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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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