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.