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Posted by Kate, October 24, 2012

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

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”:(https://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”:ihttps://nosycrow.com/authors-etc/steven-lenton in early 2014 ourselves…