As a bookseller and a literature student to boot, it’s safe to say that books are, well, my thing. And one of the greatest things about working in a bookshop is being able to recommend new and exciting titles to people and share a love of literature with customers.
However, one particular enquiry has sparked my interest in more ways than one, and led me to question the whole branding and marketing of books – particularly in Children’s literature. I was asked by a customer for a recommendation for her four year old daughter’s birthday (normally my failsafe it to jump straight to Oliver Jeffers, but sadly she had all of those). The tricky part was that the parent wanted a book that upheld feminist values and had a strong female role model. I was momentarily stumped – finding a children’s book in which the heroine was not a stereotypical princess, or in which there was a strong, independent female lead at all, was an area in which I had little experience. Needless to say this feminist mother was less than impressed by titles such as “Adventure Stories for Boys”, and scoffed derisively at “Princess Stories for Girls”.
This unsuccessful encounter got me thinking about the potentially damaging effects of specifically marketing books by gender. To suggest that stories such as “Robin Hood” and “Treasure Island” are reserved for boys, leaving girls with weaker, albeit classic fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Princess and the Pea” seems incredibly outdated in this day and age of equal opportunities, and seems to create a gulf very early on of what sort of literature is acceptable for girls and boys respectively.
Why is it that little boys should be guided towards tales of adventure, fantasy, pirates, and danger, while females are limited to stories of damsels in distress and Prince Charmings who wake the sleeping princess with a kiss?
Now don’t get me wrong, I am partial to a good fairy tale, however I must admit that is more in the sense of Angela Carter… and I doubt I can recommend “The Bloody Chamber” as suitable bedtime reading for the under-10s.
So why is it that certain books are pushed towards specific genders from such an early age? If the literature is not so explicit as to publicise in the title that it is for one sex only, then you can be sure it becomes increasingly obvious from the cover and even the font that something is “feminine” or “masculine”. This gender marketing continues into adult books, but as we get older we are in a better position to make our own decisions about what genre of literature we’re interested in, thus bypassing this marketing ploy (Though I have nothing against men who want to embrace the “Confessions of a Shopaholic” series).
As children however, we read and are read to from books that are bought for us. At such an impressionable age it is not beneficial to be limited to certain types of stories based on your gender. Surely, as a child, it should be a chance to embrace all different types of books ranging from tales of swashbuckling adventures to ones about tigers coming for tea. It does not seem beneficial to a child’s development that they should be pigeonholed into reading books that are deemed “suitable” for them based on their sex.
The need for strong female role models is one that dominates literary history and though there are the obvious ones; Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, Alaska Young, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet…etc. I very much struggled to find any for younger children.
I do not mean to suggest that there is no literature out there that upholds feminist values or strong morals; but it’s limited and not as readily available as the classic fairy tales. There is a growing consciousness of introducing strong role models into everyday society, especially for the benefit of the youngest and most impressionable minds. Disney’s latest offering “Brave” is the first in the “Disney Princess” series in which there is no male love interest and that the prevalent relationship explored is that between mother and daughter. This was not only touching and refreshing, but a real triumph in realising which relationships are truly important to their targeted audience. Rather than waiting to be saved by a vapid prince, the focus on family, friendship, and discovering individuality is something that should be placed higher in importance for children’s books.
I am under no illusion that the marketing of books and the focus on defining their target audience will dramatically change; however, there is a call for it to become less explicit and more gender neutral in order to open different avenues to all readers. I hope that in the future I will not have to desperately and unsuccessfully hunt for strong female role models within children’s books. Failing that, I’ll just have to write one myself…