A child in Romania picks up free books from the pavement on World Book Day. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why are children’s books still promoting gender stereotypes?

A good book should be open to anyone, so why do some children’s publishers restrict readership according to gender?

Why do we give books to children? Common answers to that question involve the use of words like “expand”, “open” or “broaden”, followed by “minds”, “hearts”, “horizons” or “imaginations”. Sad then, that many books for children do just the opposite; they peddle stereotypes, close minds to new experiences and offer limited horizons.

The Let Toys Be Toys campaign, which last year persuaded 13 retailers to remove “Boys” and “Girls” signs from stores, is working with Letterbox Library, Inclusive Minds and For Books’ Sake to persuade the publishing industry to drop these labels from books. The Let Books Be Books petition launched for World Book Day, 6 March, asks children’s publishers Usborne, Buster Books, Igloo Books and others to stop labelling children’s activity, story and colouring books as for boys or for girls.

Children are individuals. They should feel free to choose their own interests, not feel that they’re supposed to like or reject certain things. And anyone who chooses a gift based only on a child’s gender is making some massive, and quite likely wrong, assumptions about what that child may like.

Campaign supporters regularly share photos of “boy” and “girl” books with predictably lazy stereotypes on the cover. These are usually colouring, sticker and activity books, although “Stories for Boys” and “Stories for Girls” are also common. Classic novels, great for all children to read, are bundled together with the words “girls” or “boys” slapped on the box. Separate cookery books seem particularly ridiculous; the suggestion being that boys eat pizza and burgers, while girls prefer pink iced cupcakes. We’ve even seen “girls” and “boys” versions of The Bible.

Typical themes for boys include robots, dinosaurs, astronauts, vehicles, football and pirates; while girls are allowed princesses, fairies, make-up, flowers, butterflies, fashion and cute animals. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but it is wrong when they are repeatedly presented as only for one gender. Girls can like pirates and adventure, boys can like magic and dressing up. Why tell them otherwise? Why tell them that boys and girls should like different things, that their interests never overlap, that there are greater differences between genders than between individuals? 

It’s accepted practice to target products at one segment of the population, but when it comes to children’s books it’s morally questionable to promote gender stereotypes. Children take messages about what’s “for girls” or “for boys” seriously.

“Books should give children the chance to explore new things and ideas, and labelling books, and certain subjects, as only for one gender prevents them from doing this,” says Alexandra Strick, of children’s literature project Inclusive Minds. Her co-founder Beth Cox, adds, “These books reinforce stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or a girl, and therefore make children who don’t conform to these stereotypes more vulnerable to bullying and at risk of low self-esteem”.

The campaign also aims to raise discussion on wider issues around gender and children”s books, such as the fact that male protagonists still outnumber female characters by two to one in children’s picture books, or the belief, often expressed by publishers, that boys won’t read books with girl leads.

These issues are connected to a wider culture of inequality. The founder of For Books’ Sake, Jane Bradley, says, “From gendered children’s colouring books to chick-lit book covers illustrated with pink cursive fonts, handbags and cupcakes, the publishing industry aggressively reinforces conventional gender roles to its readers from childhood onwards. This gendered marketing normalises and perpetuates limiting, antiquated stereotypes, and we believe it’s time for the publishing industry to put it where it belongs; in the past”.

Kerry Mason, co-director of the not-for-profit social enterprise Letterbox Library agrees. “This campaign is testament to a growing voice of dissent. We have a very proud and rich tradition of children’s publishing in the UK. But increasingly, parents and teachers feel that children’s own book choices are being limited by publishers’ gendered marketing campaigns.

“At Letterbox Library, we have spent the last 30 years selecting books which give children the widest possible choices in what they read. Our selection is increasingly being threatened by a type of marketing which uses book labelling and covers which restrict a book’s readership. We simply cannot stock books marketed in this way. Gendered marketing is anti-choice and, for us at least, there really is no profit in it. Nor is there much respect for children in it!”

Join the Twitter conversation on the #LetBooksBeBooks hashtag and sign and share the petition if you agree that it’s time for children’s publishers to just let books be books.

 

MICHEL DETAY
Show Hide image

Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad