Gender Stereotyping - A reading habit.

Whilst getting ready for work this morning I was watching BBC Breakfast (as is my habit, not really following the news at any other time), and just as I was preparing to switch off the topic came on to gender-stereotyping in books.  This is a popular issue, so it's not really surprising that it would make it into the news eventually, but it got me thinking about my own childhood experiences.

I was blessed by a family - most particularly a mother - who believed it right and proper that a young girl should be encouraged to read plenty of books.  I'm glad that I live in a place and time where the ability to read was not just encouraged but expected, so my family would never get into trouble for what they were doing.

Looking back, I was surrounded by readers.  My mum had an extensive collection of books, my auntie (a primary school teacher) was a keen reader and - as touched upon in an earlier post - a keen letter-writer, and my maternal grandmother always read the People's Friend magazine, saving the children's stories at the end to keep in a folder for her grandchildren.  It's probably no real surprise that my own love of reading became so strong.  But, thinking back to my childhood, the readers in my family were all female.  I can't remember seeing my father with a book in his hands, and my grandfather was more fond of his crosswords than anything else.  Growing up, my younger brother would read sometimes - taking a liking to Brian Jacques as  I remember - but doesn't read now.  My mother in law likes to read, but my father in law and husband don't.

Perhaps I could be forgiven for thinking that reading is more of a woman's pastime than a man's, were it not for the fact that I know many male readers in real life and the ever-expanding internet community.  It can be difficult to remember that not long ago it wasn't considered important for a girl to be literate, and not long before that was discouraged.

In these modern world we live in, all children are taught to read and write (and also less important exciting things like mathematics) and have easy access to more books than they ever have before.  The rise of the ebook, with its continuing momentum, also opens a whole new way for authors to attract a readership.  There has probably never been a better time - recession notwithstanding - for children to start reading.

So why do publishers feel the need - in this time of supposed gender equality - to aim a book specifically at a boy or at a girl simply because it seems more suitable for that gender?

Consider before anything else the wonderful treasury of classic children's books we have to choose from, most of these you will have read yourselves: Treasure Island, Gulliver's Travels, Wind in the Willows, Heidi, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit.  Consider this list carefully, as though you were going to promote them.  There are two - Heidi and Alice in Wonderland - which will undoubtedly attract more girls than boys, and books like Treasure Island and  Gulliver's Travels are equally likely to appeal to boys, but would you really stop your children from reading any of them?  What about the remaining three?  I wouldn't like to be the one to hold up Peter Pan and tell anyone it should be aimed at boys.  Or that The Hobbit should be considered to be a girl's book.  As for Wind in the Willows - I can't even begin to imagine which gender to aim that at.

When I was growing up, I played with Thomas the tank engine (and watched him on the television with a dedication that was almost religious) and owned several Polly Pocket sets.  I grew up with heroes like the Thundercats,  Duckula and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and in the console wars of the time pledged my loyalty to Sonic the Hedgehog and SEGA.  I liked the Care Bears well enough, but I would have preferred a Were Bear seeing as I read the comics, but could do without seeing as I owned a Teddy Ruxpin.  I wore my hair long with dresses and dungarees alike, and I liked nothing more than going to the library and coming out with something good to read - or a good Asterix comic to break things up.  The little library I grew up with introduced me to C.S Lewis when I borrowed Prince Caspian, amongst other things.  I can't say my childhood was too badly affected by any gender stereotype, which I have my mum to thank for.

Mum - and the rest of my family - kept me well stocked in books throughout my childhood.  A few Christmases saw me amass a fair few short story collections by Enid Blyton.  As she wrote predominately about fairies and talking animals in these collections, it's not entirely unreasonable to assume she would attract more girls than boys.  But what about her legendary Famous Five novels, or the other amazing mystery novels she wrote for older children?  They were fantastic, and to deny a boy the chance to read them simply because Enid Blyton writes "girly books" goes beyond the normal reach of cruelty!  Let's just say we did that, and restricted books like Treasure Island and Gulliver's Travels to boys only - what are we telling our children?  Are we suggesting that our sons and nephews lack the mental stamina required to appreciate a good mystery, and that our daughters and nieces will only enjoy adventure that is completely wholesome, clean and pirate-free?  Because no real man has ever read a Sherlock Holmes story, and no respectable woman would be able to so much as look at a Jeffery Deaver novel with all that horrible murder in it...

...um...

I didn't think so either!

So let's get back to children.  As I remember all I ever asked of a book was that it was enjoyable.  I didn't care if I was the only girl who had read it or even if every girl in my class could recite it by heart.  I was never pushed to read or avoid anything, and I don't think it did me any harm at all.  Children will read what they enjoy reading, and long may that continue to be the case.  Maybe given a little free reign they will surprise us all?

On a final note, a really good children's series will not give anybody the chance to place gender restrictions on it.  I was a 90's child, and like every 90's child I read Goosebumps books.  Nobody ever tried to stop me from reading one - although given the popularity they had at their peak, I doubt anyone would have dared - on the basis that I was a girl.  Every child in my class probably had a dozen of them, and I can't remember walking into a bookshop or library without being able to spot a shelf dedicated to them at their height.  I doubt their author - the marvellous R.L.Stine - would have been particularly bothered that his books were being read by both boys and girls.  To be fair, what with the time taken to write new books and watch his bank balance go up, he probably wouldn't have had the time!  More contemporary series, such as Harry Potter,  Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games, also managed to avoid the gender labelling.  C.S Lewis seemed to manage this as well when he brought out his Narnia series.

A good story, it would appear, is for everyone.  Perhaps that is the way things should be.

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