Skip to main content

Exploring Gender in Children's Literature from Cognitive Corpus Stylistic Perspective

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GLARE (Exploring Gender in Children's Literature from Cognitive Corpus Stylistic Perspective)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-08-31

Gender equality remains a critical societal challenge. But how do we ‘learn’ gender? Children’s literature presents one source of cultural norms, values and assumptions. It constitutes an important formative discourse. So children learn about gendered concepts and behaviours through the language use they experience in these (and other) texts. To understand this formative influence more deeply, the GLARE project examined the discursive construction of gender in corpora of English children’s literature – covering the period from the 19th century, which is the time when the first children’s classics, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, emerged, right up to contemporary fiction for children. GLARE explored gender on the basis of repeated language patterns studied with the help of corpus linguistic methods. Our overall aim has been to identify gendered patterns in the construction of fictional characters, to describe such patterns over time and relate them to patterns in non-fiction. To contextualise the analysis these gendered patterned, we have drawn on the concept of mind-modelling. This cognitive poetic concept has allowed us to interpret gendered representations of people in fiction with regard to societal patterns of the real world.
Glare employed both quantitative and qualitative methods, and compared textual patterns along two main dimensions: in children’s literature over time and between fiction and non-fiction texts. Our primary data sources were two corpora of children’s literature: the 19th century corpus of children’s literature (ChiLit), which was specifically compiled for GLARE and is now publicly available and searchable through the CLiC web application (clic.bham.ac.uk) and a corpus of contemporary children’s fiction, which we were able to access through working with our partner institution, Oxford University Press. The non-fictional texts were sourced from the Times Digital Archive. In our analysis, we treated gender as a binary, because of our starting point in the 19th century. Our results focus on two main areas: Firstly, by identifying, quantifying and categorising character “types”, e.g. mother or king, we were able to provide an overview of the gendered fictional society that is shared across a large set of books. Secondly, by focusing on patterns of body language presentation we were able to trace changes in way in which body language reflected gendered behaviour.

The GLARE findings were communicated through a range of channels

1. The project webpage (https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/glare) with its blog and Twitter account.
2. The interdisciplinary GLARE symposium held in April 2019 at the University of Birmingham
3. Presentations at 10 international conferences
4. At least 3 publications are currently in preparation, one of them an edited collection based on the GLARE symposium.
The GLARE project was set within a cognitive corpus stylistics theoretical framework; but due to its societal relevance the study of gender in children’s literature requires a truly interdisciplinary approach. Through the project symposium, GLARE successfully facilitated a dialogue between cutting-edge research from linguistics and stylistics, to children’s literature, and global ethics. Beyond academia, the objectives and findings of the GLARE project connect with issues in the current public discourse. This relevance has become visible, for instance, through our collaboration with the high-profile children’s book author Robin Stevens, who contributed to the GLARE blog and supported out “How to write a female villain” story writing competition. Other contributions to the blog include a guest post from the social enterprise “Lifting Limits”. We also addressed wider audiences through a talk at the Hay Festival 2019 (https://www.hayfestival.com/p-15454-michaela-mahlberg-and-anna-cermakova.aspx) a collaboration with the Bournville Bookfest and three articles for the Conversation. The wider impact of GLARE is also visible through its contribution to the National Literacy Trust Hub ‘Birmingham Stories’, which will continue the story writing competition launched originally by GLARE.
glare-rgb-s-textem.png
how-to-write-a-female-villain.jpg