In a recent staff meeting at Ealing Road Library one of my colleagues was discussing a book she’d noticed while shelving. Favourite Stories for Girls, the book is a fairly entertaining book of stories including one about a beauty pageant winner who defies her mother to play football with the boys and one about a girl detective who tries to solve The Case of the Appearing Sandwiches using the methods of Sherlock Holmes – but what struck us all was the title. Is it right to identify a book as suitable for one particular gender? I thought it was a shame boys might be put off reading this funny book by the title but on the other hand maybe it’s a helpful way to tell children what the book is about. Maybe I am too keen to be politically correct when encouraging children to read should be a priority. Whether we like it or not boys and girls do find aspects of their identity through gender roles and identifying which gender a book most suits might help them choose books they are likely to enjoy. Alternatively you could argue ‘which came first?’ do girls like fairies and boys dragons because it’s in their nature or because they’ve been told that’s what they should like?
“it’s a serious matter because it does narrow children’s sense of what they’re allowed to do or like, in a horrible, horrible way” Anne Fine
Last year Ladybird came down on the side of not labeling books and from now on ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ labels will not feature on their books. But as short a time ago as 2011 they published; Favourite Fairy Tales for Girls: the mix of princesses, fairies and classic characters is perfect for little girls everywhere and Favourite Stories for Boys: the lively mix of adventurous heroes, dastardly creatures and classic characters is perfect for boys everywhere. They defended this choice saying it was a way to make choosing a book easier, particularly for grandparents selecting a gift. I find these titles quite shocking! If you remove the words ‘boy/girl’ but leave the rest of the description you are still able to learn what the book is about but without excluding anyone, if your little girl loves princesses choose the first one if she prefers adventure stories choose the second.
“Books are for people. Stories are for people. Limiting that is foolish and short-sighted” Neil Gaiman
We do have a challenge though. Encouraging children to read is not always easy, particularly with boys, could a range of books seen to be especially for boys help encourage them to read more? I’m not sure but don’t think we should pursue the method even if it did work. We want children to read for a reason not just for the sake of it, we want children to read because it helps them learn about who they are, expands their ability to be open minded and imaginative – we have to practice what we are preaching! If you say ‘these books are just for you’ you are automatically saying to someone else ‘these books aren’t for you’ – and that seems wrong.
“what may seem to be a harmless marketing strategy, is, to an impressionable child, really a form of brainwashing, repeating the false message that boys are brilliant and brave, while girls are mostly just decorative”. Joanne Harris