Books are meant for everyone, right? Sadly, when it comes to children’s fiction that’s not quite true. Many book publishers still target different books at boys and girls by applying gender stereotypes, and that’s a problem.
A campaign in the UK called Let Books be Books is gaining momentum and forcing the publishing world to take stock about how it targets children’s books. The campaign calls on publishers to ditch gender specific titles because, the campaign argues, by gender marking books publishers are essentially reinforcing stereotypes, particularly about young girls and how their interests should be things like clothes and beauty and being little princesses. Similarly, gender marking books may also stifle young boys whose interests do not fall neatly into the camps of sport or adventure.
Tessa Trabue from Let Toys Be Toys has explained the campaign as being important so that children don’t feel limited: “Every child is different and has their own individual taste; it makes no sense to push boys and girls towards separate books. We believe that books are for everyone; children should have the freedom to read about or color in robots, fairies, pirates or flowers, without publishers telling them otherwise.”
The campaign has garnered strong support among leading UK authors including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the “His Dark Materials”†author Phillip Pullman, and significantly, children’s†laureate Malorie Blackman.
The campaign has been criticized as a move to ban books and police what gets written. This is unfair. The campaign is actually a measured approach to the problem of gender-specific books. It does recognize the reality: boys and girls often have different interests. No one can dispute that. Yet at the same time, boys and girls should not be introduced so young to the implication that their gender should in any way limit their interests.
Examples the campaign is targeting include Usborne’s Illustrated Classics for Boys, which the publisher describes as “a collection of stories of action, adventure and daring-do [sic] suitable for boys.” Compare that to its title Illustrated Stories for Girls, which contains “brand new stories about mermaids, fairies, princesses and dolls.”
Usborne has now joined a growing list of book publishers that, recognizing these gender stereotypes, will no longer package titles in ways that specifically aim at gender parity.
However, other book retailers have said they won’t stop selling books in this way. Michael O’Mara, whose company controls Buster Books, has said that gender specific books are easier to sell and it’s a question of supply and demand, telling the Independent:
“It’s a fact of life how a very large percentage of people shop when buying for kids, do it by sex. We know for a fact that when they are shopping on Amazon, they quite often type in ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls.’ All boys donít like one thing and all girls the other, but the fact is lots of boys like the same things and lots of girls like the same things. We can’t ignore the fact that they are definitely different.”
It seems that the Independent found this line of argument unconvincing because literary editor Katy Guest has pledged that under her leadership, the Independent on Sunday and affiliated Independent publications will no longer review books that explicitly indulge in gender stereotyping. Wrote Guest in a comment piece for the Independent:
“Any Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses that crosses my desk will go straight into the recycling pile along with every Great Big Book of Snot for Boys. If you are a publisher with enough faith in your new book that you think it will appeal to all children, we’ll be very happy to hear from you. But the next Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen will not come in glittery pink covers. So we’d thank you not to send us such books at all.”
A number of retailers including Waterstones have also said that they already don’t or in the future will not carry explicitly gender stereotyping books or create gender specific displays.
In case we think that this is only a narrow problem, concerns have been raised in the past that literature by female authors is routinely given “chick lit” or “romance” covers, even if the books don’t fall into those categories (see this great experiment by author Maureen Johnson for more). There’s also the problem of the overt sexualization of the female body in sci-fi and fantasy covers and how that also needs to be tackled. Clearly, the publishing industry like most industries is still one that is evolving when it comes to issues of gender, sexism and sexualization.
As such, the Let Books be Books campaign is a force for positive change. Again, it is not about banning books, but rather discouraging book sellers from falling back on easy gender stereotypes that could be limiting for children. In essence, Let Books be Books seems to be about letting kids be kids whatever their likes or dislikes — something we can all agree is a worthwhile goal.
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