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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide