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?
Absolute favourite kids read is goodnight stories for rebel girls. Reluctant to say anything negative about this fabulous book… but…my 9 yr old son loved it too but was embarrassed to admit he liked a book for girls….
— JB (@Sprockle1745) April 2, 2018
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.