Kira Cochrane wrote a brilliant article for The Guardian today about the pink/blue gender divide in children’s toys and the way gender stereotyping limits children’s play, learning and development. It is a very well argued and evidenced article. I urge you to read it and take some time to ponder the issues raised.
The pink/blue gender discrimination (and I do think it’s discrimination when it limits a child’s potential) is why I started this blog and why I work hard to introduce children to books that will open their eyes and broaden their horizons rather than squash and limit them.
Today I read with a class of reception children, using reading scheme books which are beautifully gender stereotype free. The children chose their books based on whether they looked fun or were about things that interested them. The books are for children and are packaged accordingly, with no gender stereotyping or push to gender prescribed roles. Hurrah!
Then I sat in the school library with a group of year six children discussing the books we had read over the Easter holidays and recommending new reads to each other. By the time children reach year six (10 -11year olds) they have been bombarded by gender stereotyping and gendered marketing, so I was thrilled to hear them arguing against the gender coding of book covers. They were articulate and passionate and looked down their noses at books that were marketed specifically for girls or boys. Not because they expected the contents to be ‘not for them’ or of lower quality, but because they felt belittled by the gendering itself.
There was a lot of discussion around Ally Kennen’s Midnight Pirates. The cover is blue with rivets and a big splat across the front. It instantly put most of the group (including the boys) off.
“It’s called Midnight Pirates and it’s all blue and then you start reading it and it’s about mermaids not pirates and it’s got boy and girl characters in and they’re great characters so why is the cover blue? Why does Ally Kennen think her book is only for boys?”
There’s instantly a lot to unpick from that comment. The assumption that blue and pirates are for boys and mermaids are for girls is clearly ingrained, even though the children are aware enough to be suspicious of it and question it. Then there’s the ‘it’s got girl and boy characters in it’ discussion. Do children only like to read about characters of their own gender? Are they more likely to read a book with both genders? Not this group of children. They care much more about whether the character is interesting than whether it is of the same gender as them.
The children had made the assumption that the author had designed or chosen the cover for her book. I explained the process a bit more, talking about publishers and designers and marketing departments. This only frustrated them more. “So the publishers put a blue cover on because they want boys to buy it and not the girls. That’s half the kids. That’s just stupid. Why don’t they make it so everyone wants to buy it?”
The book group is a mixed group of children with a range of abilities and interests but the one thing they all have in common is their distrust of publishers trying to gender books. They don’t appreciate being prescribed to, they want to make their own choices based on their interests and what looks fun. Just like the reception kids did with their reading books this morning.
In our book group we have read and enjoyed Matt Haig’s To be a Cat, Christopher William Hill’s Osbert the Avenger, Anne Booth’s Girl with a White Dog, Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers, and Sam Angus’s Soldier Dog. We’ve discussed our shared love of Lemony Snickett and the Northern Lights trilogy. Some books have been about boys, some about girls, some about both, but all have had great characters and great stories. That is what the children care about and that is what they want.
They ask me for recommendations based on characters they’ve loved, or how a book has made them feel, or what a book has made them think about. They have never asked me for a book about or ‘for’ a boy, or about or ‘for’ a girl. So why do publishing companies insist that that’s what children want? Money? Because that’s what (they think) parents or book purchasing adults want? Because when they gender-market their books they are certainly not catering for the brilliant, interesting and inspiring children I worked with today. They are alienating them. And that’s a real shame because these are exactly the kids I would want to be reading my books.