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Books for girls: gender, packaging and content in children’s publishing

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I was at the Guildford Book Festival a couple of days ago, talking to prospective children’s book authors – maybe more on that in a later blog post. In the audience was Annabel Deuchar.

After the event, she wrote this blog post.

I commented on the post, but here’s a fuller version of my thoughts on the subject. Because Annabel’s piece is about writing for girls, that’s the focus of this blog post too, though when I was talking about the importance of understanding who a book is for, I was talking about age and interests at least as much as about gender, and was talking about engaging boys with reading as well as engaging girls.

At a recent meeting with a book shop buyer, I was complimented on the cover for The Princess and the Peas by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton, which is out in hardback now, but which I was speaking about because it’s coming out in paperback in February 2013. The cover looks like this:

The buyer said that, while “pink books” were doing really well in the activity category, there weren’t that many “pink picture books”, and that ours looked like just the sort of thing the buyer’s customers might be looking for. Of course, in choosing a pink background, we’d known that we would be signalling that the book would be likely to appeal to a girl audience. It’s also the case that pink/violet is the strongest possible contrast (just look at a colour wheel) to the pea-green that we wanted to point up on the cover.

Publishers (and authors/illustrators) exist in a fairly gender-divided commercial environment, one in which, for example, Bic produced Pens for Her (though they were rightly the subject of scorn).

In that gender-divided commercial environment, I want to maximise sales – for Nosy Crow and for the author/illustrator. As a publisher, I really believe that having a sort of Platonic ideal of the child that the book or app you are publishing is for is important. Commercial success is, I think, more likely if you can combine a clear understanding of your potential audience and a clear understanding of how the content of the book or app meets the needs or interests of that audience. We then spend a lot of time making sure that the cover image and the title (and the icon in the case of an app) are effective shorthand “signposts”, communicating that information about audience and content, to buyers who are selecting books or apps in the visually busy context of a bookshop, online store or library.

So I recognise that The Princess and The Peas is not a book that many people would buy for a boy. The packaging clearly targets girls and the story and central character are, I think, likely to appeal to girls more than boys too. By contrast, the packaging on Dinosaur Dig! by Penny Dale targets boys. I think that the content is likely to appeal to boys too.

Of course, not all of our books have such a clear gender-skew: I chose those two books as extremes on our own list. By contrast, books like those in our Pip and Posy series by Axel Scheffler show Pip and Posy, who are essentially pre-school children in the guise of a rabbit and a mouse, playing with train sets and pushing dolls in prams together. At one point, Pip even ends up wearing a dress belonging to Posy, because he’s wet his trousers.

But, of course, the risk is that if you try to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no-one. We are very proud of the cover of Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge illustrated by Eric Orchard. Some buyers, though, said that the image of the person on the front looked a little too androgynous.

That’s not to say that the book hasn’t been successful, but it’s interesting to note that at this stage it has been particularly successful through school and library channels and independent bookshops, rather than through supermarkets or chains. And we have (well, Eric has, at our suggestion) made it rather clearer that the central character is a girl on the cover of the second book in Christopher Edge’s trilogy, Shadows of the Silver Screen.

And just to be clear, as this cover indicates, signposting effectively who a book might particularly appeal to does not mean, if you think its readership is mainly girls, that it has to be pink. Indeed, there’s an argument that, beyond a certain age, some girls think pink appears “babyish”.

Packaging is not content – though of course it should reflect content. I think that, whether because of nature or nurture, most girls are more likely to be attracted to, and probably to enjoy, a book about princesses than one about dinosaurs driving diggers, and that boys are more likely to choose a book about dinosaurs driving diggers than a book about princesses. But accepting that many boys and girls have preferences in terms of packaging, central character gender and subject matter doesn’t mean that you have to serve up unreconstructed stereotypes. Penelope, the central character in both Twelve Minutes to Midnight and Shadows of the Silver Screen, is brave and clever. The little girl in The Princess and The Peas discovers that being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and, once again making her own decision (as she did when she chose to move into the palace), stops being a princess and moves back home to live with her dad, who is responsible for cooking and childcare. In our series, The Rescue Princesses by Paula Harrison, which are very clearly targeted at newly-independent girl readers, the princesses rescue animals with the help of magic jewels… and Ninja skills. They’re brave and self-sufficient, facing down danger to remedy injustices and cruelty.

In our app, Cinderella, the central character isn’t a Disney Princess-style princess with blond hair and breasts. She looks younger, and less glamorous, and the prince isn’t attracted to Cinderella by her looks or her clothes but by the fact that he feels less shy in her company, that they have lots to talk about, that she’s a good dancer, and that she has a nice smile. The vanity of Cinderella’s step-sisters (described as “mean”, incidentally, not “ugly”) is a source of humour.

I have written about my sense of responsibility as a publisher of children’s books here and I can’t imagine publishing anything that I felt projected (in my view) damaging stereotypes of either girls or boys. In an ideal world, maybe we would be publishing only gender-neutral titles with gender-neutral covers, but I don’t live in an ideal world. I am motivated by two things: I need to make books commercially successful for Nosy Crow and for authors and illustrators; and I am keenly interested in providing children with books they want, particularly at a time when there is so much competition for their leisure time, and when data, like the data gathered in the recent survey behind Pearson’s Enjoy Reading Campaign, suggests that children are not reading for pleasure enough to build their literacy skills.

And of course, having that Platonic ideal of the child that your book or app is most likely to be enjoyed by does not mean that you are publishing ONLY for that child. I spoke in Guildford of the real pleasure of discovering that your book (or app) is being enjoyed by a different, additional audience from the one we imagined as its core audience. This happened, for example, when we discovered that our app, Bizzy Bear Builds a House for which our Platonic ideal reader was a pre-school boy, was a particular favourite of a slightly older girl with Down’s syndrome whose mum writes about her app choices “(new-window)here”:(http://nosycrow.com/blog/discovering-apps-with-a-child-with-a-learning-disability-a-guest-post-by-cas-pearson-mother-of-a-daughter-with-down-s-syndrome).

Readers interested in this subject might find Peggy Orenstein’s personal and well-researched book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter useful and engaging.

And here’s a list of some of my own favourite children’s books that more explicity subvert gender stereotypes (it’s not incidental to the plot, it is the plot). Do please suggest others.

The Paper Bag Princess
Princess Smartypants
The Worst Princess
Bill’s New Frock
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler
Dick King Smith’s Sophie Books (I wouldn’t have included these as I think that Sophie’s rejection of a feminine role is not as much of a focus in these books as it is in the rest of the books I’ve listed here, but I included them at the insistence of my younger daughter)

Oh, and we have one coming out from “(new-window)Steven Lenton”:ihttp://nosycrow.com/authors-etc/steven-lenton in early 2014 ourselves…

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No Responses to “Books for girls: gender, packaging and content in children’s publishing”

  • Thanks Kate.
    It is a really fine line to tread, but I think the apps do it particularly well. It is a frustrating world we live in where it is acceptable, and quite likely I would suggest, for a girl to pick up the diggers book but much harder for a boy to be seen with a pink book. Gender stereotyping runs very deep and will take a long time to change!
    Helen

  • I suspect you put your finger on it when you say about Christopher’s beautiful books:
    “interesting to note that at this stage it has been particularly successful through school and library channels and independent bookshops, rather than through supermarkets or chains.” Possibly the same supermarkets that fill up with princess dresses and superhero costumes around halloween?
    I wonder – is this also true of bookselling around the world? Do the Japanese brand for boy and for girl?

  • Great blog post, Kate. There’s a lovely book called The Ordinary Princess by M M Kaye which subverts the Disney Princess ideal. It’s for slightly older readers, say age 7+.

  • I’m not surprised by the bookseller comment on Princess and the Peas (which my three year old son is picking every night for his bedtime story at the moment – too young to realise pink is for girls, thank goodness), nor about androgenous covers not selling well in mass market channels. And I agree with Helen Bonnick that this is a very deep-rooted societal issue that publishers are not responsible for. I guess that begs the question though, who is – would any of the commercial companies selling gender-specific items respond any differently? Probably not, because all have to sell to survive. As with many tough societal issues, there’s a need for public consciousness, a change in buying habits, perhaps media pressure and active engagement across commercial sectors to have any hope of change. That sounds like a long, long road to me amid the clamour of many issues and difficult times…

  • Fleur, Miko Yamanouchi, from Japan Uni, says:

    “Japanese picture books do not seem to be produced with noticeably big boy/girl-skew on the cover. We may be able to say that boys tend to have narrow interests so rather not reach for the girly “pink” books while girls are more curious and do not mind reaching for dinosaur books too much, though. For your reference, please see Japanese Yahoo (Rakuten)‘s top sale ranking of picture book covers. As you see these bestselling books seem to have neutral covers.

    http://ranking.rakuten.co.jp/daily/101263/”

  • Thanks for that, Kate – fascinating link. I think raising the debate is very important – I worry, that a little like massive computer use in childhood, we don’t really know the long term effects on children of gender stereotyping through books, the media and culture.
    I was thinking, as my daughter railed at her new specs, how worried she is about how she looks – how she dresses, how feminine she is. When I was eleven, I didn’t care, no-one expected anything of my face, just my mind. We dressed like the boys, in greatcoats and army surplus. I suppose you might suggest that we denied our “feminine” sides – but we were less vulnerable than girls seem now, and completely attuned to the idea that we would work alongside boys in our future lives.
    Some girls will always have intellectual confidence and be kickass, but those that don’t aren’t helped by the present culture of prettyness and slenderness, which I think grows straight out of the omniprescent pinkness.

    I just thank fate that I was born to live through “Punk” and “New Wave” – it just came down to the zips on your trousers.

    .

  • While I applaud the kickass girls in your pink books, I do worry that since the covers are so aggressively feminine, boys will never read them or have the books read to them. They won’t be exposed to the kickass girls in the stories and if we want gender equality, boys have to be taught right from the beginning that girls are equal.

  • Thanks Sheilah… But that presupposes there aren’t any “kickass” girls in books targeted at boys, which I don’t think is the case (and of course Miko points out something that I think is true: girls are more willing to read books for which boys are the core audience than boys are willing to read books for which girls are the core audience). The Grunts in Trouble by Philip Ardagh which is mentioned by Annabel in her blog post as a boy book features Sunny and the rather more intelligent Mimi. Hermione Granger and Annabel from the Percy Jackson books are both good examples of strong girls in books that are packaged to appeal to boys at least as much as girls.

  • Great post, Kate. I attended a conference a few years ago where this subject was discussed. Editors from Scholastic and a few other U.S. publishers were talking about writing for children, and the part that stuck with me most was the discussion on gender. They said that girls prefer stories with girls as protagonists, though they will also read stories about boys. If that’s true (and I believe it is) androgynous covers shouldn’t have much of an effect on their buying habits. Boys, they said, tend to only read “boy” books, so they would be less likely to read anything with a pink cover or a girl protagonist.

    I know with my own children, a boy and a girl, they became very concerned about gender in books by around age five. For instance, my daughter’s favorite book when she was younger was Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE. I later bought her THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (same author), figuring she’d like that, too, and she told me it was okay, but that she liked CORALINE better, because it was about a girl.

  • I understand that books need to be commercially successful but, in a time when booksellers are still reluctant to stock books with non-white children on the cover, I don’t think it’s wise to let them influence too much of the decision making. These kind of attitudes need to be challenged rather than accepted.

  • Thank you for this, Beth. I should make it clear that we designed the cover for The Princess and the Peas without any intervention from booksellers. It would be a mistake for you to ascribe the publishing decisions I am making to direct requests or vetos from booksellers. I make the decisions I make based on my own assessment of the likely response from customers and consumers.

    To your point about non-white children (though it really deserves a blog post on its own), one of the things I like about, for example, our Rescue Princess books is their ethnic diversity (of the four books published so far, two girls are white, one is black and one is Asian, and that ratio of white to non-white girls holds for the whole of the 10 book series).

    Cats can be skinned in many ways.

  • I think younger children like trying out different identities to see how they suit, and that’s a normal part of growing up. I have daughters and we had firemen and builders dressing up things in the house as well as princess dresses, and they used them all. It seems to me that children often mix and match identities in ways that seem strange to us but are totally reasonable to them. Mine went through a phase of running out into the garden dressed as ballerinas and pretend fighting each other to the death with sticks. Ballerina warriors! It looked like great fun!

    For slightly older children, it sometimes seems harder to signpost books. My 10 year old has just told me on balance she prefers books where the main character in a book is a girl, although she does read both. Who are we to tell her she’s wrong – that’s what she prefers. But she thinks that pink on a cover would put her off and I think many other girls aged 9 and over feel the same.

  • This is from author Jonathan Emmett, who couldn’t get it through our spam filter (because his comment was too long):

    An interesting and admirably frank post.
    I could and probably should write a lengthy post of my own on my experiences of gender bias in the picture book industry, but I’ll confine myself to picking up on a couple of your points.

    “In an ideal world, maybe we would be publishing only gender-neutral titles with gender-neutral covers, but I don’t live in an ideal world.”

    I suspect that this would be a far from ideal world for either girls or boys. Differences in boys ’ and girls’ tastes are often dismissed as being purely a product of nurture rather than nature, but most of the recent research into “brain sex” by psychologists such as Melissa Hines (http://www.neuroscience.cam.ac.uk/directory/profile.php?mh504) suggest that these tastes are partially hard-wired into children from birth. The BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory programme did this short feature on this which addresses both sides of the argument before concluding that both nature and nurture have a role in determining our children’s tastes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mvZ4EbPbME&list=LP7nM0a7Gfqpo&index=6&feature=plcp.

    The findings of Professor Hines’s work on toys can be crudely summarised as males have an innate preference for machine toys whereas females have an innate preference for dolls. So by including these and other recognised innate preferences in gender specific picture books, we’re responding to a child’s innate interests (rather than reinforcing a conditioned sexual stereotype) – which can only be a good thing if it makes them more interested in books!

    I should say that some of Professor Hines’s work challenges gender stereotypes as is reflected in this Guardian article, where her research suggests that there is no reason for children to have innate colour preferences – so girls are not innately attracted to pink!
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/may/09/pink-toys-girls-passive-princesses

    “And here’s a list of some of my own favourite children’s books that explicity subvert gender stereotypes. Do please suggest others.”

    The US web site http://www.amightygirl.com describes itself as “The world’s largest collection of books and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”.

    The site has an extensive picture book section, many of which challenge accepted female stereotypes.

    The site is very US-centric, but I’m not aware of UK equivalent. Perhaps someone should set one up!

  • Thanks for mentioning A Mighty Girl in the context of this discussion, Jonathan. I just want to respond to the US-centric part of your comment. It’s definitely true that our history books are US-skewed but, in general, I think our content is pretty universal. We have well over 1,000 books on the site now, many of which are fantasy, fairy tales, graphic novels and so forth that are not set in a specific real time and place.

    Actually, one of our most popular features has been our “Ultimate Guide to the Independent Princess” which features 70 stories of courageous, independent-minded princesses (http://www.amightygirl.com/mighty-girl-picks/independent-princess). Most of these are set in fantasy worlds though quite a few draw upon traditional folktales from around the world.

    Our menu categorization system runs both broad and deep so you can actually search for books within 200 different categories including ‘history of Europe’ for example (under the history section).

    The site is only six months old so as we continue to expand, we would like to add more books about women role models from around the world and further diversify our offerings. There are actually quite a few European women represented in our ‘role models’ and ‘biography’ section but we’d definitely like to expand both and would very much welcome your recommendations for books for children and youth from toddlers through teens.

  • Thanks for that, Kate
    I’m writing from an indie bookseller. Many of your views on gendered marketing are shared by the publishers we work with- and yet we’re aware from the opinions expressed on social media and by our customers/supporters (a database of 6,500) that there is a growing body of vocal dissenters out there.
    We have, to be honest, far too much to say on this subject! But maybe, for now, we could add these thoughts to the debate:
    Do most authors start out by wondering if they are writing a book ‘for boys’/’for girls’- or, simply, for ‘children’?
    Who is making the gendered marketing decision?
    If gender neutral marketing doesn’t double your market then how do we account for the fact that the majority of children’s bestsellers over the last few years have been noticeably gender-neutral in their marketing: Harry Potter, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
    We do all, as booksellers, publishers & authors of children’s books share a responsibility to expand children’s horizons as much as possible.
    All stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, restricts children’s choices.
    Interestingly, our own customers (teachers, parents, children’s centres, nurseries) won’t touch any book with a pink sparkly cover (and we have only sold the subversive ones!); the assumption they make, sometimes unfairly, is that the book will be vapid, poorly written, in the hands of a marketing team rather than an author and dull.
    Where is the actual qualitative and quantitative research to justify gendered marketing? And what decade was the research carried out in?
    Which publisher has been brave or interested enough to bring out a book with a gender-neutral cover and then followed this later with the same book re-jacketed with a gender-specific cover so that real comparisons can be drawn?
    We suspect, based on a knowledge of our industry, that it is often guilty of assumptions and preconceptions when it comes to the production & marketing of children’s books and, frankly, they deserve better.
    Fen- Letterbox Library

  • I can understand where both publishers and booksellers are coming from, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who, like me, are put off by books marketed aggressively as being for one gender or the other. Like your daughters mine went through a pink sparkly Disney princess general vomit-inducing stage, and like yours, she has emerged out the other side of it just fine. So I realise that she’s not been scarred for life.
    My feeling though is that adults often have quite fixed and unadventurous ideas about what kinds of books particular children like. I’m no exception – I imagined my two younger boys might be put off by Clara Vulliamy’s ‘Martha and the Bunny Brothers’ as I thought it looked quite ‘girly’, but they both love it! And I’m taking them both to the ‘Princess and the Peas’ event at Tales on Moon Lane next week. I will let you know what they make of it.

  • I should have added that of the manuscripts I’ve been writing recently, one (which you’ve possibly seen) involves pirates and vehicles, and another is all about a female lion cub who desperately tries to follow the latest fashions (but ends up realising it would be boring if everyone looked the same), so neither of them is exactly gender-neutral!

  • Thanks, Fen,

    I am interested by your choice “gender-neutral” books. When you say gender-neutral, you seem to mean books (with the exception of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt) in which the protagonist, or, indeed, all the characters are male. (As its original publisher, I have yet to find a parent who doesn’t call all the animals in The Gruffalo, including the mouse, “he”, when, in fact, there’s no gender attributed to the mouse.)

    My understanding is that the reason that the the proof of the first Harry Potter bears the name Joanne Rowling, and the finished books have the name J K Rowling is because the publishers were concerned that having a woman’s name on the cover would put off boy readers.

    Are you saying that as long as a book appeals to boys, it’s OK, but books that appeal to girls are not?

    And are you suggesting that such books are more “gender-neutral” than books like The Princess and the Peas where, as I’ve said, the central character is a feisty girl who rejects princessdom, and whose father is her main, if not only, carer?

  • I think its time we admitted that using a princess character is just one way to frame a story. Then you can (and I do) make the story as adventurous and exciting as you like.

    With their latest film, Brave (and to a large extent with Tangled), Disney Pixar seem to have reached that conclusion before a lot of other people. Perhaps it takes time for people to shake off their mindsets and see the possibilities.

  • Fleur, Debbie Oh, of KidsMind in Korea, says:

    “Yes, there is an obvious division according to boys’ and girls’ targeted books. For example, pinky/princess/fairy and something like that could be girls’ taste, and blue/cars/weapons could be boys’ taste.

    Although it’s old stereotyped classification, it still exists in our market. Therefore, if the title got so gender divided feature, they could give up the sales from the counter gender…

    However, today’s parents would like to raise their children to be more gender-neutral people, and especially parents who have daughters want to do so more. So, girls’ taste tends to go uncertain and closer to gender-neutral characteristics. Still there are many girls around 4-10 who love pink though… By contrast, boys’ taste seem to stay the same as before and they would like to avoid girly titles… .“

  • I think what puts me off about certain books isn’t so much that they are directed towards one gender or the other, but the lack of subtlety with which they do so. So I have no problem whatsoever with the cover of ‘The Princess and the Peas’, but if that cover had glitter all over it I’d immediately (and yes, I’m being very prejudiced here) think twice about picking it up.
    I’m equally put off by books which scream ‘only for boys!’ all over the cover design – it’s not just pink glitter that I’m opposed to.
    On the other hand, I agree entirely with the argument that any book that gets a child reading can’t be too bad. Maybe we should give children more credit for the ability to read and think critically.

  • Hi Kate
    There does seem to be some confusion around the ‘gender neutral’ term and how it has been applied in this discussion, so I would like to make clear our position. When we talk about ‘gender neutral’, we are discussing the way publishers and booksellers present and market books. We are not talking about books that do not specify the gender of their main characters. This would, in fact, be almost impossible because so few of these exist. Our point about the popular and best selling books mentioned in our previous post is that they do not attempt to appeal to only one gender. They may have a male or female main character, but they are intended to be read by as many children as possible, boys and girls.
    What an interesting discussion this has been!

  • Hmm. But then I think that we might be saying of those bestsellers that girls are willing to read about boys while boys are not reading about girls. This is a point that Miko and Debbie both made explicitly about the Japanese and Korean book markets. I don’t think that makes the books with boy characters “gender neutral”.

    As I said in the comments of the follow-up blog post to this one (http://nosycrow.com/blog/books-for-girls-a-follow-up-from-a-personal-perspective), very few people castigate us for creating books like the Mega Mash-up series that were designed to encourage reluctant boy readers to read. There seems to be a double-standard here.

    And as I have also said in the comments to the follow-up post, we do not say on the books (though some publishers do) that the books are “for” boys or “for” girls (we don’t put ages on them either). I refer in the follow-up post to CJ, who is a boy who admires and wants to emulate girl characters from popular culture. Books like Rescue Princesses and The Princess and the Peas might well be enthusiastically received by him too. We’re providing choice. And our girl characters are strong.

  • Maybe boys are not willing to read about girls because most of the books with girls as the main protagonists have covers designed to appeal to girls rather than children in general (I’m aware that Twelve Minutes to Midnight is an exception). It’s great that you publish books with feisty girl characters, but it’s just as vital that boys (other than children like CJ) read about these feisty girls. Matilda is a bestselling book with a female protaganist, and the most iconic book cover for this title is yellow, although it has also been published with a pink cover.

    It would certainly be an interesting experiment for a publisher to put out the same book, in the same markets, with two (or even three) alternative covers, and (difficult as it might be) monitor the reach.

    In reference to your follow up post, the issue isn’t as problematic when enlightened parents, such as yourself, provide a range of experience for children to make their own choices, but for the children who will only ever be bought or read pink/princess/fairy books. Even if those books do contain feisty characters, they reinforce the idea everything for girls has to be encased in pink and anything that isn’t, isn’t for them. As ReadItDaddy says, those are the people who won’t be following this discussion, and that’s exactly why people it is important for publishers to take risks and challenge the stereotypes.

    As I said on Twitter yesterday, every time we distinguish between boys and girls, we tell children that there is a difference, thereby promoting inequality.

  • Thank you, Beth

    I cannot speak for other publishers and the choices they make. I can only speak for Nosy Crow. We do present a range of books, some, like The Grunts in Trouble, are packaged and marketed in ways that Fen (see above) would probably say are gender-neutral; some are very consciously gender-neutral (the Pip and Posy, for example, which was rejected by one powerful US publisher because it was not gendered enough); and some more clearly signpost the audience that we think would probably most enjoy them. Where they are signposted as boy books, we are often applauded for encouraging boys to read. Where they are signposted as girl books they can give rise to the kind of debate that has followed this blog post.

    There is conflicting evidence, I know, (see Jonathan Emmett’s comments above for some of it) but my experience (described in part here: http://nosycrow.com/blog/books-for-girls-a-follow-up-from-a-personal-perspective) as an “enlightened” (parent) and, now, step-grandparent to a 4 year-old boy, is that there are differences in the interests and preferences of many boys and many girls. How far these are innate and how far these are culturally determined is the question. Either way, by the time most children come to books, they may have gender-skewed interests and preferences, and I think it’s OK to encouraging them to read and to engage with books by creating books that to some degree work within those preferences by publishing books like The Princess and the Peas and Dinosaur Dig! That’s not to say that is, or should be, all they read.

  • Beth and Kate- thank you
    I couldn’t agree with you more, Beth, when you say “every time we distinguish between boys and girls, we tell children that there is a difference, thereby promoting inequality”.
    And, Kate, I think that’s the nub of it- where you stand on the essentialist/constructionist debate about gender will very much determine your approach to this subject. I love the book Living Dolls (Natasha Walters) for the latest on this…
    It would be wonderful if we could start to test some of the ideas out which have come up in this debate. I personally love the idea of Nosy Crow or another publisher exploring the merits of gendered marketing by marketing the one and same book in 3 different ways: to boys, to girls and to children.
    There’s a thought?
    Thank you all!

  • Thank you, Fen. What do you mean by “marketing”? Depending on what you mean, I am not sure that this would be commercially or practically (or technically, in today’s world of digital feeds) possible. Depending on how it was done, it might not be awfully fair on the author (or author and illustrator) either! Nor do I think that a single book would really prove much either way: books are as individual as the children who respond (or don’t) to them. Perhaps it’s a more suitable subject for academic research and experimentation than for a publishing company that’s trying to do its best for its authors and to publish compelling books in tough times.

  • Just catching up with this fascinating blogpost and comment thread after a week away from the internet. I must admit I hadn’t thought about the gender appeal of the cover of Twelve Minutes to Midnight, especially as all the readers I’ve met, boys and girls alike, have loved the cover.

    As the father of a four-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl (celebrating her birthday this weekend), I’m not yet at the stage where any gender differences are asserting themselves in their reading choices – although they both love Pip and Posy – but hope as they get older they’ll both read and love the Sally Lockhart stories and Sherlock Holmes, the Chrestomanci series and Coraline and read books without a care as to whether the main character is a boy or a girl. I realise though that this might not always be the case, and the best I can do is guide them to find books that will hopefully enrich their lives, but always respect their choices as readers whatever the cover.

  • I’ve loved this discussion. As a mum of three girls and one boy – all very different characters, I find it a struggle to get my 6 year old daughter to read anything encased in pink, or about princesses because she assumes it to be “another princess book” – and that’s not what interests her. I’d be keen to try her on The Rescue Princesses to see if I can get her past this preconception. My son, who is 8, has a very eclectic taste. he loves Roald Dahl and one of his favourite books is Matilda, even though the protagonist is a girl. He is also heavily into Horrible Histories and the BeastQuest series. My 6 year old is keen also to read BeastQuest because Sam has told her that the girl in it – Eleanor – does cool things like fight beasts – and to my daughter that is much more exciting than being a princess. That said, girls ARE different from boys. Not unequal – just different. It’s a fact! And to teach them that boys and girls are different I don’t think does any harm, if you teach them that both are special and important and can do or be anything they want to.
    We’ve had a huge debate at pre-school and infants school about this and overwhelmingly the mothers of girls want to see more adventurous heroines for their girls to read about.

  • I know exactly what you are talking about. As a mom of 2 girls, at times they go right for the “pink” covers of books. But then that leads us to talk about “judging a book by it’s cover”! It’s hard, but my girls are learning whatever they find entertaining in a book is what matters. They absolutely LOVE A Mango in the Hand by Antonio Sacre. It’s written in proverbs, with spanish and english illustrations. We picked it up at antoniosacre.com, and it has inspired a great many converstations in our home! Written about a young boy in Cuba, I think my girls forget he’s a boy as they just fall into the story! Thanks so much for posting this, it’s nice to see how many are encouraging their kids to read the “book” rather than jsut going for what it looks like!

  • Yes, we haven’t got far since the 1960s have we?
    What I am looking for is not just gender neutral literature for 8-12 year olds but reasonably substantial chapter books which feature boys and girls being equally important to the story line; – sharing the action, making decisions together, solving problems, etc.,
    This is appallingly difficult – I may have found one in ‘The Mysterious Benedict Society’ but am really struggling. Possibly Phillip Rees’ books? I’d be grateful if anyone has any suggestions.

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