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


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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis