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Should children's books be gender specific?

Updated on March 23, 2014

Books aimed at girls and boys

Browse the section of a children's book store and you will likely see books aimed specifically at boys or girls. It's not hard to predict what these books will be like.

The girls books are probably pink, often sparkly and filled with topics such as princesses, fairies, ballerinas and horses. The boys books will feature topics such as sports, pirates, planes or cars.

There has been debate lately over whether marketing books on gender specific lines is good for our children.

Recently an online campaign called Let Books Be Books has made it into the news. The campaign is petitioning publishers to stop gender specific marketing of children's books and it has met with some success.

Some children's publishers have agreed to stop producing gender specific publications. A UK newspaper has even stated it will no longer review books targeted explicitly at girls or boys. This is because it is viewed as "excluding" the other gender.

The argument is that books should not be gender specific as it encourages gender stereotyping. By marketing books specifically towards girls or boys the other gender will be prevented from reading that particular book.

After all, some boys may like to read about horses or ballerinas. Likewise, many girls could be interested in reading about pirates or a good adventure story. By directing a book at a particular gender it makes it less likely that these girls and boys will have the opportunity to read them.

In essence, parents or friends are probably not going to give a "girl" themed book to a boy. Likewise a boy is probably not going to pick up and read a book which explicitly states it is for girls.

Of course there are books out there that include these same themes but do not state whether they are aimed at a particular gender. So children may feel more comfortable reading these versions.

It is in interesting to consider in recent years that many of the books in the bestseller lists break the gender moulds. Think "Harry Potter", the "Hunger Games", "Diary of a Wimpy Kid". To some extent the market had decided naturally that these books have mass appeal.

Then there are the "classic" stories such as the Narnia series and Dr Suess books which seem to have a universal appeal as well. They are not marketed towards either girls or boys.

Having said that, many children clearly enjoy reading books aimed at their specific gender. Booksellers would not be able to sell these items if they didn't.

And this is the dilemma.

Are we saying that the girl who likes reading stories about fairies should not?

Or are we saying that there is no place for gender specific books because they somehow damage our children?


A balanced approach to books

Most adults would agree that reading is "good" for children. Children who enjoy reading tend to have better literacy skills, creativity and general knowledge. It is also a source of great enjoyment.

So do we risk taking away from children books that they enjoy? Does this tell them they have done the wrong thing in liking these particular books?

It would seem that like many things, a balanced approach might work best here. If a little girl likes to read a book about fairy cake making then what is the long term harm? Perhaps there might be some harm if that is all she was exposed to. But surely the aim is to make sure our children have access to a wide variety of reading material.

Above everything else, we want our children to enjoy our reading. That's the whole point. The more they enjoy it, the more they will want to do it.

So, let kids be kids and enjoy their books. But if you are concerned make sure you broaden your child's horizons.

Make sure children have access to a wide variety of books, with a wide variety of characters and story settings.

There are so many well written stories out there that have universal appeal to both girls and boys.

Many girls and boys have enjoyed the adventure stories of classic books such as "Treasure Island" or "Oliver Twist". These are many abridged versions of these books available that make them accessible to both younger and older age groups. Roald Dahl's books are also very popular amongst children.The stories continue to have appeal because they have interesting plot lines and characterisations.

Many of these books feature children who display admirable qualities. We can pick book that demonstrate the sort of characteristics we want to encourage in our children. Astrid Lindgren for example often writes about strong and independent female characters in her books. She is the author of the popular Pippi Longstocking and the lesser known "Lotta" series. Lotta is the youngest sister in a family of three. Although she is naughty she is well meaning and the series outlines her "every day" adventures. There are no fairies appearing in them.

Parents might just find that there is a case of natural choice here. If children are exposed to good stories that break the "mould" they may not be so interested in the gender specific books anyway.

Instead children might find they are more interested in the stories and characters that really engage them, and the plotlines that surprise them.

Happy reading everyone.

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