Let Books Be Books

Since we launched our campaign, eleven children’s publishers have agreed to take the ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ labels off books and allow children to choose freely what kinds of stories and activity books interest them.

How can a story be only for a girl, or a sticker be just for a boy? But titles like ‘The Beautiful Girls’ Book of Colouring’ or ‘Illustrated Classics for Boys’ are on the shelves in toyshops, bookstores and supermarkets around the UK and Ireland.

Just like labelling toys ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ these books send out very limiting messages to children about what kinds of things are appropriate for girls or for boys. Blue covers, with themes of action and adventure, robots, space, trucks and pirates contrast with a riot of pink sparkles, fairies, princesses, flowers and butterflies. But real children’s interests are a lot more diverse, and more interesting, than that.

Why does it matter?

Children are listening, and take seriously the messages they receive from books, from toys, from marketing and the adults around them. Do we really want them to believe that certain things are off-limits for them because of their gender? They’re not ‘getting it wrong’ if a girl likes robots, or if a boy wants to doodle flowers. These artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying.

My first stories for boys (cover image of pirare) My first stories for Girls (cover image of fairy)

Igloo books in the Works, 2014, Photo credit: @wickwarwolf

Just like labelling toys for girls or boys, we think these book titles are limiting and restrictive. It’s time that publishers Let Books Be Books and leave children free to choose their interests for themselves.

Reactions to the campaign

We were really pleased that respected educational publishers Usborne were the first to announce that they will not be commissioning any new boys/girls titles, saying in the Guardian that a plan to “discontinue publication of titles such as these was decided some time ago”. They added that the company takes “feedback on gender-specific titles very seriously”, and now has “no plans to produce any titles labelled ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ in the future”.

Since then, Buster BooksScholasticParragon, EgmontLadybird Books (Random House), Chad Valley, Dorling Kindersley, Miles Kelly and Hachette publishers have told us they will not be releasing any new girl/boy labelled titles, and Paperchase have agreed to withdraw gendered activity books.

We’re also happy to have had very supportive media coverage in the Telegraph, Guardian and Independent newspapers (see below), with prominent authors speaking out in support of the campaign, including former Children’s Laureate Anne Fine, current Laureate Malorie Blackman, Poet Laureate Carol-Ann Duffy, and  author of the ‘His Dark Materials’ series, Philip Pullman.

Who’s holding out for gendered marketing?

While we are seeing changes, publishers including Igloo Books and Autumn publishing continue to label books by gender. Do let us know via Twitter, facebook or email if you see any others.

We haven’t had a reply  – see the letter for contact details to help us get a response.


  1. Sabrina

    I’m glad to read Usborne’s positive response to this campaign. However, John Lewis and Waterstones should do a bit more to stop encouraging this kind of stereotype. I went in both shops to look for a sticker book for my 4 yrs-old daughter. I was very disappointed to see that 90% of the sticker books on the shelves were gender-specific, with at least 2 shelves dedicated to princesses, fairies and other dressing sticker books!
    I’ve decided that I won’t take my daughter along and I’d rather shop on ebay or Amazon.
    Food for thoughts Waterstones!

    Kind regards

  2. Deweyipad

    Truthfully, I don’t know what the uproar is all about. Think about this: a man and a woman go into store to buy a magazine. They have their choice of all the same magazines, yet does the man grab BHG, taste of home, knitting? Boys and girls generally like different stuff regardless of their age. Publishers print what people buy or it isn’t out there very long. If don’t want them to read it, don’t buy it for your kid. Besides, just let books be books.

    • If boys and girls (or men and women for that matter) have different interests, fine. The campaign is simply asking publishers and the toy industry to stop telling children what those interests should be.

      Real children’s interests are a lot more similar than they are different. As an adult I can just laugh at the idea that the magazine industry thinks I’m interested in makeup, cakes and true life tragedies because I’m female. (My husband couldn’t be less interested in cars or sport, either. Oddly enough, we’re individuals, with individual interests which are not defined by our gender.) Children take messages from adults, including marketing, very literally:

      I don’t want my kids to read this stuff, and I don’t buy it for them, or for anyone else for that matter. That doesn’t keep it out of my house unfortunately. Many of these kinds of books are bought as gifts by kind relatives who believe that buying a book labelled ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ is somehow more personal. A more personal gift would involve finding out more about a child’s interests, or giving them the chance to try something new…

  3. Veronica Fitzrandolph

    But, what if a boy wants a book of stickers featuring princesses and fairies, or a girl wants a book featuring an adventurous boy or man (I read plenty of these, with pleasure, when I was a child). I hope we won’t now be limited to stories about bold princesses who have daring adventures all on their own with no charming prince to swoop in and save them.

    • No-one’s suggesting (as far as I know!) getting rid of princesses and fairies (or dinosaurs or robots), just the assumption that topics and interests should be divided by gender.

      In children’s literature there’s no shortage of heroic/active boys and men and gentle/caring girls and women – a bit more variety can only be a good thing.

  4. Dave

    Unfortunately Jess, your being a little conservative with the truth. There is very much a shortage of heroic/active boys/men in todays media (Children or otherwise both written & visual).

    Girls/woman are presented as both feminine & ‘badass’ (to use a vulgar phase) – they will be in pretty dresses being all caring and environmental one moment then wreaking untold havoc and destruction on the evil character the next (depending on the story). The boy/men in the story tend to be the comedy extra that realistically doesn’t really need to be there for the story to proceed.

    Letting children choose their gender identity is a complete recipe for disaster as they don’t have the social maturity to understand the other aspects of their choices. When a boy starts his first day at a new school with a ‘Hello Kitty’ bag (because he liked it and nobody should guide him as regards gender) will make for a hellish first day.

    The society your advocating is commendable and I understand where your coming from but it simply will not work. Let boys embrace all that it is to be a boy and let them explore other area’s once they are mature enough to understand it but also lets not disempower them in favour of girls because the resentment is starting much younger now.

    • Dave, I have no idea what books you’re reading or films you’re watching. There are plenty of heroic and active male characters in contemporary media, though our culture doesn’t do a great job of celebrating gentler and more introspective characters of either gender. It’s great that there are increasing numbers of active female characters, it’s well overdue.

      My son is not disempowered by the existence of rounded female characters in media and literature. If he is, what ‘power’ is that exactly? What is there for him to resent in the recognition that females are also human beings like him?

      There is no ‘disaster’ implicit in letting children choose interests for themselves. What’s the cause of that ‘hellish first day’ – a child’s choices, or the silly rules that other people subscribe to? The problem there is bullying, not a boy with a pink bag. Don’t blame the victim. Or his parents.

      • Dave

        Jess, Mainstream books and films regularly have the ’empowered’ female figure normally now portrayed as ‘better’ than the male counterparts (Captain America 2 ‘Winter Soldier’ – the main female character punches a soldier to the ground because he doesn’t respect her then later fires a pistol at the hero who is hiding behind his trademark shield which they don’t know will deflect bullets at that point – all because he’s irritated her……… one movie of many I’m afraid). I have no problem with people’s gentler natures being explored.

        You unfortunately misunderstand my comments about resentment. Lets have more female characters, but lets see them as real people, not some super intelligent, wise cracking under extreme situation without a hair out of place impossibility which we regularly see. I have nephews who have let out a sigh of disappointment before now (true story) because the female character in a cartoon they are watching is better at everything than the male…. Just saying!!

        There is a disaster looming letting children choose for themselves – if you think a boy standing in a school yard on his first day drawing attention to himself is a good thing, then you must have gone to a very, very different school to me. I’m not saying it’s right and yes – the problem is bullying, but you are not going to stop it happening. What you can do it help the child along those difficult early years by giving them sound advice based on your experience and maturity. This is something they don’t have. I’m not blaming the victim or parents – I’m blaming idea’s like demasculating boys and expecting it to have no ill effects.

        • Totally agree that the ‘minority feisty’ is incredibly annoying. Having one ‘superfemale’ to gloss over the fact that there are almost no others… http://reelgirl.com/2012/02/the-curse-of-the-minority-feisty-female-in-kids-movies/ And I agree it’s not on for anyone to be given a pass on otherwise contemptible violent behaviour – you mention one example. Anna punching Hans in ‘Frozen’ is another.

          The point is ‘minority’ . A recent study found under a third of speaking roles in films are female, and under a quarter of protagonists. http://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/key-findings-gender-disparity-family-films-2013.pdf

          You lost me at ’emasculating’ though. Why is a male identity threatened by the existence of powerful females? Or the possession of a Hello Kitty bag? I don’t think She-Ra felt undermined by the existence of He-Man…

        • Rachael

          I have to disagree Dave, thankfully Jess has my corner and is countering wonderfully, but I had to say that the movie you mean is just ‘Captain America’ where those incidents happen, thankfully I don’t think that comic books are just ‘for boys’. The characters in question are Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers and I think the first incident is to portray the fact that the soldier was not only being disrespectful to a senior officer but he was also being sexist. Steve is also a Super Soldier, he’s extremely durable and if he was hit by a moving car… he’d only be a little sore so… yeah.

  5. Veronica Fitzrandolph

    The truth is that parents have to bear the majority of the blame here. Manufacturers produce what sells. If parents didn’t buy princess articles for their girls and robots and sports figures for their boys, the manufacturers would stop making these things, PDQ. If you have a girl baby, don’t dress her in pink. Dress her in yellow or green or purple. Dress your boy in the same non-sex-specific way. Don’t buy princess and fairy items for your girl or toy tanks for your boy.

    Both of them can enjoy dinosaurs, if they happen to like dinosaurs.

  6. Dave

    The She-Ra/He-Man comment gave me a nostalgic smile – two of my most favourite cartoon characters.

    Part of the problem with the movie industry when it comes to including female characters (as regards your minority comment) is that they don’t want to be seen to have ‘useless’ female characters. A typical movie will have plot characters that are there for humour (the bumbling idiot), threat (guards or likewise) or miscellaneous other characters that fill out the story. These tend to end up being male roles because the movie investors are concerned that their movie won’t make a lot of money if it’s seen to abuse women in any way, hence the bumbling idiot is a man, the male guards can be beaten, shot and generally kicked around and the other characters can be science geeks (for example) because it’s not seen as sexy or cool to have these as female roles – unless the science geek looks like a catwalk model who has donned a white lab coat, a pair of spectacles and nothing else.

    When I speak of ‘Emasculation’ it’s not the existence of powerful females (although normal females would be nice for a change) that’s a problem. Boys like to think they can make a difference, that they can be heard – but the world is now all about ‘Girl Power’, ‘Female Empowerment’, ‘Powerful/Feisty Female characters’ which diminish boys further and further. I know that females see this as positive to make up for all the years that women were not represented but it’s going too far the other way.

    (had to rush some of this due to time – hope it makes sense)

    • It makes absolute sense, Dave, sounds like we agree then! It’s really important that there are enough females in media for there to be space for them to be all kinds of things. The Geena Davis Institute has a very simple answer for screenwriters:

      Geena Davis’ Two Steps:
      “Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

      Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.“

      I think if you reviewed the top recent children’s films, books and TV shows you wouldn’t see an overwhelming picture of ‘girl power’, for all the reasons I’ve outlined above. (Where’s today’s She Ra? Or Jana of the Jungle? for that age group?) Those you see stand out precisely because they’re surprising. And I think it’s equally depressing for a girl to see that the options seem to be 1/ Be super-amazing at everything. In heels. While having perfect hair. OR 2/ Be rescued, trad style 3/ Er, there is no 3.

      But I do agree that boys often get a very poor set of role models from the media too. I simply don’t recognise my own son in the pervasive stereotyped view of boys as rowdy, insensitive, filthy etc etc And this does serious harm to their aspirations and educational success:

  7. Dave

    Jess, I have commented on websites before when I’ve felt that the subject deserved a response (usually a man-bashing subject as I do feel that normal men get a lot of undeserved abuse). May I congratulate you on being one of the few women to actually listen and respond intelligently to my posts.

    I initially thought this ‘gender neutral’ subject was going to be a bad idea – but after reading and considering your comments I can see how this could be a positive thing for both genders – especially if it breaks down these awful stereotypes that badly pollute society.

    Well done!

  8. Dave

    Rachel posted:-

    I have to disagree Dave, thankfully Jess has my corner and is countering wonderfully, but I had to say that the movie you mean is just ‘Captain America’ where those incidents happen, thankfully I don’t think that comic books are just ‘for boys’. The characters in question are Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers and I think the first incident is to portray the fact that the soldier was not only being disrespectful to a senior officer but he was also being sexist. Steve is also a Super Soldier, he’s extremely durable and if he was hit by a moving car… he’d only be a little sore so… yeah.

    I’m guessing the above hasn’t been moderated hence isn’t appearing on the feed but I will answer.

    Firstly I don’t know what you are disagreeing with, can you expand please.

    I watched both Captain America movies close together so my mistake that I mis-titled the movie that the incident occurred in. I said that a male soldier was punched to the ground due to being disrespectful – you have furthered this by saying he was also sexist……… you seem to have totally ignored the fact that the punishment was waaaaaaaay more extreme than the crime. As a senior officer she should have had him marched off and punished in a professional manner, not resorting to striking him because in reality he would have just hit her straight back – and knocked her off her high heels.

    As for the hero being a super soldier and very durable – yes he is, but he most definitely is not bullet proof. Why was Peggy Carter firing a gun at him……. because she saw him kissing another woman (actually not entirely his fault) and was playing the jilted girlfriend – it’s a little psychotic trying kill someone because you think they are cheating on you, yet your not actually in a relationship with them, do you think?

  9. Sarah

    Scholastic may no longer sell overtly gendered books (for boys, for girls) etc, but their Top 50 Villians has a chapter about women. I have written to them to explain that whilst this book does have women featured in the other chapters, that a specific chapter about women is a gender inequality.

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