Exploring Gender Stereotypes in Stories

This lesson allows children to look at one or more picture books that counter gender stereotypes. After discussion of the book, children will engage in a creative writing activity geared to fostering individual identity and resisting social definitions of what and how a boy or girl “should” be.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • practice critical literacy skills around themes of gender identity and stereotypes
  • develop a nuanced view of the potentially harmful nature of stereotypes
  • begin developing an understanding of the socially constructed nature of gender, as well as some of its sources
  • follow all steps of the writing process
  • see themselves as authors with the potential for standing up against detrimental gender stereotypes 
Essential Questions
  • What is gender identity?
  • Where do stereotypes about gender come from?
  • What does it mean to think about gender as a social construction?
  • How does and can literature contribute to and/or counter gender stereotypes?
  • How can we as authors form a new social construction of gender that is less harmful and limiting?
  • children's books in your classroom or school library
  • one or more children's books that include a character who does not conform to gender norms; possibilities include Tomie De Paola's Oliver Button is a Sissy, Rafe Martin's Rough-Face Girl, Cheryl Kilodavis' My Princess Boy and Robert Munsch's Paper Bag Princess
  • student writer's notebooks and other class materials associated with the writing process
  • chart paper
  • graphic organizer for character development (3-5), Preliterate (K-2) and Literate (K-2)


gender [ jen-dur ] (noun) refers to the social roles, behaviors and traits that a society may assign to men (masculine) or to women (feminine)

(Note: There are many different ideas about how to define the term gender. We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of Teaching Tolerance’s work is for students to come to individual and collective understandings and criticisms of the term that make sense to them and their personal and developmental needs.)

gender identity [ jen-dur ahy-DEN-ti-tee ] (noun) the sense a person has of their own gender and how they relate to their gender

stereotype [ STER-ee-oh-tahyp ]
 (noun) an overly simple picture or opinion of a person, group or thing

social construction [ SO-shuhl kuhn-STRUKT-shuhn ] (noun) an idea or definition created and enforced by a society



Gender stereotypes are very common in children's literature. Classic children's books and even more contemporary stories frequently portray boys and girls in terms of specific socially defined gender norms. In recent years, some children's authors have made an effort to develop characters who exist as individuals, often in explicit defiance of stereotypes. This sort of literature can be helpful to students talking about any sort of difference, as well as to children who are beginning to understand the depth and harmful nature of gender stereotypes.

This lesson allows children to look at one or more picture books that counter gender stereotypes. After discussion of the book, children will engage in a creative writing activity geared to fostering individual identity and resisting social definitions of what and how a boy or girl “should” be.



  1. Explain to students that today you are going to be talking about how children's books can reinforce, or play into, gender stereotypes (i.e., ideas about how girls and boys “should” be) and also how children’s books and the characters in them can stand up against such stereotypes. Introduce the idea that gender is partly a social construction and that books can contribute to this construction. Invite students to spend a few minutes perusing the picture books in your classroom library with a partner. Encourage them to make observations about how authors represent boy and girl characters. (Note: If this aspect of the activity feels too unstructured for your group, you can also provide them with two to three specific picture books to leaf through and discuss.)
  2. Come together to allow students to share observations. Ask students how they think children’s book authors might contribute to the construction of gender, and challenge students to question whether this is fair. Remind or explain to students what the word “stereotype” means. Help them talk about examples of children’s books that play into gender stereotypes. Ask how it might make boys or girls feel to constantly see gender stereotypes reinforced in books.
  3. Read aloud a children’s book where the main character seems to resist or stand up against gender stereotypes. (Note: See Materials section for suggestions.) As you read, stop to elicit student responses to the question: What personality traits and behaviors show us that this character rejects gender stereotypes? Chart student responses. When you are finished reading, help students look back over the list they have come up with. Ask how it feels to read about a character who stands up to so many gender stereotypes. Do students think it is helpful for such character to exists, or is it confusing? Do they find the character appealing? Help them think about why or why not, and consider how characters like this contribute to or change a social construction of gender.
  4. Explain to students that they are going to write a profile of a character who stands up against gender stereotypes. Provide students with the appropriate graphic organizers and have them work independently to begin developing their characters. Students who finish the graphic organizers early can synthesize them into a written composite description of their character. As students work, circulate and ask them questions that might push their thinking a bit further. (Note: Preliterate students may sketch instead of writing to describe their character, but if you use this option, try to make time to help them flesh out aspects of their character such as likes and dislikes that may be harder to show through a sketch than physical appearance.)

    Note: Be mindful of the fact that students may use this activity to express aspects of themselves they wish they felt freer to show. If students choose to focus on characters whose gender expression is quite different from their own, congratulate them on their mature ability to take on a different perspective. Conversely, if students choose to focus on creating characters very similar to themselves, congratulate them on their bravery in self-expression. Allow students to talk quietly amongst themselves as they work. This is an activity where collaboration can push thinking to a deeper level. Finally, be alert to the possibility of students falling into “safe” aspects of gender expression. It is common, for instance, for girls to focus on “loving sports” as a representation of girls defying gender stereotypes. This is certainly valid and important, but if you feel your students are ready, you may want to probe them to think about more complicated ideas like “expressing anger” or “caring little about physical appearance.” Students focusing on boys may have a harder time because there are often fewer safe ways for boys to defy gender stereotypes.
  5. Come together as a class and allow students to share three to five things they are proudest of in their character. Ask the class: How would our ideas about gender identity be different if at least half the characters in children’s books were like our characters? Help them use their answers to understand the extent to which gender is a social construction. After discussing this question, congratulate students on working so thoughtfully with complicated and difficult questions. You may want to have them publish their character profiles and create a “Standing Up Against Gender Stereotypes” display (Note: Encourage students to create their own title for the display.) in your classroom or school library.


Applying What You’ve Learned

Think about what you’ve learned about gender stereotypes in literature. Pay attention to how characters from different genders are represented in the books you read both inside and outside of school. In a reading notebook, respond to these questions:

  • Which gender stereotypes are most frequently reinforced by characters in books, and why? Give some examples.
  • Which gender stereotypes are most frequently resisted by characters in books, and why? Give some examples.
  • How do you wish children’s books and young adult books were different in terms of how they contribute to the social construction of gender?


Extension Activity

Once they are done creating characters, partner students with classmates to write a story involving their two characters. Make sure their stories include a setting, a problem, at least three main events, and a solution or resolution. The stories may or may not explicitly deal with gender stereotypes. Once the stories are complete, allow students the opportunity to share them with their classmates.


ELL Extension 

As they create portraits of characters, have students make a separate bilingual glossary of adjectives (describing words) that help describe a person. They can write each adjective they use on a separate note card, then write its translation on the other side. They should draw an illustration to go along with each word, then compile the note cards into a glossary.

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