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Books for Girls and Boys and Both

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This post here was inspired by this post on Nosy Crow’s blog. There’s a fascinating discussion going on in the comments over there, do check it out. Also here and here. Oh and here.

I’ve been thinking about publishing and gender and pink for a long time. Some of the books I write might be considered to be “for boys” –  in the pink/blue divide that exists in marketing and bookshops and people’s heads. This makes me stroke my chin a lot and wonder what it means to write “for boys” or “for girls”. I don’t, when I’m writing, think “this will really blow the y chromosome’s mind”. But a lot of publishing is set up to channel books one way or the other, towards girls or towards boys. Not all publishing, by any means, but it’s certainly a growing trend.

I feel uncomfortable about this and I don’t quite know what I think. Trying to work it out, though. Perhaps writing this will help?

I think I used to feel that all princessy books about falling in wuv and wearing nice clothes were innately rubbish and worthless. Because I didn’t like them, and because I disagreed with the ethos of “woman, be pretty, get married, shut up” that I smelled on them. But, if a book gets a kid reading, is it really worthless? If a child wants to read something, finds it interesting, who am I to stop them? Surely it’s my job as a writer, as a person who works in publishing, as someone who cares about the future of the next generation, to encourage all reading?

So, princess books, not the spawn of satan I once thought. Though maybe one of his cousins… but, whatever I think about princess books (I mean, unreconstructed ones, not feminist reworkings of em, which many actually are nowadays), snatching the pink sparkly things out of girls’ hands is not the answer.

What I do feel is my responsibility as someone who makes books – and a responsibility shared by the whole publishing industry – is to provide kids with options and variety of reading matter. A child of either gender should get the chance to sample all kinds of books – about princesses, pirates, space and sleepovers. If a little girl is given a princess book, I might shudder and flinch, but it’s all good – so long as she’s also given plenty of books with quests and girls who ride on dinosaurs (ok that’s quite specific, but, Pirates of Pangea in The Phoenix comic is AWESOME).

The same goes for boys. If a boy feels he can’t have something he wants – because it’s pink and he’s told pink isn’t for boys – that’s just as harmful as ramming pink down the throat of a girl. Let kids choose what they want to read (and try not to market them into submission). Offer them a buffet of brilliant books and let them be who they want to be, and read what they want to read.

All easier said than done – marketing and advertising are powerful forces in children’s lives, and tastes can be bent out of shape by what’s available. If a girl is always handed pink books about fairies, how will she know whether she likes books about racing car drivers? If society screams “this is for girls, this is for boys”, it’s hard to listen to your own voice and preferences.

So, where does this leave publishers?

This is the closest I’ve come to a simple solution: keep trying to offer diversity whenever you can. Ask yourself, before you publish a book, does this *need* to conform to a certain set of rules to sell? And, if we’re publishing a pink book for girls, can we do something different at the same time? Something gender neutral? Something that allows for kids’ experiences outside of the expected gender norms? Keep trying, that’s the only answer I can think of. Which I imagine is what all feminist publishing persons are doing anyway! So….as you were? And here’s hoping many more join you.

Also, don’t make pink books out of laziness, and do some proper research into sales trends that don’t presuppose the pink/blue divide. 🙂

12 responses »

  1. Brilliant post, I couldn’t agree more. Some publishers do fantastic books that are non-gender specific (in fact you know just how much we loved your recent sticker books and your superb Usborne body book) but some seem to want to use that as some sort of guilt lever to encourage parents that they’re doing the right thing by making sure children never read anything specifically aimed in a certain way at ‘genderism’.

    Any parent who gets their children reading books, pink or otherwise, gets a massive thumbs up from us – and the mere fact that we are enjoying a golden age of children’s books, that libraries are able to stock the latest titles from big publishers, and that high street book shops (both independent and chain) are doing fantastically well in children’s book sales seems to highlight that more – not less – parents are engaging with their kids through books. Hooray!

    As I said on my blog recently, my daughter did not learn to love disney princesses, the colour pink, and cute fluffy animals from us and she gets a massive say in what books she reads and is bought, and it just so happens that some of the time these books are inherently ‘girly’ in design, content and appeal.

    Thankfully she also loves ghosts, ghoulies, icky stuff, monsters, pirates, witches, dinosaurs and a whole horde of other subjects – again not always necessarily because we steer her in that direction.

    The current argument seems to consist of book folk who would like to see the entire market move towards a non-gender-specific uniformity, which quite frankly is as scary as a market that consists of gender-specific (even by colour) books. There is also the small question that most publishers committed to publishing and promoting these books do so at a premium cost, like producers of organic produce who feel that a surcharge for making people feel better about what they buy is always applicable and acceptable.

    We will always promote the idea that books are for everyone, regardless of their gender, favourite colour or cultural background but above all else books are important and books of any shape and size, colour or content are far better for our children than so many other things they could distract themselves with.

    • I think you’re right about a golden age… while the Pinkification issue is something that bothers me (or at least makes me go hmmm), it’s definitely worth remembering that, as a whole, children’s books right now are amazing, and I’m rather jealous of kids today for getting such a feast.

      The more people we can invite to that feast the better. 🙂

  2. Very well put – I think that for me, not a raging feminist, but a woman who has never known how to apply makeup, this really sums up the ambivalence that I feel about it all. AND emphasises the point about children’s choice – they have to feel they can choose and not be pressurised.

    • I’m really enjoying reading people’s thoughts about this – realizing that so many people worry about it and find themselves conflicted. How to allow kids to be themselves while giving them a range of options and models for their identity…hard!

  3. Indeed. I would hate to think that my daughter felt ‘bullied’ into liking something that wasn’t inherently ‘girly’ just because it was frowned on in some way. I am very proud of the fact that, even at 4 3/4 she just likes really good quality children’s books and can quite easily see the wheat for the chaff. If she says something’s rubbish, or doesn’t take to it, that definitely goes into the blog but it’s very good to note that this very rarely happens which hopefully means we’re doing something right 🙂

  4. In The Rescue Princesses series, my princess characters spend a lot of their time escaping to hang upside down from trees and practise their ninja moves. I used princesses as a device to frame the story, an idea that I had many years ago when my own daughters liked a lot of role play and adventures. It’s also worth noting that with Brave, Disney Pixar isn’t exactly doing conventional princesses anymore either. Hopefully, parents will judge the stories themselves rather than assuming a princess book is pink.

    • I’m realizing I’ve been using pink/princess as a shorthand for “sexist stuff” – because, of course, princesses can be awesome. I mean, I grew up wanting to be Princess Leia (when I wasn’t being Han Solo, anyway). It sounds as though your Rescue Princesses don’t fit the passive sappy princess stereotype at all! Ditto The Clever Princess (one of my fave books growing up – she drove a forklift tuck :))

  5. I love how this debate is continuing all over the place! One of the most interesting of the points raised that I’ve seen is about trusting children to recognise quality and make their own minds up. Although I think if all girls saw were pink books that fit the stereotype that might be hard, I do believe it’s an important point to keep in mind. I laid out eight books in front of my six year old daughter and asked which she liked the look of. Her picks included ‘Tiara Club’, one about a Bollywood dancer ‘Aleanna’ (I think), two Horrid Henrys, Mr Gum and Clarice Bean. The two she didn’t pick was because she didn’t know them. I took from that that my job is to give her lots of options across the spectrum and she can make her own mind up.

    • Sounds as though you’re doing that job admirably! I agree. Offering children a range of options key… which the publishing industry does need to keep in mind. It’s easy to think, “X works, let’s do lots of books like X”. When choice is between lots of very similar options, that’s not real choice I feel.

      There’s also the issue of chain bookshops in trouble, having to be more conservative in their choices… or at least, thinking that they have to be.

      Indy bookshops are great on this score – my local shop, Stoke Newington Bookshop, always manages to have a great range of books for kids, from a wide range of publishers including small ones.

  6. I am very lucky to have a boy child and a girl child, meaning that whenever friends/family end up buying massively gender-specific books, both children get to look at and potentially enjoy both books. Will be interesting to see how this continues as they get older.

  7. It’s the same for adults as well though isn’t it. The covers aren’t pink anymore, but the type face and cover images can scream ‘Chicklit altert!’ Personally I avoid anything which tells me to buy it on the basis of my gender, but you can’t argue with the thousands that don’t avoid. Isn’t it better that people are reading at all, even if they’re reading gender-targetted trash?

  8. Pingback: Gender and children’s book publishing – update | Anne Harding Training

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