Books for Boys or Girls: a handy guide or a way of limiting children’s choices?

favourite stories for gilrs

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?book for boys

“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.

stories for girls

“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




Filed under books, Children's Fiction, Libraries, reading

2 responses to “Books for Boys or Girls: a handy guide or a way of limiting children’s choices?

  1. This is something I agree with. Working in a primary school last year there was a boy – 4 or 5 who loved wearing dresses and reading princess books? My reaction? Good on him. Unfortunately that and what you talk about isn’t common and it won’t be unless society drastically changes. I do admit we are taking steps to do so but we unfortunately have a long way to go 😦


  2. I think that labeling the stories as though for “boys” or “girls,” especially with those Ladybird titles, is, frankly, dangerous. In essence, it says that active stories, active adventures are the realm of boys; girls are, instead, supposed to focus on status (princess or poverty) what they look like, what they wear, and whether that will snag them the ultimate prize, a prince.

    Even as far as magical creatures go, fairies, as they are described today and not in traditional literature, aren’t all that interesting. They mostly look pretty and help other people to look pretty.

    Some of gender identification is certainly innate, but how we categorize the trappings of gender is certainly all socialized. Take, for example, the meaning of a skirt versus the meaning of a kilt.

    Specifying gender in books in this way does a lot of that cultural socialization, and it does a big disservice to children who may have interests that do not match traditional gender roles. In essence, it discourages those interests, and gives them the message that they are somehow “wrong,” and I would think that we’re far past that now.

    Hmm. I certainly had a lot to say on this subject!


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