Books Will Be Books: Enough With Gendered Children’s Lit
Tuesdays are exciting to me because it’s publication day for new books. Sometimes I even go to the bookstore that day to grab a book I’ve been anxiously awaiting. Recently, my daughter and I went to the closest Barnes & Noble so I could buy Roxane Gay's much-anticipated "Hunger." I’m a huge fan; hers is among the writing that informs the kind of feminist I consider myself to be, and the messages I try to pass down to my daughter.
As we were leaving the bookstore, we stopped to take in the bright orange display of another new release, "Pottymouth and Stoopid," a children’s chapter book co-authored by James Patterson and Chris Gaberstein, and illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Like a moth to a flame, my daughter was instantly curious about this book, particularly because of the title and the illustrations. She had just torn through the entire "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series by Jeff Kinney over the past two weeks and was itching for a new read.
I’d like to give you a recommendation for "Pottymouth and Stoopid," but I can’t.
And my daughter absolutely won’t. It’s not because of her young age — she’s just shy of 10 and will talk your ear off about books she loves.
It’s because when she read the words “best book for boys” and “boys are going to love this story” blurbed on the back cover, she put it back on the display. She wasn’t simply yielding to the implicit “this book isn’t for you, girls.” She was just angry.
Then I got angry, though I vented a little by tweeting to Patterson later that he’d lost a sale because of this unfortunate language. He didn’t respond.
But I still remain disappointed. What those kinds of phrases effectively do is limit and categorize ideas based on gender rather than a reader’s particular preferences, whether they be boy, girl or genderqueer.
I’m guessing some expert at the publishing house thought about how to best market this particular book to maximize sales. But these are stories, so why potentially limit your audience like this, I wonder (or your potential profit, for that matter)?
Think of the camaraderie and empathy that could be gained if we didn’t draw tight circles around stereotypes. I wonder how many other girls or queer kids will also choose another book over this one because they feel excluded.
I wonder too whether this kind of gendered reading material keeps dated, sexist ideals in place, like that girls can’t or shouldn’t be crass? I assure you that my daughter can hold her own with potty talk. Does it also simultaneously suggest boys are one dimensional? I know this isn’t true either. Then why force children to judge a book by its cover, something we tell them from very early on not to do quite literally for books, but also people, ideas and experiences?
Imagine if publishers created novel covers for adults that said, “Best book for women!” or “Men are going to love this story.” I expect there would be backlash, yet it seems acceptable for children. With this book, the publisher’s website indicates that at least one theme of this book revolves around social struggles and bullying in middle school. Is this not a topic that potentially touches every child, not just boys? Can’t they all learn from and be entertained by this book?
Why force children to judge a book by its cover, something we tell them from very early on not to do quite literally for books, but also people, ideas and experiences?
Earlier this month, while my daughter I and were driving in the car, I told her the news story of Mili Hernandez, the 8-year-old Nebraska girl whose soccer team was barred from playing in a tournament when the officials thought Mili was a boy because of her short haircut. Like me, my daughter was outraged. This also happened right after my daughter’s third grade class finished learning about John and Abigail Adams, two figures who are particularly interesting to us because we happen to live in Quincy not far from Peacefield, where the Adams family lived. After she expressed some terse dismay, she said to me, defeated, “It’s just like when Abigail wrote to John Adams, ‘Remember the ladies,’ and he didn’t listen.”
Our children are listening, and reading and playing. And they want toy makers, authors and publishers to do better. Remember the girls. And the genderqueer. And the boys.
Better yet, do away with all of this binary classification and marketing and just say “children” or “teens.” Let them decide what they like, and what they don’t.