Writing under the rallying cry "Gender-specific books demean all our children," Katy Guest announces that the Independent on Sunday — one of the UK's great weekend papers — will no longer review any books that are marketed to "exclude either sex." It's tied to the Let Toys Be Toys/Let Books Be Books campaign, which petitions companies to stop tying their products to specific gender-identities. Guest characterises the segregation of products by gender as a means of "convincing children that boys and girls can't play with each other's stuff, is forcing parents to buy twice as much stuff."
I remember being surprised when someone told me that Little Brother was a "boy book." Yes, its protagonist is a boy, but every protagonist has to have some kind of gender identity, and it's a weird world when we're only allowed to read fiction in which the lead character has the same gender identity as us. I once co-wrote a novella whose major characters are galaxy-spanning AI hiveminds — it would have a rather small audience by that standard.
Good on the Independent on Sunday for this!
There are also those who argue that children are set upon their boyish and girly courses from conception, and that no amount of book-reading is going to change them. In fact, there is no credible evidence that boys and girls are born with innately different enthusiasms, and plenty of evidence that their tastes are acquired through socialisation. Let's face it, any company with a billion dollar advertising budget could convince even Jeremy Clarkson to dress up as a Disney princess if it really wanted to, and probably would if his doing so could double its income. So what hope is there against all this pressure for an impressionable child?
I wouldn't mind, but splitting children's books strictly along gender lines is not even good publishing. Just like other successful children's books, The Hunger Games was not aimed at girls or boys; like JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Robert Muchamore and others, Collins just wrote great stories, and readers bought them in their millions. Now, Dahl's Matilda is published with a pink cover, and I have heard one bookseller report seeing a mother snatching a copy from her small son's hands saying "That's for girls" as she replaced it on the shelf.
You see, it is not just girls' ambitions that are being frustrated by the limiting effects of "books for girls", in which girls' roles are all passive, domestic and in front of a mirror. Rebecca Davies, who writes the children's books blog at Independent.co.uk, tells me that she is equally sick of receiving "books which have been commissioned solely for the purpose of 'getting boys reading' [and which have] all-male characters and thin, action-based plots." What we are doing by pigeon-holing children is badly letting them down. And books, above all things, should be available to any child who is interested in them.