika Pleyer
Book Title: Language, Gender and Children's Fiction
Book Author: Jane Sunderland
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 24.764

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This book presents current and older research into how fe/male characters and gender relations are represented in novels for child readers. From the perspective of a critical feminist approach, combined with insights from stylistics, this volume investigates a variety of children’s books from the last 50 years, as well as fairy tales, due to their potential of being recontextualised.

Although not divided by sections, the book’s chapters could be grouped into two parts: The first four chapters present a theoretical perspective on the topic and introduce the main concepts, methods, and goals of this book, while the following five chapters deal with case studies of specific books or text types.

Chapter 1, an introductory chapter, discusses the importance of the concept of fiction for the present studies. Drawing on early studies of gender and fiction beginning in the 1960s (e.g. key French theorists Irigaray, Cixous and Kristeva), the chapter summarises the main objective of the book: the analysis of textual representations of gender, i.e., ideas about masculinities and femininities expressed in texts, either through written texts (e.g. characterizations) or through accompanying visuals.

Chapter 2, titled “Language and Gender: Issues and Applications” establishes a model of the core concept of “gender” underlying the book, which sees it as an idea or set of ideas about men and women, boys and girls, and gender relations. It advocates the application of such a model to the analysis of fictional texts. Seeing gender as a constitutive, discursive practice, the notion of “discourse” (Fairclough/Wodak 1997) is further exemplified.

Chapter 3 (“Content Analysis: The Early Days”) presents a critical account of content analysis, whose main focus lies on actors and their activities, not on the language used in the text. As this method is used throughout the book, the chapter presents a careful discussion of its benefits and limitations. Content analysis can demonstrate and raise awareness for the (over-) representation of gender, traditional and non-traditional occupational and social roles, and gender role stereotyping. However, it is limited in that it does not consider the writer’s perspective: an author may wish to talk about men or women only without being discriminatory, or s/he may present gender-stereotypical characters as a target for feminist critique. Also, content analysis by itself cannot address texts’ impact on the self-image or gender perceptions of child readers. Further, summarizing early studies of female and male characters’ attributes and activities in relation to gender, the chapter concludes that female oppression and marginalisation (Adler 1993) was the usual case in older texts.

Chapter 4 (“The Importance of Language and Linguistic Analysis”) then investigates the significance of language and linguistic analysis for understanding gender. Drawing on methods used in the fields of stylistics and critical discourse analysis (CDA), the chapter makes a case for the importance of analyses of transitivity and mood, as well as speech acts (cf. Knowles/ Malmkjaer 1996: 77; Halliday’s (1971) ideational grammar, and van Leeuwen’s (2008) social actors/action). It also looks at levels of ideology (Hollindale 1988) which influence and subject-position readers. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to the few studies which have focussed explicitly on the language used to describe characters and their actions.

The following chapters, i.e., Chapters 5-9, involve case studies of gender representations in diverse types of stories for children with a different focus (e.g. whether linguistic or visual).

Asking the question of “Happily Ever After?”, Chapter 5 analyses the language surrounding the depiction of marriage proposals and acceptances in a selection of fairy tales by Perrault (1957), the Brothers Grimm (1983) and Andersen (1872), while also considering differences to earlier versions of these tales. The chapter conducts a simple linguistic analysis, investigating mood and actors in proposals in 14 fairy tales, and concludes that apart from some notable exceptions, there is no indication as to the point of view of the brides -- most proposals stem from male characters.The end of the chapter then briefly touches on feminist rewritings of the fairy tales in question.

Chapter 6, titled “Sixty Years of Reading Schemes,” discusses both early and recent studies of content, language, and visuals in older and modern British reading schemes, i.e., early readers children’s book series. While it is shown that gender equality has improved from early, dominantly male-oriented reading schemes, the chapter demonstrates that especially parent figures are still represented unequally in terms of gender occupations and activities.

Chapter 7, written with Mark McGlashan, focuses on “Stories Featuring Two-Mum and Two-Dad Families.” Conducting an explorative linguistic and visual analysis of 29 stories, i.e., the majority of texts dealing with this topic, the authors seek to answer the question of which strategies are used to create positive representations of these family models and establish three different narrative strategies for the promotion of same-sex families. The ‘gay strategy’ explicitly references gay identity, often by explaining the word to the child in the story. In contrast, the ‘different’ strategy shows diverse approaches to rationalising a two-mum or two-dad family model for children while not using the word ‘gay’; this is often accomplished by the child questioning their family situation after having witnessed other families. A third strategy, termed ‘backgrounding,’ is employed by books in which gay sexuality is taken as read; these texts focus on issues around the personal and family life which are not specific to gay families.

Chapter 8 (“‘Miss Katherine Shot the Sheriff’: The Literary Affordance of ‘Achronological Intertextuality’”) focuses on a closer qualitative analysis of two Newberry award winning books for older children, “Holes,” by Louise Sachar, and Linda Sue Park’s “A Single Shard.” Using the concept of achronological intertextuality, the chapter investigates traces of feminist discourses in male coming-of-age stories.

Focussing on “Hermione, Harry and Gender Relations at Hogwarts,” Chapter 9 addresses gendered discourse, gender construal and gender relations in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. Analysing transitivity and semiotic action in one episode of the first “Harry Potter” novel, as well as general character traits, the chapter seeks to understand how the main female protagonist is construed differently to her male counterpart(s) and establishes traditional and progressive discourses underlying the representation of her femininity.

As a conclusion, Chapter 10 summarizes key aspects and proposes different areas of future research, such as a closer analysis of different masculinities or femininities in a single text, readers’ reactions to visual representations of characters, or contrasting findings with books for older children. It further devotes a lot of space to research focussing on the consumption of texts by child readers of different genders.


Chapters 1-4 review the theoretical background to the studies presented in Chapters 5-9, as well as explain and concretise previous research in the field of gender and children’s literature. In doing so, the book also addresses the limitations of earlier studies and thus points to areas for further research and theoretical improvement. These chapters may thus serve as a broad overview for students familiarizing themselves with the history of research of gender and children’s fiction.

While the book is mainly addressed to researchers and students, it is also accessible for laypeople interested in or working in the field of children’s fiction (e.g. authors and/or publishers of children’s reading material). Also, authors from any field studying children’s literature might profit from the findings of this book, since, e.g., core texts on translating children’s literature from the early 1990s still speak of the genre of “girls’ fiction” and uncritically quote texts that are seen as sexist in the present volume (see, e.g., O’Sullivan 1992: 91-95).

Chapters 5-9 focus on case studies of quite diverse types of children’s books. As the individual chapters don’t presuppose knowledge of the preceding ones, it might be recommended to read only select chapters, depending on one’s research interests.

Most of the chapters present data that is based on small-scale studies. Overall, the outcome of these studies is well worth reading, although further research might be needed to achieve statistically sound findings on a larger scale. This is especially so since the excerpts analysed are very short at times (in one case, less than one page of the novel is concerned), and only a single criterium is analysed. This raises the question of the explanatory power of these analyses, and thus, the degree to which these results can be generalised to other texts for children might be fairly limited. Further, in some instances, the selection of criteria for the analyses seems somewhat arbitrary. In particular, readers not intimately familiar with research in gender and children’s literature might profit from more detailed explanations as to the relevance of the chosen criteria.

A further problem concerns the data selection, which is highly subjective, as the data sample of the case study presented in Chapter 5 consists of texts in the author’s possession which she is intimately familiar with. However, Chapter 7 presents a study in which the data is balanced and where the criteria for selection are given and are justified in a scientifically satisfying manner.

Chapters 6 and 7 devote much space to a visual analysis of gendered representations of male and female characters. The book stresses the importance of visuals as complementing and supporting narration in children’s books. Hence, it makes a case for a visual analysis to underline and support findings from content analysis and linguistic analysis. However, concerning the title of the volume, visuals are given quite a lot of room. Quite a similar case can be made for the importance given to content analysis throughout the book. In content analysis, the researcher focuses on a text in terms of what it is about, not on its structure or the language used by characters or the narrator.

A quantitative analysis of, e.g., the occupation of adult characters in a given number of children’s texts, can give valuable insights and help to expose and understand hidden sexism and/or non-progressive gender ideals in fiction. However, the book might have profited from a stronger focus on language. This is especially so since Chapter 4 stresses the limitations of content analysis and advocates that content analysis always be supported by a linguistic analysis.

While analyses in the book focus on the language used to represent characters, no space is devoted to the question of how characters construct their own gender and that of others using language, nor the subject of how readers understand and evaluate these constructions of gender. This is mainly due to the author’s stance, which sees talk in fiction as fundamentally different to talk in natural, spontaneous interactions, which thus cannot be analysed using the same methodological means.

Contrary to this view, Tannen (1984) and Yos (1996), among others, have argued that literary dialogue is not that much different from spontaneous conversations and can thus be analysed in a similar fashion. Hence it would have been desirable for the book to have analysed more talk by characters. This remains one area for further research.

To give a final evaluation, this volume presents a theoretical summary of previous research in the field of gender and children’s fiction, as well as case studies. While the latter could have been more sound methodologically, the findings tie in with older studies, and thus, the book paves the way for further, in-depth research in these and other, related areas.


Adler, Sue. 1993. “Aprons and Attitudes: A Consideration of Feminism in Children’s Books.” In: Claire, H., Maybin, J. and Swann, J. (eds). Equality Matters: Case Studies from the Primary School. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 111-23.

Fairclough, Norman and Wodak, Ruth. 1997. “Critical Discourse Analysis.” In: can Dijk, T. (ed.). Discourse as Social Interaction. (Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Vol. 2) London: Sage. 258-84.

Halliday, Michael. 1985. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Arnold.

Hollindale, Peter. 1988. Ideology and the Children’s Book. Stroud: The Thimble Press.

Knowles, Murray and Malmkjær, Kirsten. 1996. Language and Control in Children’s Literature. London: Routledge.

O’Sullivan, Emer. Kinderliterarische Komparatistik. Heidelberg: Winter, 2000.

Tannen, Deborah. 1984. Conversational Style: Analysing Talk among Friends. Norwood, NJ:
Ablex Publishing Corporation.

van Leeuwen, Theo. 1996. “The Representation of Social Actors.” In: Caldas-Coulthard, C. and Coulthard, M. (eds) Text and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge. 32-70.

Yos, Gabriele. 1996. „Reden sie wie du und ich? Gesprächsstilistische Untersuchungen an epischen Texten für junge Leser.“ In: Feine, A. & Siebert, H.-J. (eds.). Beiträge zur Text- und Stilanalyse (Sprache -- System und Tätigkeit Band 19). Frankfurt a.M. u.a.: Lang. 181-92.
Monika Pleyer is a PhD student at the Department of English at the University of Heidelberg and the Heidelberg Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her PhD project is on “A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Impoliteness in Children’s Literature.” Apart from impoliteness studies, her research interests include general pragmatics studies, gender studies and semantics.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1441138188
ISBN-13: 9781441138187
Pages: 272
Prices: U.K. £ 27.99