Fen and Kerry of stereotype-busting children’s booksellers, Letterbox Library, take a look at the gendered world of reading, and ask, why are publishers so keen to tell children which sort of stories are for them?
Flick through pretty much any publisher’s catalogue these days, or search using the same publisher’s website and you will most likely be hit by a collection of books which have been so gender-specifically packaged that they even include the words ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ in the title.
It is tempting to laugh at the lengths some publishers will go to with spelling out their gendered marketing. Except it is all a little galling: I don’t know about you but I object quite strongly to being told what I will like based on my anatomy.
The ‘for girls/for boys’ labels are also slap-downs which say loudly that some stories aren’t for some children. And so a marketing strategy becomes not so much a literacy enabler as a barrier to stories.
This is a strategy which doesn’t just tell children what stories will appeal to them but also which stories aren’t for them because of their…body parts? Swap ‘The Story Book For Boys’ to ‘The Not-For-Girls Story Book’ and it doesn’t look quite so child-friendly, huh?
Looking beyond the words
You know the sort we mean:
For the girls:
- pink or a shade of mauve
- a dusting of glitter
- a combo of butterflies /flowers /fairies /cupcakes /handbags /hearts /makeup
For the boys:
- a matte tone
- a jumble of aliens /dinosaurs /pirates /knights /footballs/ vehicles and… snot.
These covers are now so shouty in their displays of stereotypical ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ that they are reaching the heights of caricature. We’re just waiting for the cover of a chained-down princess sitting atop a cupcake, and a floppy-haired boy with gaping, dripping, wounds kicking a football nonchalantly. Watch this space…
So why do they do it?
Well, many publishers will argue that by using gender segregated marketing platforms, they generate more sales. Can this be true? Surely they’re halving their potential readership?
We’ve wondered for some time now what current research publishers are drawing on when they create their gendered marketing strategies. We keep very politely asking for the evidence, the stats, the good old-fashioned common sense behind this all. We ask them whenever we do a bit of public speaking. We ask them when they send their reps to visit us. We even asked them on Twitter once (alongside the organisation, Inclusive Minds).
We haven’t had a sniff of a reply.
We suspect that publishers would argue back that their ‘for girls/boys’ labels are aimed at the adults buying books for children. They will say that these labels assist busy or unconfident adults in their book choices. But actually they are offering adults two choices. Just the two. And yet, as adult book buyers, we draw on a range of choices based on our interests, the genres we enjoy reading, our favourite authors etc. etc.…
For boys? For girls? What a crude type of decision-making this is. Each time a book is described as for one sex, it excludes 50% of its potential audience. Does this feel like a choice? Does this really make good marketing sense?
Publishers will also sometimes say that their ‘for one sex or another’ range forms part of their mass-market sales, the bread and butter which enables them to ‘take risks’ on what they interpret as more quirky or original work. But why must a 1950s vision of gender roles form part of a publisher’s mass-marketing strategy? There are surely plenty of books which can be targeted at the actual masses- ie: the masses of children, rather than 50% of that mass at a time?
A sorry lack of creativity…
What a shame that our publishing industry, on the one hand so creative and innovative, can participate in such a curiously old-fashioned and lazy form of marketing. How soul-destroying that an industry which has the power to open up new and exciting worlds for children can also cynically restrict those worlds in the name of commercial success.
Surely none of us really believe that children must co-exist in parallel but separate worlds? Surely we believe that girls and boys can share interests and play and reading? Surely we want all children to feel able to select any book that they think might interest them?
Why do so many publishers insist on putting them off?
Perhaps it is time for this creative industry to get creative – to develop a more sophisticated relationship with its child readers (rather than their adult gatekeepers), one which acknowledges that children might possibly, just possibly, think outside of the gender stereotypes adults keep imposing on them.
Is this the only way to commercial success?
Still, if we must stick to the money question, then we have two additional points to make. Firstly, we hear that recent research has suggested that marketing by ‘brain traits’ or genre interests is much more commercially beneficial than marketing by gender. So perhaps, even just financially speaking children may be worth a little more than the sum of their body parts?
Secondly, how come some of the most commercially successful children’s books of recent years carry no gender labels or symbols on the covers at all?
Schools are looking for something different
Since the earliest days of Letterbox Library, the education sector has perhaps been our main customer. School and early years settings come to us for our range of inclusive books, and these include books which celebrate gender equality.
Schools and early years are of course all bound by equalities legislation, most recently the Equality Act (2010) which includes reference to gender. However, implementation of any such legislation is extremely complex and varied.
What we do know is that over the last 5 years, there has been a renewed demand from teachers seeking out books which are non-stereotypical in their gender representations, in particular, books with girls carving out their own paths and boys being emotionally responsive and nurturing. For example, a school recently stocked up with us following a parent’s complaint that the school’s own resources lacked female leads.
Early Years settings have wanted books which contain quite fundamental gender challenges eg: books which challenge ideas of gendered occupations, books showing mum going out to work and dad as primary carer etc. This re-awakened interest from educators has been vocal enough for us to create special gender equality packs for Early Years, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 alongside our usual range of non-sexist titles.
It’s probably worth adding, as a point of interest to publisher marketing teams, that educational professionals simply won’t buy any books from us with a pink glittery cover. This is not just because they feel half of their classroom is being excluded by these gendered covers. It is also because they assume, even where this is sometimes unfair, that such books have little literary weight or value. It has been the death of at least two books we sold which hid absolutely brilliant girl leads and quite stunning narratives behind neon pink packaging:
We are certain that had these books sported different covers we would have sold many, many more.
A book ‘For You’
Imagine. Imagine that children could walk into a bookstore or browse a publisher website and that they could choose a book to suit their passions. They could still have a fancy for cupcakes but now, it being the 21st century, they would find their favourite cupcake series in a section called ‘Baking Friends’ and, what’s more, they could even be a boy reader.
Imagine a girl whose pulse rate flies at a good, rollicking plot. And, it being the 21st century, she clicks confidently on the ‘Adventure’ tab and finds a tempting array of pirate books. And best of all, imagine that the cupcake series and the pirate books are marked up with, not ‘For Boys’ or ‘For Girls’, but…
About Letterbox Library
Letterbox Library was founded by two single parents who had daughters. Frustrated by the lack of children’s books which featured girls, as well as the near absence of Black or Asian characters in a leading role, they founded a small mail order book club in 1982.
Letterbox Library is a not-for-profit social enterprise. Over the years it has evolved into a children’s booksellers which seeks out 1) books which are inclusive of all children and all families and 2) books which address difficult or challenging issues. Ultimately, Letterbox Library wants all children to be able to see themselves in the books they read. And for these books to be widely available.
We have a curious business model since, in a sense, we want to put ourselves out of business- if we achieve our aim, we simply won’t be needed! The changes we’ve seen in the industry since we first set up 30 years ago are exciting, many and varied, but on the topic of gender representations specifically, we fear there are a glut of books which are taking us back to another era. Probably, to about 1951.