Books should be for everyone to discover. Photo: Getty
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Ladybird stops branding books “for boys” and “for girls”, but this is only the start

We can change what’s on the cover, but if the content of the book hasn’t changed, it still has the power to limit our children’s aspirations.

My youngest son adores his Ladybird Well Loved Tales collection. It’s the same collection I had as a child, including all the old classics: The Princess and the Pea, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Frog. Over the last year they have become an essential part of the bedtime routine.

While the books themselves are not labelled as “for boys” or “for girls”, some of the stories have recently crept into gendered anthologies. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty feature in Fairy Tales for Girls, while Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Little Pigs appear in Favourite Stories for Boys. While some parents might breathe a sigh of relief at the publishers having avoided the apocalyptic consequences of placing the word “fairy” anywhere near the word “boys”, a growing number of us have found such an approach limiting and sexist. Hence for us it’s good news that, thanks to pressure from the campaign group Let Books Be Books, Ladybird have confirmed that they will no longer be publishing any more specific ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ titles.

I find this news pleasing not just as a parent, but as someone who has worked in the educational publishing industry for several years. While I don’t believe we should gender books – they are for everyone – I’m very conscious of some of the reasons why publishers feel the need to do so, particularly when it comes to encouraging children to read. In recent years panic over male underachievement in literacy has led to the growth of specific reading schemes for boys. While these reinforce some stereotypes regarding aggression, the one they seek to overcome – “boys don’t read” – is certainly an important one to challenge. Similarly, while the stereotype of girls liking everything to be pink and Hello Kitty branded isn’t exactly gratifying, if it’s used to get them studying science, then maybe it’s okay?

Personally I have mixed feelings. Publishers don’t work in a vacuum. If the prospect of carrying a pink GCSE textbook is enough to dissuade a boy from taking GCSE French, then I’d rather the cover wasn’t pink. But once we start tailoring our books to meet and reinforce the stereotypes children have already absorbed, the effect can be counter-productive. We remind children that they are doing an activity at which they are traditionally expected to fail (hence putting them at risk of stereotype threat). If a girl’s maths books remind her that she is not a person but a girl doing maths, the voice saying “but girls can’t do maths, can they?” is never really silenced.

One might argue that since the Ladybird collections are for homes and libraries, the issue is less contentious than for schools. If a parent wants to buy a child a specific “boy” book, they will carry on choosing the one with the blue cover. Even so, the removal of the specific “for boys” directive matters. Children notice these things. My eldest child doesn’t mind what colour his books are but he takes written rules very seriously. He once ran out of a train station screaming, having spotted a fuse box bearing the label DANGER: RISK OF DEATH; I don’t think he’d risk reading anything that seemed, in his eyes, to explicitly warn him off. We might think our children aren’t interested in learning rules, but that’s not true; some children might like breaking them, but they absorb them all and what’s more, they don’t forget. Hence the removal of pointless “keep out signs” based on gender prejudice is a victory, albeit an incomplete one. We need to look not just at the cover, but at what is inside. 

Part of me is delighted that my youngest likes fairy stories, even the ones which ended up in Fairy Tales for Girls. Nevertheless, I have to admit that the Well Loved Tales aren’t quite as I remembered them. The words are the same but reading them as an adult, I’m suddenly aware of the very clear messages about gender embedded within them. I didn’t notice this as a child. I thought it was all “happy ever after”. It turns out it’s not. Being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The Princess and the Pea is one long metaphor for testing the virginity of royal brides. In Rumpelstiltskin, the miller’s daughter ends up “happily” married to a man who has threatened to kill her more than once. The Beast emotionally blackmails Beauty into declaring her love for him, lest her rampant beastphobia should lead to his suicide. In The Princess and the Frog, the princess learns that once you promise to take someone into your bed, you can’t back out of it, however much it disgusts you. Basically my childhood favourites turned out to be Fifty Shades of Grey set in a gingerbread house.

We can change the book’s cover – we can say “anyone can have this book” – but if the content of the book hasn’t changed, it still has the power to limit our children’s aspirations. The subservient princess, the abusive king, the entitled beast – these are not the only roles available. Instead of changing where we place ourselves in relation to a narrative, we need to go one step further and challenge the narrative itself.

I’m not for one moment saying we should ban Well Loved Tales (not least because 1. the Spectator would love it and 2. my five-year-old would never speak to me again). Even so, what this does show is that when it comes to gender, it’s not enough to switch the labels around. That’s only the start. We also need to look at what it is we’re labelling. Anyone can be a princess, anyone can be a beast. But is the princess/beast – or masculinity/femininity, abuser/abused – dynamic what we want? Isn’t it time to write new stories in which everyone gets to thrive?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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