Thoughts on the call to boycott gender specific books for children

Welcome to the age of yellow children’s books. Or green. Any colour really, provided they’re not pink or blue.

Welcome to an era in the UK where a child’s right to select any book they wish to read could soon be over thanks to the latest and very influential PC bandwagon brigade calling for a boycott on the publishing and promotion of books considered to be gender specific.

Censorship? Political correctness gone mad?

Or is gender neutralisation of children’s books the sensible way to proceed in 2014?

What precisely is gender specific children’s literature and why the calls to boycott?

Well, it seems that there is a bit of debate backtracking going on amongst the public (predominantly female) supporters of this cause around its scope.

The main UK players in support of eliminating gender specific children’s books are: our children’s laureate, some broadsheet literary editors, selected publishers and Waterstones book store.

By way of example, the literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, Katy Guest, stated her position in a recent article as follows:

“I, as the literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, along with my colleagues on The Independent and http://www.independent.co.uk’s children’s books blog, support the campaign #LetBooksBeBooks and will not review “any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys”

In response to the furore that her article created, she felt it necessary to answer her critics, amongst whom, she says, branded her a nazi and asked when she would be starting to burn books.

The wheels on the bandwagon go round and round

I have read both the original article and her subsequent response, and it would be fair to say that the message that she is trying to convey is somewhat confusing, demonstrated particularly in her surprise that many in the general public just don’t seem to “get it” agree.

Probably the most confusing aspect I encountered in reading her perspective is how she cannot seem to clearly define what she means by “aimed at just boys, or just girls” despite her opening gambit seeming perfectly simple and clear. Consequently, a fair bit of digging around within the flurry of recent articles has been required in order to try and understand fully why Katy Guest et al believe this is a reasonable stance to take. I have listed a few of the key arguments in favour of the boycott below.

1. A boycott against any book titled “A girl’s guide to….” or “A boys guide to….”

OK, so there seems to be some validity associated with this point given that many of these gender specific books do tend to err on the side of traditional stereotypes and do explicitly attach gender thereto. For example: girls pictured ballet dancing (etc); and boys with bows and arrows (etc) but not vice versa.

These books are hugely popular – look around any house with children and you will probably find at least one.

Rather than calling for them being boycotted completely though, could authors not be encouraged to update these slightly so as to be more all inclusive and reflective of the equal opportunities open to each sex? If supporters are to be believed, boys and girls would appreciate the opportunity to relate to both ballet and bows and arrows in each edition. To be fair, my experience of newer editions of such books is that they have already moved in this direction but may not be the case for all.

Fair cop and probably fairly easily solved for future editions without a need for these to nuked altogether?

2. Boycott on reviewing gender specific children’s books by certain national newspaper editors on the ground that to do so would “leave out” the opposite sex.

What a headline grabbing load of nonsense (frankly).

Failure to accommodate both girl’s and boy’s (and everything in between) book reviews is an issue of column inch restriction and design. It is also a failure to recognise that girls and boys may have fairly distinct (some may say traditional) gender based interests and that there isn’t actually anything wrong with that irrespective of whether such inclinations were “born” or “made.”

Again, if a key argument in support of eliminating gender specific books is to expose both girls and boys to hobbies and interests in an inclusive way, surely reviewing all types of children’s book is a good thing irrespective of which sex they are supposedly aimed at? At least this would enable boys, girls and their parents to pick out their own preferences rather than this being censored at source? This smacks of a huge “power trip” for the literary editor and it is unsurprising that some parents plan to boycott these newspapers as a result.

Incidentally, the same theory seems not seem to extend to the weighing up of adult literary reviews in the same newspapers. An example would be refusing to review “chick lit” books or say an Andy McNab on grounds of an anticipated target audience.

The broadsheets seem happy to give permission to us grown-ups who have been raised with gender specific books to navigate and even overcome strong masculine and feminine stereotypes/characters to buy the books we want to. Phew, thanks guys.

Sorry to be sarcastic but the argument seems to be an ever circular.

3. To have separate girls and boys editions of books just means that parents have to spend more money buying one of each.

Good point on the face of it, however, if it makes a book more appealing to a child if it sparkles or farts over a computer game, is this not a good thing? Is this not precisely why many books have several different covers – to broaden the appeal? Whilst it is true that a boy may be embarrassed to buy a sparkly book if he is interested in ballet, is this a compelling enough argument to neutralise recognition of gender in books altogether? Surely the role of parental support kicks in at this point? The subject generates many more questions than answers.

Katy Guest addresses this as follows:

“Are pink covers barred?

No… And nor is the word “princess” in a title. Glitter, on the whole, is positively welcome.
The strange process that has turned the colour pink into a code for “stereotypically girlie” (when the Victorians thought that pink was for boys) is an interesting subject, but not one to go into here. However, any publisher who releases a pink book about baking with pictures of girls on the cover, alongside a corresponding blue book about football with boys on the cover, is obviously sending a message. Not quite “explicit”, but really not very far off.”

Ho-hum.

Where would we be without Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn, Nancy Drew, Mallory Towers, Adrian Mole and so on?

As a little girl, I devoured books aimed at girls. Yes, things have moved on since the eighties, but what gives a public voice to arbitrarily decide how and what our children should read?

Yes, a girl might be more drawn to a sparkly cover or a boy to slugs and snails (and in some cases vice versa) but so what. Surely all that matters is the joy, imagination, pride of ownership and reading skills that is fostered with buying a book.

It would also be very sad to see libraries around the country being forced to chuck out anything non compliant. We all have a responsibility to our children to guide them but ultimately they should be free to make their own choices.

I shall watch the debate develop with interest and potentially alarm.

Here is the article from The Independent that inspired my piece http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/we-stopped-reviewing-books-explicitly-aimed-at-just-girls-or-just-boys–the-response-was-incredible-here-we-answer-some-of-our-readers-questions-9200125.html

Anyway, that’s my tuppence worth.

What do you think?

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19 thoughts on “Thoughts on the call to boycott gender specific books for children

  1. Personally I am infuriated by books which are very specifically targeted (and clothes and toys and pretty much anything) because children are subjected to awful peer pressure. I don’t mind the content of the book – it’s the marketing that winds me up. My daughter hated sparkly pink stuff which left her with pretty much nothing because the alternatives were “boy things”. Thank goodness for Harry Potter!
    My boys were also broader minded than marketing wonks believed and preferred “neutral” books to football or war. Thank goodness for Studio Ghibli!
    I’m not clear on definitions in this current debate but having shops divided into boys or girl zones is madness in my opinion. It restricts children ridiculously and makes them feel “wrong” for having different tastes.
    OK, rant over 🙂

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    • Thanks for stopping by to comment, it’s such a divisive issue isn’t it? It doesn’t help that the spokesperson I mentioned above returned to qualify her original broadbrush article with a number of exceptions/afterthoughts which muddy the waters further about what is ok and what is not. My main frustration is with the publishers and other gatekeepers with platforms wanting to remove the choices available to parents and children at source as opposed to parents and children choosing what they like and don’t like themselves. I’m all for neutral alternatives (suspect my daughter will have a similar approach to
      yours) provided the rest is also there too for those who do like the more gender oriented stuff as I really don’t think it does kids any harm if that’s what they are into. Even if there is exposure to peer pressure, as horrid as that can also be, surely there are valuable life lessons to be learned from that i.e. be who you want to be -something as adults we still have to be prepared to tackle head on at times? Ps: All rants welcome here anytime – really interesting to hear different viewpoints!! 🙂

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  2. I don’t mind girl/boy toys, books etc. Is it not up the the child and their parents to decide what items they buy. If a girl likes boy toys let her play with them but if she wants pink, glittery princesses then so be it. Everything in this world is becoming to regulated with what people think should happen to satisfy the PC parade.

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    • Hi there and thanks for commenting – I totally agree. Critics seem to worry about boys and girls being “pigeonholed” into old fashioned stereotypical gender roles & neither the twain shall meet. I can only speak from a “first world” perspective, but I have genuinely never seen a contemporary children’s book specifically aimed at girls (or boys on flipside) that infers that the only option for a girl is to become a housewife (for example) and so feel this argument is completely outdated and invalid. In fact it seems that the opposite holds true: the role of the housewife is actually being demonised as a worthless role which is sad news for all the equally hardworking stay at home mothers out there. Provided children know that they are free to be what they want to be as demonstrated THROUGH CHOICE of publications available to them, I really can’t understand what these parents have to fear!

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  3. I am a fan of “buy your child whatever book will get them reading” thinking. No, I am not a fan of the heavy-handed gender marketing shenanigans, but banning certain books? I am even less a fan of that.

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  4. As a person who is still very much a kid, I’m a little torn on this. I grew up with super boy-oriented stuff (action man, GI Joe, transformers, Hot Wheels etc…) but also more gender neutral content (I have a ridiculous amount of Uncle Scrooge and Mickey comics and a lot of Legos and puzzles etc…). I had the amazing privilege of choosing these things. I ended up choosing things marketed for me and gender neutral stuff in roughly equal proportions. Same goes for books, I guess. It’s ok for these boy-oriented and girl-oriented books to be published and reviewed so long as there is gender neutral books to balance things off. It’s up to the parents to make sure their kid doesn’t live off of stereotypes, but banning them from society isn’t the solution. Even if some hard lined feminists want to deny it, the majority of young girls would prefer ballet to soccer even if given the option and vice-versa.
    Others may disagree, but I’ll join team free will on this one.

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  5. I agree. It’s a parent’s job to censor their own children’s books, if necessary but not the publisher’s job. Some girls want (and some boys want) the sparkly girlie books and they should have it. And some boys (and some girls) want the targeted-for-boys books. It’s actually counterproductive to eliminate the books on either end of the gender spectrum.

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  6. The feminist in me is totally for banning gender specific books. Particularly when I notice the girl’s section to be full of fluff, glitter and a bunch of nonsense while the boy’s get cool stuff like robot building, architecture, and medieval knights. I don’t view as censorship but rather a beginning to combine all literature and let kids read what they want. Some boys like glitter, some girls like robots.

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    • Hi Patricia, thanks for commenting. I guess my personal feminism is about letting girls feel empowered to be whatever they choose – whether a home maker, ballerina or astro physicist (and boys too respectively), and to achieve this, I think that the choice of extremes plus everything in between should be positively encouraged. Then there’s something for everyone. So interesting to hear everyone’s views!

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