News Release

Gendered recommendations in 19th century list of books for boys and girls set the stage for field of children’s literature today

Book Announcement

Carnegie Mellon University

Children’s literature became a distinct category during the Progressive Era in the United States, largely through the work of professional “book women” like children’s librarians, publishers, and teachers. In a chapter in a new book, researchers examine one of the first attempts to formalize a selection of existing literature into a canon of children’s books, the 1882 pamphlet Books for the Young by Caroline M. Hewins. They also analyze the books selected by Hewins, with a focus on books designated for boys only and for girls only.

The chapter, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, appears in Corpora and Rhetorically Informed Text Analysis: The Diverse Applications of DocuScope.

“Hewins’ booklist featured more than a thousand titles and is widely acknowledged by children’s literature scholars to be a major milestone in the formation of the field, but the actual texts are understudied,” explains Rebekah Fitzsimmons, assistant teaching professor of professional communication at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, who coauthored the chapter.

“Our analysis found that Hewins assigned a narrower scope of text types to the category of books that girls will like, which sets a precedent for future gendering of readership for the field of children’s literature.”

Children’s literature seems omnipresent today, but this category of publishing did not exist until the turn of the 20th century, when Progressive Era social reform spurred advocates to establish a category of literature for children. Scholars now view the lists of recommended books written by these knowledgeable librarians (like Hewins) as foundational. But little attention has been paid to examining the stylistic and rhetorical elements of the books themselves.

In this chapter, Fitzsimmons and her coauthor examine what drew Hewins to select specific titles for the first edition of the list of books she compiled. Using DocuScope, a computer-based, rhetorically informed, dictionary-based tagging system created by faculty in Carnegie Mellon’s English department, the researchers identified patterns, including how Hewins selected books for gendered groups of readers (i.e., books designated as especially good for boys, especially good for girls, or appropriate for a general audience).

The books Hewins recommended for girls were largely place-based in spaces like home or school; were more likely to be written in the first or second person; and were more likely to be focused on negative emotions, acts, relationships, or values. In contrast, the books she recommended for boys were far more likely to be high in reasoning and confidence (a marker of nonfiction texts) and included settings beyond home and school.

In addition, Hewins’ recommendations shed light on the era’s ideas about which occupations and hobbies interested boys and girls. For example, she suggested books on manufacturing and the sciences for boys, and recommended books on household arts and amusements for girls.

“Given the importance of this list in children’s literature studies, our analysis reveals what a knowledgeable book expert of the 1880s considered gender-appropriate reading—including insights into how Victorian notions of binary gendered spheres intersected with ideas of gendered readership,” notes Gisele (Xinyu) Wu, who was a senior in the statistics department at Carnegie Mellon when she coauthored the chapter.

“But it also demonstrates that Hewins’ selection of books according to those cultural norms established standards about the kinds of books girls like or don’t like, and tells us how those choices continue to shape children’s literature today.”

Fitzsimmons plans to continue to work on this project with assistance from Carnegie Mellon’s statistics department’s capstone teams (which help demonstrate students’ mastery of subjects or fields of study), comparing lists from other librarians published in 1904 and 1940.

Relatedly, in a separate chapter in another book, Fitzsimmons examined Hewins’ 1882 canon-formation project and her pamphlet. She explored the language Hewins used to bolster the ethos of her pamphlet and to discuss books suitable for boys and girls, and her attempts to wrangle the emerging field of children’s literature into usable categories. She also parsed the political maneuvers of this canon-forming project meant to establish children’s literature as a respectable sub-field of literature, therefore creating an argument for valuing the expertise of children’s librarianship based on taste, discernment, broad knowledge and hands-on experience. This chapter appears in Children’s Literature and Childhood Discourses: Exploring Identity through Fiction.

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