Playing the gender game through the Rainbow Library

Over on the ReaditDaddy blog they have spent the last week examining the gender gap in picture books and reading. The discussion on Nosy Crow’s blog about the gendering of children’s books was part of the inspiration for this blog, so I was interested to read the ReaditDaddy posts and the discussions they inspired.

The first ReaditDaddy blog post talks about the difficulties faced when trying to ensure children get a mix of books, not just a pile of books that reinforce stereotypical gender roles. He ends by saying ‘you also have to hope with all your heart that they’re going to read the right stuff, and leave books that negatively reinforce these stereotypes exactly where they are.’ And that is oh-so-true, but a tricky business.

I think it’s hugely important for children to be able to see themselves in fiction, whether that is through their gender, race, family background or personality. I also think children have the right to see what they could become. They learn so much about the world from what they see and hear or read in books, so having a wide range of characters dealing with different scenarios opens up the world to them. If children only see gender stereotypes reinforced in their books, how will they learn that they can live their lives outside of them?

There are some really interesting comments raised after the ReaditDaddy blog post, suggesting that gendered covers can encourage children to pick up a book and also help people get decent books into children’s hands via a gendered cover- almost like hiding vegetables in cake. I often come across the ‘at least they are reading’ argument. And yes, I think to some extent it is a worthwhile point, it may be better to get an explicitly gendered book into a child’s hands rather than no book at all. But there are so many wonderful books out there, I can’t help but feel that it’s wrong that so many children are brought up on only these gendered books. I think it’s important to remember that not all gendered books are ‘bad’, just those that negatively reinforce gender stereotypes.

Through the Rainbow Library I try to get books into the hands and minds of young children who aren’t interested in books or, for a variety of reasons, don’t have access to books at home. One of the other things I try to achieve is a balancing of the gender stereotyping that children receive at home. I avoid books that negatively reinforce gender stereotypes and I try to subvert traditional stereotypes and give the children access to books with strong characters from all walks of life. I have found that the girls are much more inclined to read a book whatever the cover image but the boys shy away from anything that might be considered even slightly girly. I am trying to stretch them away from these limitations and show them what is out there. So the little boy who would only read books about pirates was presented with The Night Pirates, about rough, tough little girl pirates. He loved it. And maybe next time he won’t shy away from picking up a book with a girl on the front. Because she might be rough and tough like the girl pirates, he might like her, and he might get a glimpse of the world outside of gender stereotyped restrictions.

Tomorrow the Easter holidays end and the Rainbow Library will be back in action. I will be thinking about all these comments and discussions and I will be playing the gender game with all the books I take in to the children. I urge you to read the gender game blog post about the role of gender in an early years setting, and to play the gender game yourself. Even if you don’t have anything to do with early years children, the concept is one that can really open your eyes to the power of gender marketing and stereotyping. I will be playing it and keeping an eye on the children’s reactions to the books I choose to read with them. Hopefully I will be able to leave books that negatively reinforce these stereotypes exactly where they belong. Behind.

3 thoughts on “Playing the gender game through the Rainbow Library

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  1. Ditto. Read both yours and Anne-Marie’s posts on this, and it’s a subject we’ll keep revisiting too. I do think progress is being made, certainly in Children’s Books and it is definitely something publishers think long and hard about when commissioning new stuff, so hopefully that will continue and ensure that gender stereotyping happens a lot less. FWIW we do sometimes take the supposedly ‘subversive’ approach of trying books with C that are aimed at / designed for boys rather than girls but to her they’re books, regardless of story type, character or content. Hopefully that means we’re doing something right 🙂

    1. Exactly! Same here with Mollie. She doesn’t care whether the character is a boy or a girl as long as it’s a book that grabs her and she enjoys. I think a lot of kids are lucky in that they have access to such a range of quality books that they don’t see the gendered stuff. It’s more for the children that you mentioned that aren’t given access to stuff outside of their pink or blue zone for fear of what it might teach them (?!). A lot of the children at the Rainbow library are in that situation at home – only get access to the gendered stuff and usually the reinforcing stereotype gender stuff too. It’s a real shame and a parenting issue as much as anything else.

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