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As writers, librarians, reviewers, critics, child care workers, teachers and parents, we know that children need a wide range of experiences – real and imaginative – to grow up to be rounded, healthy adults. However, the last decade has seen a huge growth in the gendered marketing of children’s books and toys. There has been resistance to this development, and in recent months this resistance has reached a crescendo, with the emergence of a plethora of groups (see below) fighting for the right of all children to experience a wide range play materials and books. The battle is only beginning however, as the mainstream counters with accusations that we’re not living in the real world; that the market is just responding to what children want; that our vision of childhood is some unattainable utopia and that a little bit of pink glitter never did anybody any harm...
But parents, and those who care for children know that harm IS being done. Lise Eliot, neuro-scientist and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can About It says, "the potency of early learning means that what children learn early on, has a huge impact on what they become capable of later in life. Why on earth would we want to limit the breadth of possibility?"
As Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author with Sharon Lamb of the books Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood argues, “When you offer few options and give kids a very narrow slice of life, there are things they don’t learn, experiences they don’t have. What the children do learn is strict gender norms – and children who don’t adhere to those norms frighten their peers. They’re made anxious by difference because we’ve given them sameness. To alleviate that fear, they tease the child who doesn’t conform.” So, as books and toys become more and more gender segregated, the social costs of boundary crossing and the peer pressure to stay within the lines are huge.
Other advocates for change put it more strongly. In a recent blog, Amy Jussel, founder & executive director of Shaping Youth, said that we have reached a tipping point. “People are beginning to connect the dots to the larger societal context and environmental exposure of these media and marketing messages, and see how they play out in the real world.
We need to look at how product messaging significantly alters, shapes, depicts, and frames children’s identity, ambition, and self-worth, and hold media and marketing behemoths accountable,” she says.
But what can we do?
I trained to be an English teacher then returned to university to write a thesis on The Gothic Novel - a feminist reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho. When I moved to the UK shortly after, my ambition was to be an editor with a feminist publishing house like Virago, Pandora or the Women's Press. That was until I went to a conference run by Letterbox Library and realised that for young girls to grow into women who read books from these publishers, there needed to be far more positive books available to them as young readers. I began to appreciate how limited many children's books were.
After my 'Damascus moment' I moved into children's publishing, starting with the wonderful Child's Play, freelancing for Verna Wilkins at Tamarind and eventually starting my own (tiny) list Alanna Books, where I try to publish books which show a whole range of possibilities.
Of course, the challenges I face are the same as those of campaigners - many mainstream retail outlets and booksellers have narrow categories (separate sections for boys, girls and 'multicultural' or 'issue' books) and I struggle to persuade them that they can find an appropriate shelf for a little Black girl who wants to be a builder...
(well, that's just on Fridays - the rest of the week, she alternates between wanting to be a fairy, a pilot, a mummy, a tiger, a farmer and a monster!)
But we cannot allow children's reading, development, imaginations and dreams (as they work out who they are and who they want to be) to be limited by narrow revenue categories however convenient and successful they are for retailers.
So, while ours might be political campaigns, they are fought in a commercial arena and money talks...
So, a plea from those of us who are working hard every day to write, illustrate and publish books which include a range of children and a range of possibilities (often to be told our books are "not commercial" so we are pushed off the shelf by the 'easy sell' of pink glitter or adventure stories for boys) please buy our books! Blog about them, Tweet about them, recommend them to your friends!
And please check out Alanna's latest and most provocative challenge to the mainstream - What Are You Playing At? by Marie-Sabine Roger and publishing today to coincide with Universal Children's Day.
The voices opposing the increasingly gendered marketing of children’s books and toys are reaching a crecendo. This book creates a space for children themselves to debate the issues and challenge the voices who would limit their play and dreams of what is possible.
To join the campaigns or buy fabulous books:
A children's Bookseller (online)
celebrating equality and diversity
Toward the Stars
The World's Largest Marketplace For Empowering Gifts For Girls
Let Toys be Toys
A campaign organisation asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.
A campaign that targets the products, media and marketing that prescribe heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls.
Brave Girls Want
Asking media creators to expand their version of what it means to be a girl, and recognize our girls as whole, complex people and not as gender stereotypes. Stop profiting from selling girls short.
A collaboration of consultants and campaigners with a passion for inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children's literature.
The Representation Project
Calling out sexism in the media
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Campaign to change children's programming
Blogs you might want to follow/read:
Amy Jussel's Shaping Youth
An amazing blog about media and marketing's influence on kids
Blogs for Huffington Post
Great blog about low expectations for girls
Great post: Books for Boys and Books for Girls: Problems with Gendered Reading
Chief Cook & Bottle Washer!
I'm Anna McQuinn, the Publisher at Alanna Books. We're a very tiny company, so I'm also the Editor, Foreign Rights Manager, Production Assistant, UK Sales Manager, Marketing Director... I write some of the books, design the information sheets, update the website, make the coffee...