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Why no stories for rebel children? Don’t divide young readers by gender

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?

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.

 

How do we get more boys reading? (Clue: ‘boy books’ aren’t the answer.)

Could a new rule make advertisers dump stereotypes?

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is consulting on a new rule, aiming to tackle gender stereotyping in advertising. Here’s how we’re planning to respond – you can submit your own thoughts to the consultation until Thursday 26 July (tips below).

The CAP and BCAP codes set out the principles that the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) uses to judge advertising. Following the ASA’s report last year, which gathered evidence of the damage caused by gender stereotyping, ASA now intends to come up with a workable new rule and supporting guidance to act against ads that cause harm or offence due to stereotyping.

While we welcome the proposed new rule, we feel the proposed supporting guidance can do more to promote better practice. And we recognise that the real solution lies in more creativity from the ad and toy industries. Read more…

Do we need more female villains in books?

Lesson plans – gender bias in children’s books

Recent research found just one female ‘baddie’ in the top one hundred best selling picture books. These ready-to-use lesson plans for World Book Day look at gender bias in children’s books as a way of opening discussion on everyday sexism in books and films.

Read more…

Fantastic toys and books to foster STEM skills – Let Toys Be Toys gift guide

As well as being fun, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) toys are a great way to build skills such as problem solving, spatial awareness and critical thinking.

Of course we all know science is for everyone, but gender bias means STEM toys are often targeted squarely at boys, (or else given a dusting of pink glitter and lipstick as if that’s the only way to get girls interested). We’ve chosen eleven toys and books to help curious children everywhere develop an interest in science and discovery. Read more…

Arts & crafts – Let Toys Be Toys gift guide

If you’re looking for an arts and crafts gift, and want to shop outside the pink and blue boxes of gender stereotypes, check out our inclusive gift guide for fun arts and crafts present ideas for children.

Read more…

Books for Young Children – Let Toys Be Toys gift guide

We believe all children should be able to choose freely the books they like best and we celebrate all the marvellous writers, illustrators, publishers and booksellers that avoid putting boy or girl labels on books. Here we list some of our favourite reads for the very small people in our lives.

Read more…

Hachette is eleventh UK publisher to #LetBooksBeBooks

UK children’s books publisher Hachette is the eleventh publisher to confirm that it will “let books be books” and ditch the gender labels on its book covers

Read more…

words used in TV toy ads featuring girls: most prominent words magic, fun, beautiful, princess, glitter, style, hair, sparkle

Tougher guidelines on stereotypes in adverts

Let Toys Be Toys welcomes the ASA report which confirms many of the things that we have campaigned on over the last five years. We are delighted about a new tougher stance on damaging gender stereotypes in advertising. Read more…

Being ManKind: men and boys in the 21st century

Being ManKind wants to reach children and young adults with positive male role models, using their books, lesson plans and workshops. Editor Joe Byrde tells Let Toys Be Toys about their plans and their new kickstarter campaign.

When Dave Chawner, a stand-up comedian, summoned the courage to go to his GP suffering from depression, he never expected to be diagnosed with clinical anorexia.

When Jack Morris left a promising career in the police to stay at home while his wife went out to work, his friends found it difficult to understand such an arrangement. Read more…

Changing our stories to #redrawthebalance

Katrina Encanto is part of the team behind the campaign about gender stereotypes and childhood role models, #redrawthebalance. In this guest blog post she looks at gender bias in media and why lack of representation for women and girls matters.

Read more…