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.