Research for Writing Children’s Books: Stereotypes

After reading this article I began to think, for the first time, intentionally and critically about the subject of stereotypes in American Children’s Literature.

In this post I’ll be using naughty words like racism, oppressive and I’m sure you will locate a few more. When I do, beep your nose. Yes, I said “beep your nose”. I work with children all day– don’t judge me.

As a white Midwestern American female (I can feel the stereotypes stirring in you already, resist the dark side, Luke.) I feel I’ve been inoculated with a great ignorance concerning my own use of stereotypes. Until now. After reading the above article, which basically was a complaint, I feel like I’m a retired logger admiring the trees in the forest for the first time.

So how do I use stereotypes? Like many Americans, I’m not aggressive with my use. It’s more, or less, used in passing. Like when I am joking with friends and drop the, “well that’s because you’re [enter stereotype].” Or when I’m speaking about some politically significant world-event and end the subject with, “well, that’s because they’re french” or “a Jew” or whatever other nationality representing millions of individuals I just lumped together into one disgusting baked stereotype.

I want a war. A war on Stereotypes.

Who’s the enemy?

Stereotypes, the harmless and the profane, both are breeding grounds for racism and seeing others as less-than which abhorring-ly gives us a sort-of  “exceptional” view of ourselves. A prominent world leader pointed this out about Americans last year. Russia isn’t our enemy, we are.

Does this subject upset you? It angers me. My anger is two-fold though: 1) How am I suppose to joke now? Is there no room for satire? 2) Stereotypes seem to narrow our view of the world. Having a skewed view of anything upsets me, i.e. feeling ignorant of the world around me. (I’ll be writing more on question two than one. Maybe some folks reading can duke-it-out about satire and editorials in the comments below.)

Well, let’s define our terms. A stereotype is a lot of things. In printing “stereotype” describes the process of making a copy of the metal type, or type plate, by pouring or pressing another material like papier-mache over the plate and peeling it off to be used for printing. But we’re talking about people, not metal. Here’s how Dictionary.com defines stereotype:

“a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group: The cowboy and Indian are American stereotypes.

Well that’s ironic, like rain on your wedding. (to kill your Alanis ear-bug click here)

For those who needed to kill a bug, welcome back. Now, focus.

The exact stereotype that offended the author of the article above is used to typify stereotype in the dictionary! Maybe this is meaningful? Maybe her complaint is valid?

Now, I need to ask some different questions. Instead of asking, “can’t people take a joke?” I need to ask, “can I make a joke that people actually think is funny?” Or, better yet, “can I make a joke that edifies others instead of smashing them into a type plate?”

It’s commonly known that people are not nice neat little malleable type sets. We aren’t sorted and neatly placed into type-labeled drawers on the earth’s surface-print shop of countries. We are unimaginably different, yet surprisingly knit together with similar threads of emotions, likes, dislikes, etc. Stereotypes just don’t leave room for people to surprise us. And, they are oppressive.

Stereotypes, at best, passively oppress people. Pressing them like papier-mache into a metal type plate, forcing them, squeezing them into every faulty assumption our exceptionally-narrow minds can make. This kind of thinking butchers creativity, mutilates beauty and beheads discovery.

Trends (I’m beeping my nose!) seem to be the bastard child of stereotypes, not creativity. Is it okay to like a trendy (beep) thing? Of course. But what makes a trend trendy? When people who really don’t like or care for a certain band, brand or movie feel pressed into the mold by ridicule and rejection simply because they don’t share you’re enthusiasm. Yeah, I’m talking to you(and me) who hate and judge and huff all over your(our) latte(s) when someone doesn’t like what you like. Stop it.

Stop judging people and making them feel inferior because they don’t like something you do. Likewise, don’t let their distaste deter you if those purple skinny jeans and V-neck is really what you like to rock. Haters gonna hate. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got to be jaded by it. If we hate people for hating we’re only giving in to the culture of hate. (resist, you must resist the dark side, Luke!)

Stereotypes are assumptions we make about groups of people by pressing them, disregarding their individuality, into our small-minded molds. If you’re like me (beep- that could be a bad thing..) you may think, “well, stereotypes help us to make sense of the world and people in it.” Well, I would like to respond to myself (and others),

“People aren’t that simple. We are the most complex creatures walking, climbing, crawling, wheeling on the planet! And when you love someone or something, you try to understand them, or it. You ask questions, stop assuming to know and please reject your own innate desire to judge everything! People don’t need your opinion about them. If they do want your exceptional opinion, wait for it… they’ll ask!”

Okay, done yelling. I’m getting too excited. (beep)

This is just one way to love people better. Quit judging and stereotyping and forming opinions about them. Let them surprise you.

*     *     *

I attribute this revelation about “loving people better” to the life-altering sanctification of God’s Spirit in my life. I am sorely faulted and sinful offending both God and others daily, but because of his gracious love shown through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, I believe he is helping me to love people better everyday. If anyone has the right to judge, it’s a perfect creator, but he chooses to be slow to judge and patient with us. Every breath is a gift. Don’t waste it.

If you want to expand the conversation please comment below and we’ll talk! This is more of an introduction to the subject. Maybe later posts we can dissect it further, like answering questions about satire, politics, editorials, etc.

Happy Reading everyone.

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About Rochelle Cavanaugh

I'm a jack-o-all trades and master of none. I enjoy a myriad of subjects especially dealing with the world, Presbyterianism, anthropology, sociology and all things people/nature related. And I enjoy these subjects through different medias- art, music, poetry, folklore, dissertations, text books, and the list goes on. I'm a school custodian/maintenance coordinator, wife of a full-time graduate student, and mother of a 4 year old. If it's unrefined and honest, you have my undivided attention.
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4 Responses to Research for Writing Children’s Books: Stereotypes

  1. Hmmm, I think we’ve put too much emphasis on the evils of stereotypes. They’re not inherently negative, they can be humorous, positive, or simply a way of using shorthand to communicate. We have stereotypes about dogs, about running in the street, about growing up in certain parts of the country.

    What really bothers me about children’s literature is lecturing, preaching. Everything is always a parable. The problem is kids aren’t dumb, they know when they’re being programmed. Read too much advice about recycling, having good manners, etc, and not only does it interrupt the story, it makes it harder for us to teach kids anything. They become resistant because they start to think that everything we have to say to them has an ulterior motive.

    • I agree. Stereotypes can be humorous and a witty shorthand, but when using it to typify people, I think we come to a fault.

      I love and absolutely agree with what you wrote about “what really bothers you” in children’s literature. Line by line, I think you’re spot on. It seems if someone has to be told the moral of a story, the story didn’t do it’s job.

  2. Chelsea says:

    I have thought about stereotypes a great deal. I often joke that they wouldn’t be stereotypes if there weren’t a grain of truth in them, and I do think that’s correct to a degree. Our brains love patterns and do attach themselves to them, and that makes sense just for our general survival.

    However, I think there is a difference in understanding that stereotypes might be true and reacting to others as if they are always true, all the time. A stereotype really is just your brain recognizing a pattern and individuals deserve to be seen as more than just a part of a pattern.

    I used to do it at Costco sometimes. For instance, I noticed that the majority of the people who asked that I not use boxes in the grocery line were Hispanic. In reality, that was just my brain recognizing a pattern; it was a passive act. But, if I then took that passive observation and decided to assume that every Hispanic person in my line would abstain from using boxes, that would have been faulty because I would have been completely ignoring the individual concerns and needs of a customer.

    I’m going to steal a bit of advice from some of the vloggers that I watch: Imagine people complexly. Our brains really love patterns because they make us feel safe, as if we can predict the future. But if we rely solely on observed patterns, we will ignore the needs and emotions of those around us. I know I’m guilty of this even on a personal level: not so much “your race always does ___________” but “you always feel _____________ about this, so it won’t be any different in ____________ situation”

    Stereotypes at any level beyond that of passive observation completely ignore the opportunity for personal growth and change. They also deny the individual needs of a person in favor of a shallow pattern.

    Anyway…those are my thoughts…hope they were moderately coherent. I really appreciate this post because it has caused me to really consider the way I think about others. Thanks for bringing this touchy issue up.

    • Miss Clark,

      I love your brain. Especially what you said about how stereotypes “ignore the opportunity for personal growth and change”. That is a thoughtful insight and exactly where I was going. Thank you for adding that to the conversation. Great example too from real life. I applaud your insights and thoughtful response.

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