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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Some New thoughts on Role Models and Children’s Books

I just read this line in Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open, a woman is speaking about what it was like to grow up in the 1950s:  “as we grew older we saw our mothers — our role mdoels, the women we were to become — thwarted in their efforts towards self-realization and expression.”  For a daughter of that time, of nearly all periods of human history, the mother (grandmother, aunt) is the role model. Upclose, the girl sees who she is to become — how to function in a family, run a household, care for, nurture others. I was struck by the phrase because it is not how I, or most any males I know, would speak about themselves. Sure we watched our fathers (grandfathers, uncles) and tried out some of their behavior. But we were not looking upclose for a role model — our models were heroes — for me, Teddy Roosevelt, then Bill Russell (Boston Celtics), or JFK or MLK or Einstein or Bertrand Russell, or Freud — we wanted to gain the skills and courage to be great, to be big, to triumph.

Today of course we make many efforts to give girls heroic models, and to give boys a sense of the value and importance of family life. But reading that line and thinking about what it implied gave me an insight into our world, books for young readers. I really have never understood the repeated focus on role models (good or bad) in so much discussion of our literature. It always felt odd to me — like, why are you talking about that? And now I suspect it is because girls were (are?) trained to envision their own future through immediate role models, and so expect books to carry on the instruction — looking to them for inspiration, guidance, alternatives — almost like trying on different lives for size. This may be so natural that it becomes an assumption that books are aiming to show role models, and thus a significant question in evaluating them is how they handle this task.

If you notice a weird tone in my writing — as if I were examining a strange object — that really is how I feel. Yes I am aware of moral qualities (not just moral topics, but also the actual potential for enhancing moral depth in the reader, or for abusing the reader) in books for younger readers. But I suppose I just don’t expect a reader to pick up a book in order to find who he or she is “expected to become.” I do want to inspire readers with heroism. I can see how a character “gone wrong” can help a reader who is facing a choice to envision possible consequences. But I wonder if within the critical phrase “role model” there might be a particularly female mode and expectation of reading — a carryover from the days when daughters learned who they were to be by watching their mothers, while boys learned who they were to be by taking on tasks on the farm — or, for that matter, debating with the sages as they read the Torah.


  1. I’m a bit puzzled. When you write that boys were not looking up close for role models–that you were looking toward the heroes–doesn’t that in and of itself point to the problem? In a world where women could not BE heroes–indeed be anything but the culturally assigned roles of grandmothers/aunts/etc–who else where little girls supposed to look up to?

    I suspect I am not completely understanding your post. But in regard to why role models are continually brought up in lit evaluations, I wonder if it is more of a nod to our obligation to respect the psychological/emotional stages/needs of younger children.

    Also, I wonder if when you ask if there is a particularly female mode and expectation of reading, you aren’t opening up a can of worms. It begs the question–is there a male mode and expectation of reading? What about a latin mode or African-American mode?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Vicky: Of course the old split was problematic in exactly the way you say. My point though is that while the world is to some degree changing (as I said, more public roles possible for women, more appreciation of family life for men) I suspect that that idea of the domestic role model still is more influential for women and that it shapes how they (who overwhelmingly make up the world of creating and evaluating books for young readers) evaluate books.
    Stages of childhood? Sure that comes up. But when I read that quotation in the Rosen book it gave me a new insight into an insistent strand in the evaluation of kids books that I have always found odd.
    No doubt I open up that can of worms — but what I am bringing up is that the kids book world has tended to normalize, to treat as defining, a mode of reading which — as that rare creature a male in the kids books world — I sometimes find odd. As just one example, the lean towards fiction and away from nonfiction.
    I do think books and reading played different roles in the socialization of boys and girls in the past, and I am exploring the question of whether some of those older modes of thinking are still at play.

  3. Thanks for the clarification, Mark. I would agree that it is always good to question presumptions and their impact. I never thought of the pull away from nonfiction as related to an unconscious normalization of fiction as the “primary” or preferred mode of reading, but I can see where that’s worthy of exploration. I always enjoy the mind “stretching” I get from your blog!

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    There has been much discussion of gender and genre in books for young readers. My goal is to attune readers to their own assumptions — if you are reading a book with an eye to role models, why? what assumptions about readers and reading is contained in that view? As I’ve mentioned, I am writing a book on J. Edgar Hoover, some have asked why — why would I want to spend time with a person like that? But he is both important and fascinating — just like, for example, Richard III. I want adults to ask themselves why they assume a hero is more interesting (or more important for young people to read about) than a powerful dark calculating person?

  5. Shirley Budhos says:

    Marc, I’ve just caught up and though I haven’t read Ruth Rosen’s book, and I might though I don’t share her views about feminism’s impact on our lives. In my dotage I still remember earlier times as well as the 1950s ,and I do know that the term “role models” is now blown out of proportion. Unconsciously, of course, children are influenced by their parents but also by their teachers, extended family and friends, and society, but you made the distinction that books influenced boys more. We girls who read and daydreamed read for pleasure &, information. We were not so different from boys. The term role model was not part of or vocabulary. It was the creation of later critics with an agenda.

    And in the traditional world that feminists disparage and hold as dreadful examples, we observed shrewd, capable, hardworking women in the fields, factories, offices, schools. We read magazines & books (mostly written by men) , listened to stories, and noted that girls possess many talents shared by boys. It’s not as simple as the feminists depict, for they disparaged domestic life, and what it entails and they still do.

    The term “role models” is very American, and illustrates self-consciousness and self-advertisement to an extent that it is almost irrelevant to others. In the US each generation thinks it has invented the wheel and pays little attention to those in the past who had sufficient knowledge, intelligence, and endurance to cope with challenges and daily life.

    I cannot minimize the impact of reading books though, of course, I was unaware of Young Adult literature when I grew up. Primers were fantasies, so we read adult literature, and I agree that it is odd to perceive the purpose of reading to find a role model. But perhaps, Jo March was one, as well as other “heroines”. And, biographies were dazzling and persuasive, as well as memorable. I’ve been following James Atlas for a long time.

    Rosen’s vocabulary is the jargon of a movement, whether political, sociological, or psychological. The “cultural assignments” omitted many women who worked alongside their partners, knew about money, running businesses and farms, and during war time took on responsibilities, and supported families. As an example, when we visited Scotland in the 1960s, I noticed that women ran businesses, hotels, factories, and carried heavy loads. I was told that it was because so many men had been lost in WWII, so I’m sure that in earlier times women took on many tasks which conventional thinkers assume are men’s roles.

    Somehow, in the jargon of a political movement gender roles reduce the similarities in men and women. It’s all deductive and very simple, but the either-or principles do not convince me. Nowadays, authors in every genre can move on from those confining traditional models, for people are more complex and interesting, and reading is a pursuit more variable than Horatio or Rosen perceive.

  6. Shirley Budhos says:

    Oops, many typos: reductive/deductive! Please pardon.