Are Children’s Books Sexist?

A UK proposal to end labeling books “for boys” or “for girls” has fallout in Philly.


Here are some of the things you can learn in The Daring Book for Girls and its sequels:

• How to make a geyser out of Diet Coke and Mentos.

• How to do science projects.

• How to build a zipline.

• How to build a campfire.

• How to surf, make a raft, and play football.

Sure, there’s also stuff about double dutch, cat’s cradle, and the like (and perhaps the cover of the book a bit too sparkly for the taste of some) but the point is this: The Daring Book for Girls and its sequels are about expanding horizons — not about limiting girls to self-consciously girly things.

This is worth mentioning for a couple of reasons. First, there’s a movement afoot in the United Kingdom to rid books of gender-labeling. Second: The authors of The Daring Books for Girls Andi Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, are from Philadelphia — and it’s their work that’s often been referenced as the debate has proceeded.

The L.A. Times sums up that debate:

A campaign in the United Kingdom that seeks to pressure publishers to stop titling and labeling children’s books as being “for boys” or “for girls” is quickly gaining momentum, with leading writers and at least one newspaper expressing support.

“We’re asking children’s publishers to take the ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ labels off books and allow children to choose freely what kinds of stories and activity books interest them,” says the statement by the Let Books Be Books campaign. Such labels, the organizers of the campaign say, “send out very limiting messages to children about what kinds of things are appropriate for girls or for boys.”

On Sunday, the campaign got an important boost when the newspaper the Independent announced it would no longer review such books, or even blog about them.

Hmm. There’s something mildly Orwellian about a “Let Books Be Books” campaign that seeks to limit how books label themselves. (“Let books be only certain kinds of approved books” isn’t quite as cool.) And yes, it’s aggravating how early and easily we assign certain things to kids of certain genders, without considering whether they might have broader appeal. Sometimes, we even go to ridiculous lengths — like pink and pastel bow-and-arrow sets — to maintain the distinctions.

But a blanket rule is kind of mindless. It doesn’t teach kids how to distinguish between the things that limit them and the things that broaden them — it simply, badly assumes that a “for girls” or “for boys” label is automatically oppressive. I’m not sure that’s the case.

Full disclosure: Buchanan is a friend. The first time I met her, she was delivering Gatorade and Pedialyte to my house for my sick son; I’m endlessly biased in her favor as a result. And when I emailed her about the debate, she was initially reluctant to comment — in part because the topic is complicated. She doesn’t want to self-promote on the back of controversy.

Still, Buchanan has a few opinions about her own work.

“I agree that typical, market grab-type gender-essentialist books are not great — but I think an all-out ban on all books that focus narrowly on a boy or girl audience is a mistake,” she wrote to me.

She continued:

Some of these books offer safe spaces for children to explore ideas they might otherwise be tentative about — the Daring Book, specifically, celebrates the idea that girlhood and “girly-ness” is just as valid as the expressions of “boyishness” that are often more highly valued in our culture; and that, in fact, being a girl means being a human being, not a stereotype. Though it’s aimed at girls, the message of the Daring Book is an inclusive one, which encourages the notion that a girl not need apologize for herself or her interests, and that there is so much more to being a girl (and expressing girlhood) than what is allowed by the typical girly/tomboy binary stereotype of “girl” ways to be.

Banning certain titles, or refusing to review them, doesn’t eliminate bad assumptions or end the conversation on terms amenable to the “Let Books Be Books” crowd. It just drives the topic underground. Our girls and boys don’t learn anything from that. And neither do the rest of us.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • Tricksy7

    It’s not the campaign that’s Orwellian it’s the way rules on how to be a boy/girl are pushed onto children from birth onwards. Let Books Be books is part of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign which is all about challenging gender stereotypes and opening up the world of toys and books to all children. Far from driving the topic underground the campaign has massively opened up debate and discussion. The campaign is against marketing that limits children’s horizons, it’s not talking books where a creative decision has been made by the author but rather about the kinds of books publishers and supermarkets ask for. As for saying it “assumes that a “for girls” or “for boys” label is automatically oppressive” in most cases that is true, exceptions to the rule are rare, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but as Katy Guest said in her Independent on Sunday column; “if I were sent a book called The Girls’ Book of You Can Do Pretty Much Anything a Boy Can Do, or vice versa, I might make an exception. But I never have been. These books seem to conform to type.”

    • Let Toys Be Toys

      Thanks Tricksy for understanding the ethos of our campaign! Like you say, we don’t want to dampen any author’s creative spirit, just the way in which these books are marketed to one gender or another, and many authors (Malorie Blackman, Philip Pullman to name a few) have spoken in support of our campaign.

      And Katy Guest is 100% right. The vast majority of books that are purposefully marketed to boys / girls conform to the same stereotype, where girls are encouraged to care about looks and boys are encouraged to be adventurous. If there were a diversity of messages sent to boys and girls that would be different, but there aren’t. The messages are always the same and therefore present a narrow idea of what it means to be a boy or a girl. Our kids need to explore who they are themselves before we tell them.

  • Let Toys Be Toys

    Hi! This is the Let Toys Be Toys/Let Books be Books Campaign speaking and we just wanted to clear up a few misunderstandings in this article, as we certainly don’t want to be considered “Orwellian”!

    Firstly we do not want to BAN any kinds of books! Books are great, whether they are written with boys, girls or just kids in mind. We don’t aim to change the CONTENT of books, but just the way they are MARKETED to one gender or another.

    And yes of course there are grey areas (The Daring / Dangerous books for example). We are not naive (or Orwellian) enough to insist one rule fits all or that all children are the same, but just that they be given the same opportunities and the same encouragement to explore interests and subjects that the toy and publishing industry currently place out of their reach by virtue of their gender.

    Changing the title of a book is a small thing but means a lot to the child who is now included. Isn’t that what we want for our children? That they feel included and welcome? That they feel they can explore any interest or any avenue that they want? We are not asking for an Orwellian future of uniformity but a future of diversity where children are treated as individuals and not as a pink or blue stereotype.

  • justthetruth

    Interesting how we’re so thrilled when girls and women do stuff that used to only be done by the male sex, even if it’s something stupid like playing football or driving racecars, but not so thrilled when boys and men do things that are associated with the female sex…

  • matthew brandley

    damn libtards