Occasional Paper Series #44

Taking a Journey to the Land of All: Using Children’s Literature to Explore Gender Identity and Expression with Young Children

by Kerry Elson and Kindel Turner Nash

As a powerful form of media, children’s literature can help young people develop deeper and more nuanced understandings about gender, gender identity, and gender expression (Crisp, Gardner, & Almeida, 2017; Crisp & Hiller, 2011; Tsao, 2008). Gender identity is a person’s internal understanding of their gender, or “the roles, behaviours, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for girls and boys, and women and men… different from… binary categories of biological sex” (World Health Organization, n.d.). Gender expression denotes the ways in which we outwardly communicate our gender (Crisp, 2020; GLAAD Media Reference Guide, n.d.). Schema and stereotypes about gender identity and expression develop between the ages of three and five (American Psychological Association, 2015).

This article shares how Kerry Elson used children’s literature to explore gender identity with young children. Kerry is in her eleventh year of teaching and has been teaching in New York public schools for five years. She identifies as White, cisgender, and nondisabled. The population of the school where Kerry teaches kindergarten and first grade, Central Park East II in East Harlem, New York, is richly diverse in language, ethnicity, and the lived experiences of the community. Eighty-eight percent are students of color—about 47 percent Latinx, 31 percent Black, 10 percent interracial, Asian, and American Indian.

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About the Authors

Kerry ElsonKerry Elson teaches kindergarten and first grade in a loop at Central Park East 2, a public elementary and middle school in East Harlem, New York. She has contributed articles to Rethinking Schools and Edutopia and has presented at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention as well as Bank Street’s Teaching Kindergarten Conference. She is a graduate of Bank Street’s early childhood and childhood general education program.

Kindel Turner NashKindel Turner Nash is an associate professor of early childhood education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her scholarship and teaching focus on critical issues in early literacy learning—particularly how issues of race, language, and culture interface with children’s school experiences. Her most recent edited book, Toward Culturally Sustaining Teaching, was published by NCTE/Routledge.