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Books for Girls: a follow-up from a personal perspective

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Yesterday, I wrote about gender, packaging and content.

As a sort of coda, what follows is just part of my own experience as a mother (educated, ambitious, feminist) of two girls who I hope will be educated, ambitious and feminist in their turn (here’s a bit of an insight into the aspirations of one of them).

My role as a publisher is largely separate from my role as a parent (I’ve written about the connection, or lack of it, here).

I was a child in the late 60s and 70s. I played with dolls, a dolls’ house, soft toys, a toy sewing machine, Plasticene, Playdoh and I had Lego that I built houses with. My brother played with cars, his toy garage and a football.

My teenage years and early twenties co-incided with the popularisation of feminist ideas in the UK. I wore army surplus greatcoats and DMs, marched for women’s causes, and read Virago and Women’s Press books. I became what I am now: a feminist.

When I had my first daughter, I started off by buying her gender-neutral clothes (interestingly more possible 13 years ago then than it seems to be now) books, and toys. Despite (or some might say, because of) all my efforts, my child went through a Disney-Princess-pink-fairy-tiara-glitter phase. The tail-end of this phase coincided with the time that she became an independent reader. And Rainbow Magic was the series that supported her through that transition. I read a chapter to her at bedtime, and she started picking up the book I’d put down and reading the next chapter herself. For all sorts of reasons, The Rainbow Magic books weren’t my favourite read-aloud books, but they absolutely met my daughter’s needs and matched her interests at the time. She and her younger sister (and they wanted me to be involved too) spent ages sorting the 49 books (!) in the series that we owned at the time in descending order of name preference, of outfit preference, of hair preference, of shoe preference. I always chose the fairy with shorter hair, wearing the least-revealing dress or, when they rarely appeared, trousers, and with the most sensible shoes. My kids would look at me as if I were crazy.

But it didn’t last. The girl who coveted a Barbie doll (she never had one), wore fairy wings continually, and became a reader with the help of a little magic dust from the Rainbow Magic fairies now wouldn’t ever voluntarily wear pink, is completely uninterested in hair and make-up, wouldn’t know Princess Eugenie from the other one, and can’t easily be extracted from a hoodie and jeans. She wants to represent her school in debating, go to university, travel to China and write novels. She’s currently reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang, Just William by Richmal Crompton, Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory and Madeleine’s World by Brian Hall. And when I asked her if she were a feminist just now, she said, emphatically, “Yes!”.

My daughter’s interest in pink, fairies and princesses was just a phase. Like any parent, I determined our own boundaries: Barbie was out, classic Disney Princess films were in, for example. But I don’t think there would have been much to be gained, and, there was independent reading motivation to be lost, if she hadn’t had access to Rainbow Magic and the other pink-fairy-princess books she had on her shelves or borrowed from the library. They weren’t all she read, any more than pink princess books are all Nosy Crow publishes, but they played a part in developing her reading confidence and her pleasure in books.

As an afterthought, I wondered whether those people on Twitter and in our comments section who felt uncomfortable about the fact that our funny, brave, bold princess books are available for girls, would feel uncomfortable that we offer the same books to CJ, the five-year old-boy in this blog. When I publish a princess book for five-year olds, my memories of my own daughters feed my my Platonic ideal of the child who might love that book, but so do children like CJ.

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No Responses to “Books for Girls: a follow-up from a personal perspective”

  • Trying again cos the internet ate my last comment.

    This is a subject very close to my heart – as a feminist, as a writer, as someone who works in publishing and cares about the future of humans. What we tell the next generation about themselves through fiction is a big responsibility and a great privilege.

    The pinkification of children’s culture worries me. I think the key here is providing options and variety for kids – allowing them to peek into many worlds and ways of doing things, rather than handing ‘em a pink or a blue bag and saying, “this is your stuff”. So, it’s not bad to give a girl a princess book, as long as that’s not all she’s being offered. Ditto for a boy – they should feel comfortable picking up a fairy book if they like and not told “it’s not for you”. Inclusivity and variety, those are what I want out of publishing.

    As a kid, I loved Sindy but I also loved lego and my playmobil pirate ship. I loved mud and I loved Elfquest. I loved Tolkien and Just William and Pippi Longstocking. As long as a child is offered nibbles of lots of different styles of story, that’s a good world.

  • We’re going through a very similar experience with my daughter. Despite having a mum with very un-girly tastes and a stay-at-home-dad pressing Mortal Engines and Dark Materials on her, she fell prey to the Disney Princesses before moving up to Jacqueline Wilson.

    You’re right about there being a double standard about crossing gender tastes, but it applies to publishers as well as parents. Although popular in the UK, my picture book “The Pig’s Knickers” picked up very few foreign co-publishers in comparison to the previous books I’ve done with illustrator Vanessa Cabban. I’d always assumed this was because of the many references to underwear, which might be regarded as unsuitable for young children in other countries.

    Fortunately the book was sufficiently popular in the UK to justify a sequel, but when I came to write it, the one direction I was given by the UK publisher was to “avoid gender issues”. Apparently the main complaint from potential overseas publishers of the first book was that they were not comfortable with the idea of female underwear being worn by a male pig.

  • Thanks for your comment, Tessa. Well, Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson brought the Mega Mash-up idea to us. They explained that they had been reluctant readers as boys, but that they loved drawing.

    I’d spent some time, when I was at Scholastic, at book fairs in schools. This is a remarkably interesting experience: unlike most bookselling environments, childen at book fairs tend to be given a sum of money, say £5.00, by parents, and allowed to choose their own books. It is the most unmediated-by-adults choice of reading by children that I have ever seen.

    Time after time, I saw boys not only look past the “gender-neutral” titles, but also ignore the fiction that we’d selected specifically to attract them, and go straight for the “how-to-draw” books – how to draw a racing car, how to draw an aeroplane: that kind of thing.

    I thought that there was a real opportunity to tap into that interest that boys have in drawing, and in comic books, to publish something that combined drawing, comic books… and a real, chapter book reading experience, so we leapt at the chance to publish Mega Mash-up.

    The books are popular, particularly once they are in the hands of boys. We get little flak, honestly, for creating books that encourage boys to read!

    Then various booksellers suggested that, though there’s nothing on the books themselves that say that they are for boys (and I have certainly seen lots of girls buy them at Mega Mash-up events), there would be a market for a version of the books that featured girl characters and that were not adversarial. We decided to explore whether we could publish something along those lines, and hit upon Magical Mix-ups, which feature girl characters, a very determinedly down-to-earth witch, and a rather flakier princess, who solve problems together. The look and feel was determinedly quirky, nodding towards the naivete of children’s own drawings. While we envisage them being particularly enjoyed by girls, there’s nothing on them either that says that boys shouldn’t pick them up.

    In early 2013, PIRLS 2011 will be published. I don’t know what the results will be, but one of my concerns is that it will show further fall-off in time spent reading for pleasure and enjoyment of reading in both boys and girls. The “crisis” in boys’ reading has been long-recognised, but I think that we ignore girls’ reading at our peril.

    I think that Nosy Crow should provide a range of reading material, both gender-neutral and gender-skewed, that doesn’t explicitly specify the age or the gender of the child at whom it’s aimed (we’re not talking about Nosy Crow publishing books with titles like the Dangerous Book for Boys or The Girls’ book of Glamour – both of which exist ). And, if we are to be successful publishers, we should publish books that, through their covers and their titles and their blurbs, signpost their content effectively to whatever audience wants to receive the message.

  • Hi Kate,

    I must say as a fellow feminist I read these blog posts with interest.

    I’m in my early twenties and don’t have children yet so can’t speak from personal experience, however, like you, I intend to do everything I can to shield my children from gender stereotypes and allow them to make their own choices with regards to their likes and dislikes.

    I admire many books on Nosy Crow’s list that portray active female figures such as the Rescue Princesses. I have an issue though with the marketing of the Magical Mix-Ups and Mega Mash-Ups.

    It describes the Mega-Mashups on your site as about ‘great subjects for boys’ and they deal with romans, dinosaurs, robots, scientists, pirates, ancient Egyptians etc etc. The sister collection on the other hand, blatantly aimed at girls are about fashion, weddings, parties etc.

    Given the views you have expressed in this blog post and the one prior to it, I would be very interested to hear your justification for these decisions. My worry is that they reinforce gender stereotypes and marginalise difference.

    Thanks

  • I was a ballet dancer. Full-on, on the stage – not someone who took a couple of classes. As a teenager in the 90s, I was one of many in my ballet class who hated the pink costumes and always loved getting a role with something different. In school, there was a girl who had some pink on her bag, and she got teased every day.

    As girls with daily access to as many sequins and frills as the world could provide, we didn’t fall for it. The entire mindset has changed – hence today’s generation of teens who think “feminist” is dirtier than any swear word.

    How much things have changed in only a few years.

    I see a pink princess version Dora the Explorer is now being advertised on television here in Australia. Even the children’s characters that started off more neutral have been pinkified.

  • See, I kind of like the Girl’s Book of Glamour – having looked through it, I can’t see too many boys wanting to know about the finer points of arranging hair and applying make-up! However, the Dangerous Book for Boys annoys me, because it’s contents are NOT gender-specific – History and the perfect paper aeroplane do not belong solely to boys whereas make-up pretty much does belong solely to girls (sorry boys).

    So I can see the point of gender-skewed covers sometimes but not always. Sometimes I do wonder if a gender-slant is being put on a book when it doesn’t need to one.

    I agree with the opinion that pink and blue are fine, so long as they’re not the only things available to read. I do wonder if the rise of digital reading might mean the gender lines get swapped more often, when no one has to worry about anyone seeing the cover.

    Perhaps I should start a blog reviewing ‘books you wish you could read in public’?

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