Eliminating Gender Division In Books

It is a common trap that publishers and booksellers fall into that we tend to classify books as “boy books” and “girl books” when making recommendations to potential readers.

Last week, just in time for International Women’s Day, a campaign called “Let Books Be Books” launched in the UK and is quickly gaining traction. The point of this campaign is to remove gender specific marketing from children’s books, and to stop pushing the old ideas of pink and blue on readers.

At different points in my career, I’ve seen books from publishers with ” for girls” or “for boys” in the title, complete with pink and blue covers. Worst of all is that the girls activities include things like making jewelry, having slumber parties and nail art, while the boys activities included things like surviving in the wilderness, canoeing, and slaying dragons. Seriously!

Not only are these types of books offensive, but they conform to the very gender stereotypes we are fighting to eliminate. Not all girls and boys conform to these ideas, and in promoting books in this way, publishers are restricting readers by suggesting that one or the other shouldn’t like those things.

Last May, author Maureen Johnson, after receiving a tweet about this very subject, came up with a novel idea called Coverflip, in which she asks readers to imagine popular books written by the opposite gender (or someone genderqueer) and imagine what the cover might look like. You can read more about it here:

Many years ago, when I had occasion to hear author J.K. Rowling speak, she commented on this very thing. She brought up aof valuable point. In being asked about getting boys to read, she said that we make a tremendous mistake in labeling books as being for boys or for girls. Harry Potter is universally adored by boys and girls, and it certainly doesn’t seem to bother any female readers that Harry is a boy. I also know a number of male readers who have read and enjoyed Divergent and Hunger Games, and don’t care that Tris and Katniss are girls.

She also mentioned that one of the reasons she went by JK and not by her full name, was because the publisher was afraid that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a female author.

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not suggesting that every book featuring a female character will appeal to a boy, but consider this: If the Hunger Games had a pink cover, how many boys would have even considered picking it up? For that matter, how often have we as booksellers/educators/parents hesitated to hand a book to a child because it looks like it’s for girls or for boys?

What publishers should be doing is making more of an effort to create great covers that are gender neutral (again I refer back to Divergent and Hunger Games, and give kids the chance to decide on content alone whether or not they want to read it. What we should be doing is challenging ourselves to break out of these stereotypes and remind ourselves that what determines whether or not we will enjoy a book is much more than the colour of its cover.

5 Responses to Eliminating Gender Division In Books

  1. jeffo Mar 19 2014 at 6:05 am #

    Excellent post, Rachel.

    It’s funny, even as an adult I find myself sometimes cringing as I take certain books out of the library or up to the checkout at the bookstore, as if people are going to look at me funny for reading this book or that one. It shouldn’t matter, and it doesn’t–yet it does, in a way. And that sort of “You’re reading that?” pressure is so much worse when younger.

    • RachelSeigel
      RachelSeigel Mar 19 2014 at 9:12 am #

      I agree with you! I think in a way, that’s a positive of e-books for kids- nobody can see the cover of what you’re readng, so maybe they are more free to read what they like.

  2. Chris T Mar 19 2014 at 10:03 am #

    The Independent on Sunday has refused to review gender-marketed books, if more took that view it could hit publishers where they really feel it.

  3. Traci Krites Mar 19 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    I wholeheartedly agree!!

  4. Pat Apr 2 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    While I understand the reasons behind this post, I’m not sure that completely eliminating this type of marketing is the best idea. I certainly have friends who are very feminine females and very masculine males who have been reluctant to read books NOT marketed towards their gender. In fact, a female friend of mine had no desire to read THG because it seemed so masculine and she’d read it was violent. In the end, she read it because so many people had recommended it. She hated it. Could this exact thing have happened with a male? Absolutely. I just want to be clear that I’m not implying that a male couldn’t have read THG and hated it because of the violence, but that marketing is a great tool to tell us, as consumers, what to expect from a book. If I am looking for a love story, I wouldn’t purchase a book with a steel spaceship on the front. The same goes for a good Sci-fi. If it’s bedecked in roses, it’s probably not my taste.

    I think, as with most things, as long as there is a good mix of literature for every type of person and it is marketed for what it is, things will be just fine.

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