March 19, 2014

Let Books Be Books: UK group asks children’s publishers to stop gender marketing

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Recently, the impact of children’s reading habits on their self-image has received a great deal of attention. Yesterday, we discussed two pieces in the New York Times, in which Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers argued that children’s literature must become more diverse. Children’s publishing is full of stories about white, Western kids, written by mostly white, Western authors, which sends the wrong message to a diverse audience. There’s another way children’s literature is letting down kids, though, and it’s characterized by hot pink sparkles and blue footballs.

Gendered books have recently come under attack, and it’s about dang time. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign in the UK focuses on removing the obvious gender bias from toys. It asks makers of children’s products to, essentially, “let toys be toys” instead of marketing them as “boy’s trucks” or “girl’s dolls.” A subset of the campaign focuses exclusively on pressuring the publishing industry to stop selling books, activity sets, and stickers as girl or boy-oriented.

Let Books Be Books has started a petition aimed at convincing children’s publishers to take away the various iterations of the “Girl’s book of princesses” and “Boy’s book of explosions” and instead publish good stories and fun activities that don’t try and shove heteronormative gender roles down kids’ throats. As their website says, “these artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying.” The campaign has received mixed success. The Independent’s literary editor, Katy Guest, has decided to refuse reviewing “anything marketed to exclude either sex,” be it in The Independent’s print format or either of its websites. Not everyone is buying in, though. Michael O’Mara of Buster Books is one holdout:

“Mr O’Mara himself told The Independent that their Boys’ Book covers “things like how to make a bow and arrow and how to play certain sports and you’d get things about style and how to look cool in the girls’ book.” At the same time, he added: “We would never publish a book that demeaned one sex or the other”.”

The Let Books Be Books campaign page has the perfect rejoinder for that oxymoronic statement.

“Children’s publishing should always aim to open up new worlds for children. But telling children which stories and activities are ‘for them’ based on their gender closes down whole worlds of interest.”

Sadie Mason-Smith is a former Melville House intern.

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