Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Gender specific reading

There's been a discussion recently about gender specific books - like this article here in The Bookseller, which provoked some discussion on Facebook.

It's all come about because of a campaign group called Let Toys be Toys, which 'believes both boys and girls benefit from a range of play experiences, and should not be restricted by marketing which tells them which toys, books and activities are for boys or girls.' I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. I'm a great believer in letting kids play with what they want to - my son played with dolls just as much as my daughter played with the train track, and as a child I spent more time with Action Man than Pippa (the only doll I ever really played with).

But it's not the toy aisle pink/blue issue I want to focus on.

It's books. Because the  same group have recently launched a petition to encourage publishers to drop what it calls 'limiting labels' on books.

As a writer, what worries me if this kind of petition succeeds is whether a move to stop labelling things like 'The girl's book of all things pink and fluffy' or 'The boy's book of wham bam action' (I am being tongue-in-cheek here - those books don't really exist. Er...do they?) might have knock-on effects that we didn't bargain for.

To some extent, anyone who's walked into a bookshop and checked out the children's shelves is already being groomed as to what to expect to find between the covers of certain books and who it might be suitable for, even without a giveaway title. Take colours for example...the pastels and pink are probably about fairies or cute animals, the sparkly ones could be about fashion (or fairies) and bright colours are probably humourous talking animal adventures or mysteries. Dark covers? They're most likely spies, something supernatural or dystopian thrillers...

I'm sure if you looked at titles, you'd find something similar. 'Mr Fluffy's Fantastic Flight' as opposed to 'The Beast of Bratarka'; guess what kind of book they are and who they might be aimed at...(Again - they don't really exist. Do they?)

If the campaign groups really stopped to look at all the subliminal 'labelling' that goes on in a bookstore - the same kind of marketing that colours our toy aisles - the only way forward will be children's books sold in plain white or brown covers, with simple titles that bear no relevance to the story within.

Let's change the emphasis on children's books, so that we're not concerned so much with the labelling of who it's for as with the quality of what lies within the covers. And focus instead on encouraging children to read and read widely - whatever takes their fancy - because it will help them discover for themselves what books they prefer.

That's got to be right for all readers, regardless of which gender they belong to, hasn't it?

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