I recently attended a Booktalkers session at the Centre for Youth Literature – the theme was “Dangerous Ideas”. Dangerous ideas was about authors pushing boundaries, both personal and literary boundaries. They spoke about changing genres, gender issues, journeys, the boundaries of YA and adult fiction, and most importantly the idea that ignoring or avoiding the difficult issues is where the real danger lies in literature; when self-censorship lies between author and ideas. They were an eloquent, honest group and I enjoyed the opportunity to hear them talk.
One of the sidestreams of conversation that got me thinking was that of gender stereotyping, target audience and book covers; how books are sold to their audiences and who those perceived audiences are. During the break I spoke briefly to author Kirsty Murray, I wanted to find out how much control authors actually have over their book covers. She answered that as an established author she can sway and down-right refuse a cover design, but a newer author would not be able to do the same. I told her the reason I was concerned is because on a fairly constant basis I have children refuse to even consider a book because of the cover — ‘That’s a girl’s book” or “That’s a boy book” and so they are — especially the early chapter books or easy/first chapter books. The ‘girl books’ are pink and silver and sparkly and the main characters are drawn on the covers like Bratz dolls. The ‘boy books’ covers are dark/black with lightening bolts and rockets or silhouettes with weapons in hand.
When did this great divide occur? And so what? Is it a problem? I think, yes, it’s part of a larger problem created by marketing aimed at children.
I walked into the year 2/3 classroom the other day while they were having their morning meeting. They sat on the rug in a circle and I was struck by the fact that every single girl in the class was dressed in pink right down to their barrettes. I thought at first it was a theme day and I’d missed the notice, but not so. Pink is now some kind of uniform for little girls, clothes, makeup, toys and … yes books. It is a culture and a stereotype that limits everything in their lives including their choice of role models and heroes in books, and it is part and parcel of the downward push from fashion/body image marketing.
I became more convinced of this when I ran into this article in The Sunday Age . I was interested to follow up and read more on the PinkStinks group now running in the UK. It’s really made me think long and hard about the trends in children’s literature and the balance I am seeking in the provision of reading materials for our students. I have promised myself to look harder for great literature that suits both boys and girls, and to promote it a little more. Literature in the 50’s and 60’s was thought to be sexist and stereotyped, well it feels like the pendulum is swinging back that way. I want to ensure I’m offering more choice; real choice on my shelves.