Girls will be girls…or will they?

I’m a rule follower.  I’ve often wanted not to be – it’s far more exciting and cool to be someone who naturally breaks or makes their own rules.  But I think I can accept I’m not one of them, not as my first instinctive reaction anyway.

But today, I heard something in a workshop that got me ready to snap a rule in half.   So much so, I instantly wrote, underlined, boxed and marked with a big A for Action my passionate desire to do so.

The workshop was about getting children’s books published, hosted by Kate Wilson, owner of Nosy Crow, a children’s book publisher.  Kate made the point that following accepted conventions will help get you published.  One aspect of publishing is the indisputable gender divide.  Books are quite clearly signposted in style and content to boys or girls.  The Grunts or Rescue Princesses.  Mr Gum or Rainbow Fairies.  Diggers or magic ponies.

I find this infuriating.  Are we so determined to stereotype our girls and boys so early in their lives?

As an avid early reader, my daughter has virtually no choice but to reach for the vapid and badly written Rainbow Fairies, or a.n.other book about ballet, fairies, jewels, princesses, magic animals, or possibly gymnastics.  Some of these do, to be fair, include adventure, but it’s so proscribed by these core ‘girl’ themes, it’s seriously depressing.

Don’t get me wrong, Little H enjoys many of these books, and at this tender age of first forays into independent reading, the most important thing is that kids find books they  want to read.  But the books that have got her totally immersed in story and suspense are ones like the Famous Five, Swallows and Amazons, The Faraway Tree series, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other Roald Dahl classics, Mr Gum, Horrid Henry, Pippi Longstocking.

None of those books, old or new, fall into the ‘girl’ category, I don’t believe, and for that I’m eternally grateful.  I know I sound a bit militant – books about princesses, fairies and the like exist because girls like reading about those things.  But how much of that is conditioning?  If shops weren’t full of pink things for girls, blue for boys, would so many choose it that way?

Surely this is a time for rule-breaking.  There MUST be room for girls to enjoy adventure stories, where female characters aren’t princesses, home-makers like the Famous Five’s Anne  or pseudo-boys like George, nor indeed tomboys uncomfortable in dresses like the Amazons.  Can’t they like fairies AND making dens, dressing up AND muddy jeans, fairytales AND riding bikes?  Does it always have to be rescuing poorly animals or using jewels?

Where are these stories?  Please, tell me if you know some.   Kate Wilson also talked about trends.  Quirky is popular right now, space is on the up.  Disney have put out Brave, their first animated film featuring a female lead character.  Perhaps that is a sign of a trend towards strong, feminine female characters and adventure stories for young readers.  Perhaps publishers have a load of books on their lists that will hit that mark (I can only hope – The Rescue Princesses look like they go some of the way at least so I’ll give those a go).    Perhaps I’m in too much of a minority.  Perhaps I’m denying the reality of what girls want to read.  Perhaps I’d better stop writing this and get down to the library to do some proper research and then get my ideas hat on…

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47 thoughts on “Girls will be girls…or will they?

  1. Great post! I hadn’t really thought about it before but you are so correct. Why do we stereotype even in books? My girls have always loved both “boy books” and “girl books” depending on the day and their mood. It would be nice if the two could be melded together somehow.

  2. I totally agree 100% – books are genderless in my humble opinion..One of my favourite authors, Isobelle Carmody, has written books for both little children & teens (and adults like me!!). My sons favourite book is one of hers..not a boys or girls book..just a book & a damn good read.

    • I will look her up Mrs D, thanks for the tip. I was reflecting on this further this morning and realised the picture book market seems much less gender specific, both in storyline and look and feel of the books. THere are loads like Winnie the Witch, Julia Donaldon’s books, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, etc that are gender-neutral. It’s interesting that as soon as books aim at 6+ year olds, ie independent readers, they become quite so gender-specific. I’ve noticed even one year into school the playground seems pretty much gender-divided, so perhaps the books are simply reflecting the increasing shift away from cross-gender interaction? Which is also sad, and makes me very thankful we have a girl and a boy so they have to learn to rub along at home at least!

  3. It’s about the value and concept you’re trying to get across, if that channel happens to be a princess or a train or an animal that is just about appealing to the audience. First rule in comms is not to choose the channel and forget about the message! Lets not choose another “newsletter” for the sake of it a book doesn’t get published simply because its got a princess in the storyline. Be passionate about the story as there are plenty of parents who stereotype but maybe somehow your story will make an impact and change that child’s view…too much? Xx

    • oo, interesting perspective Mrs C! I’m not sure I completely agree though. If all books aimed at girls use princesses/magic animals/fairies etc as the hook to get a message about, say, kindness, bravery or friendship through, and boys books use dirt/grubbiness, pirates and vehicles, does that not create or reinforce gender sterotypes? Yes, the message is important, but in this case I think the situation, story and characters that carry the message are also important if we want our girls and boys to have the best chance of being a mix of alpha male/emotionally intelligent man or soft, feminine girl/strong, competent, confident woman. If all I see is princesses and fairies as my role models for having adventure/friendship/kindness (which is primarily about rescuing animals or equivalent), how does that widen my horizons and belief in the breadth of who I can be as much as the Famous Five (girls AND boys) going off hiking or caravanning together, sleeping out and sleuthing (albeit toned down for the modern world we live in!)? To me this sits in the same place as the Rainbows/Brownies vs Cubs/Scouts mentality. I just wish it was less stereotypically divided so we didn’t have to choose between a focus on cooking and sewing badges and one on making dens/camping out.

  4. Great post!

    You should maybe try H on Rescue Princesses (written by the mother of daughters and published by the mother of daughters too).

    Having a sort of Platonic ideal of a the child that your book is for (which is something I talked about a lot in Guildford yesterday, because so many people who want to be published children’s writers don’t seem to have a sense of an audience, judging from much of our submissions pile), does not mean that you are publishing ONLY for that child. I spoke yesterday of the real pleasure of discovering that an app for which our Platonic ideal reader was a pre-school boy was being enjoyed by a slightly older girl with Down’s syndrome (http://nosycrow.com/blog/discovering-apps-with-a-child-with-a-learning-disability-a-guest-post-by-cas-pearson-mother-of-a-daughter-with-down-s-syndrome).

    And publishers (and authors/illustrators) exist in a fairly gender-divided commercial environment, one in which, for example, Bic was (rightly, in my view) the subject of scorn for producing Pens for Her (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9503359/BIC-ridiculed-over-comfortable-pink-pens-for-women.html). As I said yesterday, we do think carefully about how we create shorthand “signposts” with our covers, to signal to readers in the visually busy context of a bookshop or library. You might find this post from the Nosy Crow website today interesting, in this context: http://nosycrow.com/blog/designing-the-cover-for-dear-scarlett-a-guest-post-by-author-fleur-hitchcock, particularly the part that discusses the use of pink. This is, in my view, a book cover that is designed to attract girl readers of 9+… and that’s our target market.

    However, packaging is one thing, and content is quite another. We publish stories of feisty (and funny, complex, courageous, clever, interesting) girls, but You might find this post from the Nosy Crow website today interesting, The central character in Fleur’s book is feisty, funny, complex, courageous, clever and interesting (you get a quick sense of her from the chapter that is posted in the blog post).

    Readers interested in this subject might find Peggy Orenstein’s personal and well-researched book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, useful: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cinderella-Ate-Daughter-Dispatches-Girlie-Girl/dp/0061711535/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350989507&sr=8-1

    • One chapter in and I’m hooked on Scarlett. What a great start to a book! As you say, interesting discussion re ‘pink’ readers or not. Great to know there are books my daughter can reach for in a couple of years time. And yes, as both you and Paula herself suggest, I shall indeed get hold of some Rescue Princesses to have a read with Little H. I think it’s a pretty tough area to change, in terms of the signposting, given the extent to which our society gender-stereotypes across all commercial areas. So the next best thing I guess is to use reasonably standard signposting to grab the attention, and then deliver more interesting characters and storylines in the content. I think it’s a shame the first books our infant school provides beyond the ‘Kipper’ and similar series are Rainbow fairies – getting schools to promote and use less stereotypical books to engage new readers might help. I should put my money where my mouth is and talk to our head about it actually!

      • I’d also like to add that some books are dismissed just because they are pink. Until I had a daughter who was mad about pink, I was determined to reject all pinkness. But pink really appealed to her. And when I started to read closely I realized there were quite a few smart and brilliant pink books that deserved a wider readership.

      • Ah, that’s interesting isn’t it. You as a mother were turned off the ‘packaging’ designed to appeal to your daughter that turned out to unwrap into a better book than you expected. I can see that happening for me too – I think I’ve been burned by the Rainbow Fairies and Darcey Bussell’s ballet ones (even though I don’t mind reading those ones so much as they’re quite cute). I have to calm myself down if I realise I’m being a bit militant – nothing is more likely to get my daughter into excessive girliness than me trying to exclude it completely or doing it down!

  5. the books are at “fault” in being tailored to gender specifics BUT left to their own devices and if books are a part of life forom early on my little girl loves Thomas the tank engine as much as any fairy book – it depends on her mood – we have to be soooo careful as mothers of not biasing the gender choice. I actually think it must be so much more difficult for mothers of boys as although its socially acceptable for my little girl to read Thomas the tank engine and her daddy to read that to her can you imagine a little boy wanting to read angelina ballerina or his father reading that to him!

    • My son is obsessed with those Thomas books. I agree that it is still harder for boys to like girls stuff than vice versa. I think it’s an age thing too. My three year old son likes stories, full stop. Some are pink and princessy, some are dinosaurs or diggers, some are neither. But I imagine it won’t be more than a couple of years until that changes. Perhaps we’ll get longer given he has an older sister, but I doubt it. I’ve taken great delight in our son wearing his sister’s fairy dresses, dress up shoes, jewellery etc while he’s too young to care – and my husband gets a seriously evil eye if he attempts to suggest he shouldn’t – I so agree with you about having to be careful, both mothers and fathers.

  6. Hello! I write The Rescue Princesses and I firmly believe that princess doesn’t have to equate with pink and frilly! I wrote them as adventure books. If you read one I hope you’ll see what I mean. The idea was always that they could have the best of both worlds – dress up then get muddy and climb trees – they do quite a lot of that stuff.
    I know what you mean about the division of the covers of young readers (and toys and childrens’ clothes, etc), but in a recession publishers and booksellers are under pressure to keep their businesses going. So they are likely to stick to what sells. They have to pay bills and mortgages too!
    I’m off now to practise my Rescue Princess ninja moves…

    • Hi Paula. Thanks so much for commenting. You are, of course, right that publishers are people in companies that need to consider commercial outcomes. It was great to hear Kate talking about Weasels as a book she loved and took on despite knowing it might be more Marmite than strawberry jam. And as I think about it more, I can see the value of a middle way of using accepted signposting or ‘devices’ (e.g. princesses or fairies) to engage readers as your characters and story introduce more complex, interesting ideas of being a girl. I guess in my idealistic moments I’d just love it not to be princesses! But I’m really looking forward to reading your books. I’m desperate to find some early reader books we both appreciate, so it’s great to have some hope. If there are others you would also recommend, do let me know.

      • It’s very kind of you to be prepared to try the series. A lot of the time my characters would prefer it if they weren’t princesses too, especially when that’s getting in the way of their fun and adventures!
        I find my daughters (now 8 and 10) swung between different series from My Secret Unicorn to Horrid Henry, and got different pleasures from each. For your sanity though, its great to read a series where all the books don’t sound exactly the same. Some series have fallen into this trap. Best of luck!

      • Yep, I think my daughter is the same. And to be quite frank more than anything else I love that she loves reading so much, so I try not to interfere other than on the books we read together, which tend to be the slightly older age group classics. We just started Frances Hobson’s A Little Princess, and I’m loving reading the old fashioned style and words. Kate was telling us about your US success with this series – very exciting and must be wonderful to know you’re engaging little girls all over the world. Maybe one day…

  7. I understand exactly why you bridle at this, Mrs H. I do too, I don’t really understand why things are gender specific, masses of children aren’t bothered either way – both my children (boy and girl) choose green over any other colour if they can, because they don’t like being labelled. In terms of toys, they both played with Brio, Playmobil and Lego, but the way they used them was interestingly different – she built social situations, he built fortresses.
    They read the same picture books, both loved the Elephant and the bad Baby, both adored Burglar Bill but he liked Thomas the Tank Engine on the Telly, and she liked Angelina Ballerina. Once they were older, both of them embraced Tom Gates, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, How to Train your Dragon, Roald Dahl and the books of Frank Cottrell Boyce. My son wept over “The Cat Mummy” and “The Suitcase Kid” (read aloud) until he saw the covers and realised he wasn’t “supposed” to like them and moved off to read dystopian epics – not bothered if they’re by women or men, not worried by female central characters, just worried by the covers in public.
    My daughter on the other hand now she’s 11 has an uneasy relationship with the books she’s “supposed” to like. She can’t get into “girl” fiction because so often it’s about friendship and people being catty, she gets enough of that at school and just wants a laugh, but she likes the covers, and feels that she ought to like the insides.
    I don’t think books were so pointed when we were young, and it’s not so much that the covers attract one sex or the other, rather, they put off. Or perhaps it’s peer pressure.
    As for the heroines inside – there have been some recent shockers, but I do think that if you look around, you should be able to find girls worth having, and boys you wouldn’t mind your son growing into.
    As an afterthought – I think it’s interesting that you can write a whole book with a character as one sex, and after finishing, change them to another, and no-one notices. I would mostly say that my central characters could be either a girl, or a boy –
    Ultimately, the clue’s in the name.

    • How interesting about your son and the covers – how understandable, especially in the tween/teen period where peer acceptance is so important. It’s a bit like the adults reading on a Kindle suddenly realising it shields them from public knowledge or critique of their choices (not that I like Kindles, I’m a complete luddite who still lugs 7 books plus notebooks on holiday to return with at least half un-read). Does your daughter like your books? Scarlett seems like a cool character, even from that first chapter. Thanks for the sense of hope. I think I’ll snoop in our library while the kids are at school one day so I can have a proper browse and artfully arrange any findings at the top of my daughter’s pile…

  8. Hugely interesting this – and I’m embarrassed I didn’t comment earlier! *big blush*

    I really don’t like how gender-typed (I’m claiming that as a new word!) kids fictions is becoming because so often I see a good book that could easily appeal to both boys and girls absolutely ruined by the choice of cover. There’s one particular book I will review soon that I know full well I’m going to start off with ‘Don’t judge by the cover, it’s pants, and does nothing for the story!’.Or, alternatively, you get the books that sound like they could be absolute gems, but then they fall back on old gender-types.

    The 9-12 group doesn’t fare so badly on this I’ve found – megabooks like Wimpy Kid don’t seem to go out of their way to appeal to either gender more than the other, but then either side of it, in the 5-8 and teen sections….. don’t get me started on it, it’s really hard to find something gender neutral in those sections that’s written recently. I’ve been reading the longlist for a kids fiction prize recently, all made of new releases and… well, it’s disappointing how gender-specific some of it is.

    I agree that certain books should be aimed at certain markets – after all, if a girl wants to read a book about unicorns, why not have some books on unicorns? Or a boy wants to read about trains, he should be able to. But why do there have to be so many books that are aimed solely at one market, and one market only? Why can’t there be books on unicorns that know how to climb trees too? (Ok, I know, that’s a bad image, Paula Harrison had a much better one on Twitter, but I hope the point made sense without my rubbish imagery?)

    The digital debate is interesting – I know I read some books on my Sony eReader solely because I’m embarassed for anyone non-geeky to see the cover (no, I’m not telling!) – I wonder how many kids would read books for *insert gender here* if they had an eReader and the plot grabbed them? Wonder if it’d be worth piloting a book launch and seeing how many male readers downloaded a book whose physical counterpart had a cover and (possibly) plot aimed mainly at female readers, for example?

    I appear to have written an essay – my apologies! Rant over… I also second Paula Harrison’s Rescue Princess stories – Princesses with mad crazy ninja skillz AND frocks! Best of both worlds!

  9. Having read my daughter some of the rainbow fairies books I’m in total agreement. To be honest, I still want to know what happens to Saucepan Man and Moonface in the Faraway Tree and where’s Enid Blytons wishing chair now? I don’t feel these books have concluded yet, can’t someone tactfully pick up where they left off?

  10. I highly recommend Skullduggery Pleasant as a girl-centric series of books that’s not on the pink side of the spectrum. It has a living skeleton and lots of humour, but the main perspective character is a girl and, in many ways, it’s her story – even though the skeleton character’s on the cover and in the title.

    Is Mr Gum targeted at boys? I never got that from it, interesting.

    • Thank you for the recommendation. I’m loving all the ideas this post has generated – I have much more hope! Kate was showing us examples of covers targeting boys or girls, and to me Mr Gum fitted with the style of The Grunts as targetting boys – my assumption though. The Truth is a Lemon Meringue! (Hope you’ve read them, otherwise that will seem utterly ridiculous).

      • The truth is indeed a lemon meringue! (And I’m just going on assumption too). If you ever want more awesome-girl-character books, just ask! Have you read Mortal Engines? That’s something I’d say is fairly gender neutral, with a v interesting female character (with a hideously scarred face).

        I don’t know though… maybe I tend to assume things are for both girls and boys that are actually being marketed to boys?

  11. “Where are these stories? Please, tell me if you know some.”
    The US web site A MIGHTY GIRL has lots of recommendations for “smart, confident, and courageous girls”. However the selection is very US centric – perhaps someone should set-up a UK equivalent. http://www.amightygirl.com/

    While I agree with everything you’ve written, I’d have to add that in my experience girls’ tastes are generally far better served by the picture book industry (in the UK at least) than boys’, which is one of the reasons boys are turned off books and onto TV, comics, video games and other mediums which reflect their tastes. I might have to write my own blog about that!

    • Thanks for the link, Jonathan. And your comment on Kate’s blog post was fascinating re nature vs nurture and gender. I have a girl and younger boy, who therefore had a complete mix of girls and boys toys (and books) on hand. I’ve watched with interest how he plays differently with the same toys, even allowing for personality.

      I’ve noticed more comments have been about early readers for 5-8 year olds than picture books. Perhaps that is when, as they start school and the social interaction that entails, children start to attach more to their gender as they get to know themselves independently from their family?

      I must say I’ve found the picture books quite neutral on gender, so I’m looking forward to reading your post on your own experience.

  12. Spot on – the paucity of good books generally means if you have to narrow them further by dividing in half (by gender) you’re left with not much.

    Surely in these days of rapid publishing, eBooks, personalisation and short print runs, publishers should be knocking out all sorts of flavours of the same book.

  13. P.S. RE: “Perhaps I’m denying the reality of what girls want to read” it’s bound to be circular eh? books about princesses are popular because books about princesses are popular.

  14. My husband is in the video game industry, and has been trying for years to make people see beyond the games-for-girls ghetto; in fact, when he started out (he proposed a game about riding horses, with add-on modules to buy with themes from rodeo to dressage–heck, I’d play that), everybody told him that girls don’t buy games, or at least parents don’t buy games for girls. He tried to show them that, if true, that’s got to be in part because they weren’t (at the time) making games for girls. Then the first Barbie game came along and its sales blew all the games supposedly for boys out of the water, as relieved parents *finally* had something to buy for Susie that was comparable to what they bought for Jimmy. Back then, I heard a speaker from Mattel talk about how the first division under the head of the company was into the boys’ toys division and the girls’ toy division; when the boys’ division got a working virtual-reality glove, the girls’ division was asked what they could do with it, and with tremendous imagination and daring they made the same thing–only in pink. The really sad part is that while it’s massively better now, progress continues to be slow.

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  16. Great post! This gender stereotyping and inequality issue is very dear to my heart. Last week my daughter’s best friend was stopped from coming to their ballet class because he is a boy and his dad didn’t approve. Neither of the children understand why he can’t come anymore and it has squashed his dancing dream for no reason other than his dad’s (and society in general’s) ignorance. I wrote a post about it on my blog last week and it led to a brilliant discussion on twitter. So no, you are definitely NOT alone in your thinking.
    My daughter is only 3 so the majority of her books are picture books and, like you said, much less gendered. However, she has recently taken a liking to pink and fairies and ballet and princesses, much to my horror. It’s something that she has discovered herself and whilst I don’t want to actively encourage it to the detriment of other interests, I also want to let her explore it. So she chooses a fairy book at the library and I grab The Night Pirates to offset it. (If you haven’t come across The Night Pirates, I highly recommend it. Ninja girls for the 3-5 age range. It’s a beautiful book, with no pink!) In this way I’m trying to balance out the stereotypical images of little pink girls who need rescuing. It is much easier with picture books, you are absolutely correct when you say the gender divide is much less obvious. 
    She is just learning to read and beginning to show interest in early reader books and this is where our work really begins. I have taken note of all the recommendations above and hopefully I will be able to keep her reading as balanced as it is now. Thank you all for the links and book rec’s that you’ve added on here. 
    Also, as it looks like a lot of you are on twitter, you might be interested in following @genderdiary if you don’t already. It is parents discussing gender stereotyping and discrimination that they come across raising their children, often with brilliant links and ideas of how to avoid/offset it.
    Sorry for the very long reply. I shall go and read some of those links now.

    • I love the Night Pirates! I actually bought it for my namesake son, but my daughter loves it too, and I agree, it’s a fabulous swashbuckling non-stereotypical adventure. I’m so pleased with all the recommendations and resources I’ve received as a result of this post and Kate Wilson’s two on Nosy Crow, plus the links to new blogs / writers I haven’t found before. Feeling the pressure a bit about what to post next actually! Thanks for references to your post too – v interesting reading, as is the latest one.

      • Agreed. I’ve got a great list of books to inspire Mollie with now, and a few to pass on to her ballet-loving friend too! It has been a real pleasure to find so many like-minded people to follow on twitter and new blogs to read. It has all been very inspiring, thank you for starting it all off.

  17. So great to see this debate being continued here as well as in the comments in my response blog posts:

    http://nosycrow.com/blog/books-for-girls-and-books-for-boys-gender-skewed-packaging-and-content-in-children-s-publishing

    and

    http://nosycrow.com/blog/books-for-girls-a-follow-up-from-a-personal-perspective

    Annabel, when I was in Guildford, I spoke of the value of a supportive community of writers in which you can share your thoughts and, perhaps, your work. It’s the kind of thoughtful generosity with ideas and recommendations that makes me value the children’s book world so much.

    • Well, quite, as my father would have said. It’s such a privilege to read the thoughts and recommendations of so many, whether in publishing, writers or ‘just’ parents. Thanks so much for your input, Kate – I was already reviewing my stories with fresh eyes following your workshop and now I’ve been applying a gender-conscious lens too – no pressure now I’ve set off this debate! (It has given me a fab idea for my next story though – can’t wait to write it!)

  18. I know it’s there, but I don’t think it’s as stark as that. There are the stereotypical gender books & my kids lapped them up as early readers (the equivalent of Rainbow Fairies is the equally terrible Beast Quest) BUT I have 2 girls and a boy and they ALL love Mr Gum, Harry Potter, How to train your dragon, Western Mysteries, Roman Mysteries. Good writing outweighs gender and so it should…

    And interestingly my eldest daughter talked herself into reading Twilight cos “I’m a teenager and it’s teenage fiction.” Her take on it was that it was depressingly easy to read, and she quite enjoyed it, but she and her little sister 6 months on now take the mickey out of it (as they do of Hannah Montana which they once loved) So if you teach your kids discernment they can work it out themselves.

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  21. The ‘Daisy’ books? Judy Moody (although American)? Not in the least bit pink, and contain completely un-stereotypical girl characters, although yes, they do have girls on the covers. My son has enjoyed both, although I’m not sure if he’d have picked them up to read as he’s only four so has them imposed by his older sister at bedtime!

    Perhaps this is part of the reason that Harry Potter was so successful. Non gender-specific author, neutral colours on the cover (although there is also a boy). Of course it’s impossible to know now, but before all the hype I’m sure girls as well as boys would have picked it up.

  22. Pingback: Girls will be girls...or will they? Re-blogged from inthislifemrsh.wordpress.com - Nearlycrackers

  23. Pingback: Girls will be girls…or will they? Re-blogged from inthislifemrsh.wordpress.com « nearly crackers

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