Female Picture Book Characters
A Voice

Written by Marissa Poulson

Sheer chance. That’s what led Dr. Cyd Skinner (Ph.D., 2013) to her dissertation topic for her Ph.D. in Psychology program at Northcentral University. Now, having successfully presented her dissertation findings in a poster session at the Association for Psychological Science’s Annual Convention in Washington, DC, (May 23-26), Skinner fondly reflects on the circumstances that led to her dissertation, aptly titled: Gender and Language in Best-selling Children’s Picture Books: Who Gets to Speak?

Dr. Cyd Skinner, (Ph.D., 2013)

“Several years ago, I was finishing a statistics class and needed to create data for a hypothetical study for an assignment,” she recalls. “I also had to babysit my nephew Jack for the weekend and was prepping to write a class on Gender Psychology for work (Skinner is an assistant professor of psychology at a community college in northeastern Pennsylvania).”

A perfect storm broke when Skinner’s nephew left a copy of “The Cat in the Hat” out and she tossed it onto a desk next to Carol Gilligan’s “In a Different Voice.”

“In that moment, these two completely unrelated books did my work for me. All I had to do was ask the question: ‘What voice do female characters use in picture books?’ As I read through The Cat in the Hat, I was shocked to find that Sally doesn’t speak at all! Not just a different voice, but no voice!” relates Skinner. “She floats through the story like a ghost—appearing on almost every page, but mute throughout. I had read this book as a child, read it to my own children, and just that day to my nephew and I had never noticed!”

From there, everything fell into place. Skinner’s discovery led to a pilot study for her statistics class, and eventually, her dissertation.

“The results of my content analysis of bestselling picture books found that females account for 36% of the illustrations, but only 17% of the words spoken by male and female characters”

— Dr. Cyd Skinner

“The results of my content analysis of bestselling picture books found that females account for 36% of the illustrations, but only 17% of the words spoken by male and female characters,” reveals Skinner. “I know that research is still a success if a relationship is not found, but it was exciting to see these numbers unfold from an idea into research into the final dissertation.”

Of course, she never dreamed at the time that she would be presenting these findings at a national convention.

“Once or twice over the years, I’ve had yearly APS student memberships, but I have to thank my dissertation committee for strongly encouraging me to submit a poster presentation proposal for the annual conference,” shares Skinner. “When I was prepping for my defense, every friend and colleague seemed to have some awful war story about their dissertation. I feel so fortunate to have had a lovely, supportive, passionate committee who, in the wrap-up to my defense, were an absolute cheering squad for my work and suggested I submit to APS.”

That’s not to say Skinner isn’t confident about her work.

“Since I have never published or presented at this level of a conference, I simply thought the APS Annual Convention was shooting too high, but the confidence and excitement I heard about my work from Drs. Haussmann, Stones and Keller was absolutely infectious. I ended up applying about two hours before the deadline,” she laughs.

While it may sound as if Skinner’s doctoral journey was a walk in the park, reality sets in when she starts listing everything that transpired in her personal and professional life during her years at NCU.

“When I started the program, I was in the process of divorcing, had just spent my first tough year as a full-time faculty member, and was raising two almost teenagers very much on my own,” she begins. “Since then, I’ve earned tenure and promotion; kept a household afloat; taught 100+ college classes to 3000+ students; got cancer, had a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation; bought three used cars; flooded my basement twice; chased flying squirrels and bats around my house with a racquetball racquet; fostered eight dogs and one Danish exchange student; tried to learn to play the harmonica, and I’m sure there have been a hundred other things that I don’t even remember as having been challenges at this point,” she says, catching her breath.

With such a busy life and the closest university with an acceptable Ph.D. program about four hours away round trip, it made sense for Skinner to choose NCU’s online doctoral program. Her decision paid off in more ways than she could have imagined.

“My experience at NCU has been overwhelmingly positive!” shares Skinner. “I have been lucky enough to have Dr. Haussmann as my dissertation chair, and I can’t thank him enough. The respect with which the faculty and advisors have treated me and my ideas allowed me to develop work that I have genuinely enjoyed, and has led to a much richer education than I ever could have foreseen at the start.”

While Skinner plans to apply for a full-year sabbatical from teaching, she’s not completely certain what she will do with so much time on her hands. As for any challenges on the horizon, Skinner is unfazed by what the future may hold.

“I wish I could say that determination and hard work and the knowledge that you can do it will win the day… but life can be tricky,” she muses. “At any rate, the cancer doesn’t seem to be coming back, but the Danish exchange student just called and he’ll be back this summer!”