Thursday, 19 April 2018

Why is engendered stereotyping sneaking back into children's books through the back door once again? A ReadItTorial #LetBooksBeBooks

This week we are mostly having a bit of a problem with a single word, that seems to herald a return to the bad old days of engendering children's books. This was first brought to light by wonderful Paula Harrison on Twitter, who makes a very valid point that suddenly it seems OK again to have girls for books and girls for boys. Wait, no it flipping isn't, what the hell is going on?

Regardless of the intent, we've seen recent titles offering up subjects that are being targeted as redressing an imbalance in the number of non-fiction titles (specifically those offering up biographical information on contemporary and historical figures of note) actually achieving the exact opposite.

The campaign around "Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls" (which, at the time, we though was extremely misleading due to a rather pointless promotional video cherry-picking story book titles from a bookshelf to show the number of male-oriented story books, something we pointed out at the time was definitely NOT our experience of children's books at all) quite rightly wanted to show that girls would be just as interested in learning about amazingly inspirational people as boys. The first book was wildly successful, spawning a sequel, and showing a brilliant collection of amazing women who are fantastic role models.

The real problem (aside from that original video) is the cover of this book. Instantly setting itself up as a gender specific title by using the word "for" (ie Good Night Stories FOR rebel girls on the cover rather than "about" or perhaps even "of").

Recent title "Stories FOR boys who dare to be different" (which takes a very close look and feel to
the above book) does the same, and Ben Brooks book (great as it is) once again seems like it's hauling the tug of war rope back towards the male side. Again there's the use of the word "For" on the cover, yet the people covered inside (all male, of course) again would equally appeal as inspirational models to both boys and girls.

So what's going on here? Simply put: a piece of clever marketing tapping into something that drives people absolutely crazy, with an almost "good samaritan" approach being rather cynically used to try and maintain the battle of the sexes (ie pointing out that a 'gross imbalance' exists on both sides and you should be annoyed about it - and should protest by buying a book for your girls / boys to shore up your beliefs).

OK that's a very simplified view of what goes on in a marketing meeting, but I swear, I would not be surprised to find that inane conversations like that really do take place - otherwise surely things like this wouldn't happen in the first place?

So I'm all for banning the word "for" for these types of books. In fact, you can do it, see how easy it is to produce a great title without engendering?

"Women in Science" covers similar ground to the other two books (albeit with more of a focus on science obviously), the book is a fantastic read and manages to have a brilliant and attractive cover that doesn't try and sneak in some "girl power" narrative or "boys are winning it back" level of hogwash either.

Let's not pretend that things are any better in fiction titles for children either. We still seem to see an awful lot of titles fetching up at ReadItDaddy Towers with press releases written up with strong gender bias implied (if not stated outright, in fact).

We tire of seeing titles being described as "A fantastic book to engage reluctant boy readers" (because of course there's no such thing as a reluctant girl reader, right? Girls are too smart for that) or seeing a title that covers a subject that (the author or publisher believes) still has a gender pin stamped on it.

I cynically think a dangerous game is being played here, that we're not actually doing anywhere near as much as we should be to eradicate ANY battle / side taking / arguing which is better in this whole thing, we're just colouring the arguments slightly differently in order to still push bias, pigeonholing and neat little labels on readers / consumers with increasingly blurring lines of acceptance on what gender stereotyping looks like, even when it's done up in stylish and fancy clothes.

It needs to stop, even with books that (as well meaning as they are) purport to be doing something about it.