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Why no stories for rebel children? Don’t divide young readers by gender

By Tricia Lowther, originally published in the Guardian.

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and its more recent male equivalent Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different, are among a clutch of bestselling children’s books that supposedly break down gender stereotypes. By sharing tales of inspirational women and men who succeeded against the prevailing stereotypes of their time, these books aim to challenge ideas about what it means to be a boy or a girl. But could they actually be reinforcing the problem?

While the content of the books – stories of groundbreaking women, or men unafraid to express emotion – is welcome, and no doubt will inspire many children, the use of the words “for girls” and “for boys” in the titles discourages others from reading them. It’s great to see the achievements of women such as Ada Lovelace celebrated, but why suggest that only girls should be interested in her? However useful the content matter, the branding clearly separates boys and girls into different readership groups. It tells children they are different from each other and, by emphasising difference, impedes equality. It could make a big difference to simply change the word “for” in the title to “about” or “of”.

Some parents have criticised the books on social media, both for the titles and the segregation of stories into boy and girl groups. Why not have books about boys and girls? The response seems to be that children are expected to gravitate to stories about their own gender. But even if that’s true, perhaps it could be because we keep on sending out the same message – that girls should want to read about girls, and boys should only want to read about boys?

Research shows that when young children hear people grouped together in social categories, they make assumptions about what it means to be part of that social category, which leads to stereotypical thinking. It isn’t even so much what is said that creates the difference, but the way that the message is communicated. This is what segregating readership into “boys’ books” and “girls’ books” does.

As a founder member of the Let Books Be Books campaign, which has, since 2014 , persuaded 11 children’s publishers to remove the words “for boys” and “for girls” from book covers, it’s disheartening to see what looks like the emergence of a new gender segregation. It’s true that the books we originally campaigned against were filled with gender stereotypes; football and dinosaurs for boys, princesses and fairies for girls (and there are plenty of these still around), but I would question whether it’s ever progressive for a book to target children by gender, even in the name of empowerment.

In the same way that a book called Robots for Boys is a bad idea, because it sends the message that science is not for girls, a book filled with stories about great women, with a cover that limits its readership to girls, tells boys they aren’t expected to be interested in stories about the other half of the population. Girls have long been expected to read, watch and listen to stories about boys and men. It’s long past time for it to be normal practice for boys to include girls and women in their media intake.

The motivation behind these titles is laudable; to give children a range of positive male and female role models, to let them see that it’s OK to be who they want to be, but gender targeting the titles sends out a contradictory message. Shouldn’t stories about inspirational women or boys who buck the stereotype be read by everybody? Instead of stories for girls, or the sons of feminists, stories like these need to be part of a mainstream narrative, not a special, separate, subgroup.

We need to stop directing children towards the stories we think they should read, especially on the basis of gender. Let them make their own choices. Instead of telling them who stories are for, let them decide what they want to read, whether that’s a book about girls, boys, both, or something else entirely. Let them hear stories about people from different backgrounds, with different voices, of different genders, because the best stories are for whoever wants to read them.

 

How do we get more boys reading? (Clue: ‘boy books’ aren’t the answer.)

Do we need more female villains in books?

Lesson plans – gender bias in children’s books

Recent research found just one female ‘baddie’ in the top one hundred best selling picture books. These ready-to-use lesson plans for World Book Day look at gender bias in children’s books as a way of opening discussion on everyday sexism in books and films.

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shelf of children's picture books

Constructing bias – the wonky world of picture books

New research released this week by the Observer newspaper shows how picture books present children a worryingly lopsided view of the world: with males outnumbering females 2:1 among significant speaking characters, and male villains in 89% of books with ‘baddies’. Jess Day takes a look at the results.

The Observer’s research looked at 2017’s 100 top selling picture books: non-human characters (animals and monsters) were nearly twice as likely to be male, while you were twenty times more likely to come across an all-male book, than an all-female book.

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Books for Young Children – Let Toys Be Toys gift guide

We believe all children should be able to choose freely the books they like best and we celebrate all the marvellous writers, illustrators, publishers and booksellers that avoid putting boy or girl labels on books. Here we list some of our favourite reads for the very small people in our lives.

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Two years on – who’s letting books be books?

Igloo2001covers

Since we launched our books campaign on World Book Day 2014, ten publishers have agreed to Let Books Be Books. Two years on, who are the publishers still labelling books ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’?

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Buster Books becomes 10th publisher to agree to #LetBooksBeBooks

We are pleased to say that UK children’s books publisher, Buster Books, an imprint of Michael O’Mara, has become the tenth publisher since our campaign began to ditch gendered book titles and agree to “let books be books”.

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Scholastic responds to petition from Els, 8

Good news that young campaigner Els has heard back from publisher Scholastic, in response to her petition asking them to stop promoting books labelled ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ in their school book fairs. Read their response, and find out what Els and her friends have to say. Read more…

Children hold up Let Books Be Books written on pieces of paper

WIN: Scholastic agrees to let books be books

Following a petition from 8-year-old Els, Scholastic has become the ninth UK publisher to agree to drop ‘for girls’ and ‘for boys’ labels from books.

Els has written to Scholastic asking them to stop stocking books labelled ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ in the book fairs that regularly visit the school. Says Els in her letter, “No books should be ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’… Books should be for everyone and we all like different things.” She gathered support from friends at school, getting over 80 signatures for her petition. Read more…

Child's drawing of a person holding a book that says 'Let Books Be Books' on the cover, surrounded by children's names

‘No books should be ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls” Els, 8, tells Scholastic

Eight-year-old Els was really annoyed to see books labelled ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ in the range brought to her school by the regular Scholastic book fair. Annoyed enough to want to write to the publisher, and get her school friends and their grown ups behind her. Read more…

Any book for any body

This World Book Day, alongside the Society of Authors we’re asking authors, illustrators and readers to share examples of books they’ve loved and enjoyed that maybe didn’t fit other people’s (or their own!) expectations of what boys and girls, men and women, are ‘supposed’ to like.

Share your own examples – email us at lettoybetoys@gmail.com or tweet us @lettoysbetoys #anybookanybody Read more…