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When my sister turned three, our mother took her to a toyshop called Wonderland. A true enough name in the eyes of children, but to adults the shop was simply shelf after shelf of plastic crap: the toys you’re awarded at funfairs, at stalls emblazoned with badly painted Disney characters who look as though they’ve undergone scientific experimentation.
“Pick anything you like,” Mum said.
So my sister walked along the aisles of dolls and My Little Pony figurine sets, and came back with a black rifle. This being Cyprus in the 1980s, the shopkeeper must have had an aneurism. My sister wanted a toy meant for boys!
But our mother knew who we were. That horse-riding Barbie given to my sister by a well-meaning friend was destined to sit, afraid, amongst Harley Davidson models in a pink-deprived bedroom, gathering dust. (Meanwhile, I stole Barbie’s horse to act out scenes in which it carried a denim-clad Ken into an ambush of trolls, who made him strip naked and perform manual labour as they taunted him.)
Rather than weep in the car about her children’s nonconformity, my mother chose to encourage our interests. So many parents worry about how ‘normal’ their children are – Shouldn’t Freddie be walking by now? Why is Gemma’s vocabulary not as advanced as Anne-Marie’s? Is this obsession with raisins just a phase? – but nothing sets alarm bells ringing as loudly as a deviation from ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviour.
Let Books Be Books is a campaign to put an end to the production of ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’, and counts Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman and Waterstones among its supporters. Many authors, booksellers and parents are tired of the gender segregation in children’s literature: the sparkly, glitter-covered fairy books for girls and the samurai/robot/astronaut/pirate/cowboy books for the boys.
As a Waterstones bookseller, I was asked at least three times a day by customers whether a book was intended for boys or girls.
“Either,” I’d reply. “It’s a book, not a tampon.”
I never spoke that latter part out loud, but I believe I communicated it with my eyes.
What a ludicrous question! The logical thing would be to purchase whichever book your child is clutching, and preferably before the pages are ripped out or engraved with a Lego Minifigure. Surely suppressing little Freddie/Gemma/Anne-Marie’s interests and enforcing an identity on them will have negative consequences? No need to dwell on whether little Freddie could turn out gay, there are only two options: he is or he isn’t – a Fireman Sam book won’t change that. Better to let Freddie’s true self step forth as a child, before he grows up to play homoerotic drinking games with his uni mates that get filmed for YouTube and shared with similarly confused young men. Have we learnt nothing from the Victorians?
Of course, publishers aren’t solely to blame for the gender-specific reading divide. They add glitter to books because their marketing experts know the book-buying public better than they can know themselves. Pink or blue; robots or princess; these dichotomies exist as long as shoppers keep asking for “boy books” and “girl books”.
Is it the thought of children identifying with opposite-sex protagonists that’s scaring parents so much? If a boy were to read a book about a princess, could it lead him from the path of solid, rugby-playing Fred to that of pashmina-wearing, Mean Girls-quoting Freddie? Maybe? Is it such a big deal? Perhaps encouraging boys to identify with female characters, or at least read about them, could have a positive effect; they might grow up to find women less mystifying, and perhaps turn their noses up at chauvinistic Topman T-shirts.
Children may be impressionable, but a book won’t serve as a gender-morphing contagion, just as playing Grand Theft Auto doesn’t inevitably lead to real-life shootings in strip clubs, and Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t lead to Satanism. In any case, it is not only when choosing books for children that people fret about these issues. At Waterstones, I was regularly approached by customers who extended their deeply ingrained concerns into the section for adult fiction too.
“But is this more of a man’s book?” I was once asked about an Ian McEwan novel.
I didn’t know how I was expected to respond. “Well, it does help if you wear Birkenstocks.”
Why a grown woman should be hesitant to read literary fiction with a male protagonist, written by a man, raises the question: is the entire world divided into boy things and girl things? Two columns of objects, subjects and emotions. One for each sex.
A superior once instructed me to create a table of “yummy mummy” books, but I never did. The woman with her infant in a carrier bringing Michel de Montaigne to the counter would’ve slapped me, and I’d have been grateful. But other women encouraged their girls to be more acceptably feminine. “These are the books you need,” I once overheard a mother say to her teenage daughter as she led her to Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, which is mainly concerned with landing a rich man to fund your shopping habit. Because you’re a girl, and your father is upstairs buying serious non-fiction about World War II and the state of our economy.
A grown woman with an established penchant for Sophie Kinsella might not enjoy a book about warships or the Gulag, but that doesn’t mean her children should be prevented from picking up whatever books grab their attention. If they were granted more freedom, reading could take its place as a pleasurable pastime, directed by curiosity and passion, rather than something enforced at a young age that gets tossed aside once school is over.
If you let your little girl buy a rifle instead of a doll, she’ll still probably grow up OK. Along the way she might dip into Jodi Picoult, maybe Wilbur Smith, hopefully Toni Morrison, and all that without even becoming a mass murderer. As far as I know, my sister has never killed anyone and I still don’t have a troll army with which to torture white hunk slaves. But we both read Goosebumps and watched The Golden Girls. And a few years before that, every one of our classmates loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar.