Let Toys Be Toys campaigner Tessa Trabue reflects on what her son loves to read, and asks, if it’s true that many boys won’t read about girls, where are they getting the idea that they shouldn’t?
I have found that reading with my son has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of parenthood. Ever since he could talk, I have heard the question “Mum, can you read please” several times a day, and I’m always happy to comply when I can.
We’ve gone on adventures with Emily Brown as she explores space, marches through the Amazon rainforest, and bravely rescues her rabbit Stanley from the Special Commandos. We’ve followed Tiddler on the edge of our seats countless times waiting to see if he will eventually find his way home. We’ve read as clever little Liza Lou outsmarts swamp haunts, gobblygooks and the devil himself in the Yeller Belly Swamp. It has been particularly fun to read him many favourites from my own childhood and share the enjoyment of these together.
Books for Boys, Books for Girls
Unfortunately, the message that we seem to be getting more and more these days from publishers is that some books are just for boys, and some books are just for girls. In the gendered activity books on offer from some publishers, such as several from Buster Books, boys are offered a variety of action, adventure or science related themes, while the girls tend to get princesses, butterflies, flowers, or fashion/beauty related themes.
Some publishers even believe that boys and girls prefer different foods, as evidenced by these gendered cookbooks by Igloo.
And, unfortunately, some publishers seem to be reinforcing the idea that boys simply don’t like to read. At the time of writing, Igloo had forty gendered titles to choose from; however only 7 of these – less than a quarter – were “for boys”.
The issue becomes even more insidious when publishers start gendering works of fiction as being “for boys” or “for girls”. Igloo, Buster Books, and Miles Kelly are some of the publishers that produce series of this ilk, with many fiction titles labelled as “for boys” or “for girls”.
Reading the table of contents in Miles Kelly’s Adventure Stories for Boys, we find that boys are offered abridged versions of classics such as Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and Robinson Crusoe, whilst the Stories for Girls contains extracts from stories such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden.
In the case of these gendered collections, it seems to have been broadly decided that stories featuring girl protagonists (even when there are equally prominent boy characters, such as in The Secret Garden) must be for girls, whilst those featuring boys or an action and adventure theme must be for boys.
Alice in Wonderland was the first chapter book I read to my son when he was about 5, and it was an instant favourite. I wasn’t sure how making the switch from a picture book to a chapter book would work, but a few pages into the story, I looked up to see him completely enthralled. We soon followed this with the Wizard of Oz, Ramona the Pest, and Charlotte’s Web, all of which have been popular choices, and he continues to reference these stories long after we read them together.
More recently we read The Secret Garden, one of the titles sometimes found in those “Stories for Girls” collections. My son learned so much from this classic, especially historically; it is a shame to think of children missing out on enchanting stories such as this one because someone decided that, because one or more of the protagonists are girls, the stories hold no interest for boys.
I have been filled with dread for a few years now that my son might come across these gendered books or collections in a bookstore or library, and feel that these stories are not for him, or even worse, feel shame that he had read and enjoyed them. Although he has moved past the more literal stage of believing every sign he reads, marketing can be powerful, and I do worry that the impact of finding these stories labelled as “girls” might plant a seed of doubt in his mind as to whether he “should” be reading these books.
“Boys don’t read books with girls on the cover”
Another series that we have been reading together are the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a favourite from my American childhood. It has been wonderful to share these books with my son, and he has found these stories about pioneer life in the late 1800s fascinating – such a contrast to our hi-tech London life in 2014.
Those familiar with the books will know that although the series is about her life growing up from age 5 to adulthood, the third book, Farmer Boy is a departure from her own story, and is about her future husband and his life on a farm when he is around 8 years old. I thought my son would be interested in this story as it was about a boy of his same age but, interestingly, when we were halfway through this book, he asked if I minded if we stopped reading it; he wanted to back to the next book about Laura and her adventures on the prairie!
In the last year, my son has turned into a voracious independent reader. Although he still likes me to read to him occasionally, I miss hearing “Mum can you read” so often. The other night I watched as he was deliberating about what book to read next. He pulled several on and off of his shelves, had a look at the covers, read the blurbs on the back. He finally selected “Sophie is 7” by Dick King Smith, which features the protagonist herself on a pink cover. He settled down happily to read, and found the story so engaging he started sharing bits with us.
My son’s latest favourite is a book called Jane Blonde – the perfect spylet, which came home from school. We’re very glad that his teachers and the other children haven’t put him off bringing home a book with a pink cover or a girl on the cover – yet.
My son has been happy to choose and enjoy books about girls, books with girls on the cover, and books plastered in pink. He just likes a good story. So where do these ideas about boys come from? Do they really not want to read about girls? And if not, why?
Unfortunately, I have heard from one campaign supporter that the teacher in his daughter’s class will read “one story for the girls, and one for the boys”. Another parent’s 11 year-old-son brought home a reading list for the holidays with separate book lists for the girls and the boys, while yet another’s six year old daughter was asked to fill out a book report, ticking whether the book was for “girls” or for “boys”.
It is really sad to see that this sort of gender stereotyping seeping into the classroom and potentially limiting the stories that children have access to and can learn so much from.
Parents often perpetuate these attitudes as well. We were at the library a few weeks ago and joined a woman and two children at a table. The woman laughed and said “Oh, we must be at the boys’ table, look at these” and picked up several of superhero themed books happened to be on the table. My son was already reading at that point so I didn’t interrupt him to respond, but I do wonder what the effect of hearing these sorts of comments regularly must have on children.
Petition to publishers
It is sad to think that so many children may not experience the full range of fiction on offer, and will be limited in their reading choices, because publishers have decided to arbitrarily gender books in this fashion. Let Toys Be Toys is asking publishers to stop gendering their book titles in future print runs, and let children decide what books they would like to read.
Isn’t it time to just let books be books – for everyone?