“I promise now that [The Independent] and this website will not be reviewing any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys,” Katy Guest, literary editor at The Independent wrote earlier in March. This, of course, set off a complex discussion all around the English-speaking world and got many people thinking, yours truly included.
In my 32 years I have been a student, a teacher, a librarian, a writer, a publisher, and through it all a voracious reader. One perspective I haven’t experienced first-hand is that of a parent. So my opinion on this matter may seem naïve, but here it is.
With the advent of modern marketing the gender gap seems more like a yawning chasm, especially when one looks at the shelves in any book or toy store: black and blue stuff that blows up on one side, pink and purple princesses on the other. The landscape is quite stark when one restricts their view to these shelves.
We need to ask, when these polar categories are placed before children as consumer choices, what are we concerned about? That children are buying into stereotypes? That parents increasingly have no choice but to buy into these stereotypes on their behalf? Are we concerned that children feel pressured to conform to them? These are all valid concerns.
But let’s not forget that we live in a culture of relatively free expression with a relatively open literary market. There may be a disproportionate amount of attention to “feminine” literature right now, but for how long was the opposite true? Yes, attention needs to be drawn to imbalances, but our literary landscape is vast. So long as an adequate range of choices exists, I don’t accept the necessity of austere measures to police gendered representations on our literary landscape.
Another question to ask is should it be up to publishers, librarians, teachers and other guardians of kid culture to provide a stereotype-free landscape where nothing is too boyish or girly? I wouldn’t want that job, and I don’t think The Independent really wants it either. If The Little Prince or Little Women were published today, would they refuse to review them?
When I see this pressure to level the literary landscape I can’t help but wonder, are we doing this so that children aren’t forced to make choices? Or are we worried that children will make the “wrong” choices? If little Susie reads The Dangerous Book for Boys and—worse—enjoys it, whatever will your mother-in-law think? Do dad’s palms sweat when he sees little Johnny reading and re-reading the tales of Strawberry Shortcake? This leads to my main point.
Yes, it is important to have discussions about gender imbalances in the world of literature, but primarily it is the responsibility of parents to have those discussions with their children.
Now, do parents want this responsibility? During my time in classrooms and libraries I found that the answer, in far too many cases, is no. Parents increasingly pressure representatives of the institutions around them to make the environment “safe” for their child. Of course, safety is relative. Pressure to guarantee the absence of asbestos in classrooms is essential. But is it essential to pressure for the absence of He-Man and She-Ra or (parents can insert more up-to-date references themselves)? And is it even effective? To inject some Buddhist wisdom, we can’t pad the landscape with leather, but we can pad our children’s feet.
In my opinion, it would be easier and more effective for parents to sit their children down and discuss the choices for cultural consumption laid out before them. As mentioned, I am not a parent, so I don’t know exactly how that conversation would go, but I imagine it could start something like this:
“Johnny, I know you like to read about G. I. Joe but you know those stories are make-believe, right? You shouldn’t think that you need to act or look like he does. Can you tell me the difference between make-believe and real?”
“Susie, I know you like reading about Barbie, but most women don’t look like that. Reading Barbie is just for fun. You shouldn’t think that you need to act or look like she does. Let’s talk for a bit about what real women look like.”
My advice to reluctant parents is to consider these talks warm-ups. Things get more complicated later, that much I do know.
That’s my view of how to navigate the gendered landscape of children’s literature, but let’s also look at what opportunities it provides. Without gendered literature, Johnny would never have the opportunity to read Little Women and understand the world from the perspectives of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Similarly, Susie might understand how and why boys get into fights more often if she saw the world from the perspective of G.I. Joe once in a while. Both might realize that they can get something out of these books for themselves regardless of the gendered perspectives in them. Isn’t that what reading is all about? Broadening ones horizons?
So let’s not outsource parenting or pretend that professional planning can replace it. And let’s not be merely police on the kid lit landscape. Let’s also be the tour guides that children need to navigate it with grace and wisdom. But most of all, let’s encourage children to explore that landscape as widely as possible. There’s a lot of ground to cover.