Grandparents, imagine this: The twins’ 11th birthday is coming around, and you’d like to give them a book. But the local Barnes & Noble is stocked with a bewildering array of titles, and you could use a guiding principle. When Steve and Sara were babies, their presents leaned toward blue and pink, and you begin to notice some subtle color-coding from the shelves: bright oranges and reds and cartoony lines for the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series—obviously for boys. And here’s another series called “Dork Diaries,” with tinges of hot pink and purple and slightly more sophisticated cover cartoons. There’s your choice for Sara—ring it up!
Makes sense, right? Wrong!
Children’s publishing has provided a battlefield for the gender wars at least since the early 1990s, when picture-book author Richard Scarry began putting skirts and bows on some of his animal characters doing traditionally male jobs (like construction and law enforcement). That road led eventually to warrior heroines like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. By 2000, with boys lagging seriously behind in reading skills, a demand rose for “boys’ books,” characterized by nonstop action and broad (sometimes gross) humor on the order of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants. Now, the cultural swing toward transgenderism and gender neutrality is dragging children’s books along with it.
For example, Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site, a popular bedtime book by Sherri Rinker, portrays five heavy construction vehicles (cement mixer, excavator, etc.) putting in a full day’s work before settling in for a well-deserved rest. Understandably, since men still dominate the construction industry, the text identifies all the machines with masculine pronouns. Some parents are uncomfortable with that. One mom writes on her blog that when reading Good Night to her little boy, she changes the pronouns arbitrarily: during one reading the dump truck may be a she, but in the next changes back to he.
In Britain, general uneasiness with gender specificity has led to an actual campaign: “Let Books Be Books.” This is a spinoff of last year’s Let Toys Be Toys, meant to discourage retailers from marketing dolls to girls or trucks to boys. “Gender specific books demean all our children,” writes Independent literary editor Katy Guest. “Therefore the Independent on Sunday will no longer review anything marketed to exclude either sex.” The book campaign has attracted some big-name British authors, including fantasy writer Philip Pullman and Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman.
But aren’t there inherent differences between girls and boys? The decline in boys’ reading skills, for instance, led to initiatives like “Guys Read,” founded in 2005 by Jon Scieszka, a former school principal and popular children’s writer. On the Guys Read website Scieszka reviews guy-friendly books and proposes simple principles for encouraging literacy among boys, such as including nonfiction and graphic novels on reading lists.
Katy Guest claims she hasn’t seen convincing neurological evidence that boys and girls are wired differently. She has little patience with programs like Guys Read: “Can only boys want to be Jedis?” Jess Day, of Let Toys Be Toys, adds, “Concern about the gender gap in reading is understandable, but there is evidence that constant insistence on the stereotype of boys as rowdy/active/late developers is part of the problem. … [P]eople have said things to, or in front of, my son which suggest to him that ‘real boys’ aren’t meant to be interested in, or any good at reading.” Day believes initiatives like Guys Read are well-meant but may be counterproductive, inasmuch as they reinforce the stereotype.
Librarians I consulted all agreed that many, if not most, children’s books can be read and enjoyed by both sexes; tastes fall more along individual than gender lines. Children are individuals first.
But they are also boys and girls, a distinction that can’t be completely flattened. When asked for reading recommendations for boys (or their parents), the typical librarian is likely to mention the Wimpy Kid, or Rick Riordan’s nonstop adventure series starring Percy Jackson. Advocates for difference as well as for parity claim neurological studies that prove their point, but most parents understand innate differences, going back a very long way: “Male and female He created them.” The gender-neutral lever has been pushed since the 1970s, yet now we have more pink-and-blue titles than ever. Marketing probably doesn’t account for all of it.