What does gender distinction have to do with children’s reading choices?
Pink and Blue
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that gender specific clothing became common, i.e., pink for girls, blue for boys. The distinction coincided with prenatal testing determining the sex of an expected arrival. Parents shopped for merchandise to ‘prepare’ for the arrival.
The determination of pink for girls and blue for boys could have gone the other way. Post-war parents were advised that pink was a stronger colour, more suitable for boys. Girls suited prettier, delicate, dainty blue. In 1927 Time magazine printed a chart showing gender-appropriate colours for girls and boys in leading US stores. The general advice was pink for boys, blue for girls.
Unicorns and dinosaurs
Supermarkets, chains and Amazon are profit led. Children’s reading choices in these arenas offer a wealth of products featuring unicorns for girls and dinosaurs for boys. Bookwagon makes independent choices. We have a couple of books featuring unicorns or dinosaurs. One is Dan Santat’s sophisticated picture book Are We There Yet? It plays upon the familiar travel refrain. The long car trip becomes a journey through time, including a prehistoric past. Its appeal is its creativity and skill. ‘Are We There Yet’ appeals to readers, whether boy or girl.
Pink and blue and books
Unicorn and dinosaur books are presented differently. Unicorn books will feature a glitter background in the first, with pink, purple and aqua tones. Dinosaur books are created in primary colours, with dark or stark white backgrounds and bold font lettering. These seek to dictate children’s reading choices, subtly.
A leading publishing house offered Bookwagon a series of mermaid books. The introductory title features a sparkly turquoise background, its sequel pink.
A Headteacher told me that a commercial school book fair company separates sale stock into pink and blue to offer gender distinction to pupils. This book fair company offers huge discounts on titles to schools, yet the titles on offer are disposable and sparse within a gamut of merchandise.
Defender of the Realm
Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler shared their experience of publication of Defender of the Realm. The first published cover bore little resemblance to any character or incident in the book. A superhero, such as from a Marvel comic, stood poised. Anyone lucky enough to have read this wonderful series will know that Alfie, the central hero is a ‘weakling’ with little confidence or charisma. He chooses to surrender the throne to his younger twin brother, through fear and perceived reputation. Alfie is no superhero. Hayley, an independent, intuitive, suburban girl supports Alfie’s quest. Yet the market considered an image different from the story would attract a boys’, ‘superhero’ market. Further, the cover should not include a girl.
When working with writers, we have heard adults ask, ‘How can you write as a girl?’ (to a male writer like Christopher Edge), or ‘as a boy?’ (to Lisa Thompson). Lisa Thompson said she was compelled by her characters’ stories, rather than concerned by their gender. Her concerted motivation shows. Matthew’s situation in The Goldfish Boy is unbearable. We feel for him in his enforced isolation. His is a human experience. We long to comfort and support Nate, beyond in any treasure hunt in the exceptional The Light Jar
Girls vs. Boys
When Mr Bookwagon attended a meeting of children’s bookselling members of the Booksellers’ Association a round table discussion arrived at the same conclusion. The ‘Rebel Girls’/ ‘Fantastic Girls’ market has created an overspill of similar titles. The message has become saturated and strained.
Predominantly parents and grandparents of daughters and granddaughters have felt compelled to buy these strongly female messaged books. They have not, in our experience, proved individual children’s reading choices. That children’s adults will share the message of these books is encouraging. However, it is more exciting to think of children assuming messages of equality and fairness through a reading experience of inspired fiction and alternative non-fiction.
His/story and Her/story
#MeToo and the Suffrage centenary have empowered a female message necessarily. Yet at moments, it has felt almost competitive. There is room in our storytelling for all human experience and possibilities. This is what shapes us. It is a pleasure to share books about remarkable people like Zaha Hadid The World is Not a Rectangle or James Thompson, Cook’s Cook. Understanding Mafalda’s experience of losing her sight in The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree is revealing. Vanessa Harbour’s magnificent story Flight builds from the Third Reich’s determination to capture the priceless Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School. That stable hand Jakob is a boy, and the rescue mission of the stallions is interrupted by a girl, does not matter. Yet Jakob and Kizzy’s experiences as Jew and Roma, inform and enrich. Children’s reading choices benefit from such experience.
Girls and boys in books
There is some consideration from librarians and booksellers that it is difficult for boys to engage in reading if the central protagonist is a girl. The bookselling discussion, and an exchange at a boys’ school led me to enquire with the Bookwagon Readers’ group. They dismissed this as ‘nonsense’. I had met with an experienced school librarian who told me that boys choose to read books with a male lead characters, only. Despite years of experience in education, reading and library leadership, and bookselling, I had never thought to recommend books on a gender basis. Had I been doing boys a disservice? Should I have been my considered in my recommendations when working with girls?
Choosing a book
My favourite part of being a bookseller is recommending a book. I suspect it feels like a diagnosis, or being Trinny or Susannah on the 1990’s ‘What Not to Wear‘. My motivation is to build a reader.
Parents and teachers are concerned about selecting the ‘right’ children’s books to initiate or build a reading habit. Professional children’s librarians and independent children’s booksellers enable children’s reading choices. Experience of a wide range of books and being able to fit the book to the child are unique to these professions. Children deserve more than to be typecast as pink or blue, unicorn or dinosaur, Walliams, Dahl or Blyton. Opportunity to experience as many genres, writers and themes as possible must be available to all young readers.