Gendered books in children’s literature

There’s been an interesting debate on Twitter over the last couple of days about book design, marketing, and packaging in relation to issues of gender. Princess books versus Digger books. Construction of identity. Audiences. It’s been an interesting debate and it’s one that I’ve found particularly thought-provoking and incredibly complex. One comment on a post acted as a sort of incendiary thought for me because it essentially wanted the research – the facts – behind our presumptions.

And I’m not sure I know where or what they are.

One of the areas I have done a lot of research in is on gifted and talented characters in children’s literature. I can tell you that one of the rough results of my research was the realisation that genius is quite often gendered. Essentially (and this is based on a lot of reading on texts published throughout the twentieth century), different sorts of talent are applied to differently gendered characters. Dancers in children’s literature were usually female. Pianists, male. Academically gifted individuals tended to split between the sexes but again faced a ‘dilution’ of their talents when the inevitable integration into the status-quo occurred. Additionally there was a definite issue with allowing ‘gifted’ female characters to remain a) single or b) gifted post marriage but that’s another post which will basically involve me railing at Elsie Oxenham for about fifteen paragraphs.

All of this is narrative based gendering – that is to say, gendering that is occuring in the story and in the story world between the covers. What happens when we discuss the book as a whole?

Well, firstly, we pay homage to Gérard Genette. Genette was the individual who defined the term ‘paratext‘. Paratexts are the elements that accompany the text but are not the text – so, in plain speak. things like endpapers, front covers and blurbs etc. In a way they’re the liminal space of the book; that which we do not stop in but passing through is obligatory. Ultimately paratexts are our first entrance into a book. They are the first ‘thing’ we read in the book.

When we discuss front cover designs, the pinkness of this or the blueness of this, we’re discussing paratexts. And, to be frank. there doesn’t seem to be much research about the impact / affect / effect of them. There’s research about peritextual elements from a conceptual level – shifting into things like intertextuality and reader response theory (which I admit is relevant but not for the purposes of this post) – but what is there on the actual result of colour X versus colour Y on the developing psyche is something that is very hard to find.

I did a brief literature review on this topic. One of the more interesting papers I found was this which focuses on a group of children, playing in response to Disney Princess branded media. I was struck by Wohlwend’s suggestion that gendered design and branding may be a case of ‘anticipating identities’. Are we then branding and designing our books in a sense of anticipatory gender definitions? I wonder if there’s an element of imposition occurring that we’re all colluding in? I’m not even sure if that’s the best way to describe it, but I think that’s what I mean. That’s the thing about this topic; it’s a knot of thoughts and feelings and I can’t help but wonder if I’m over-thinking it?

But then I think yes, I am over-thinking this but that’s good – because that’s what consumable media is – it’s put out there and it’s the Enterprise saucer separation all over again. A book is published – a story is made public – and it’s completed by the reader – and it’s irrevocably separated from the author. I’m not sure I wholly subscribe to the death of the author thing but I’m not far from it.  I, as reader, I complete the book. I bring to the pinkest of books all my preconceptions about pinkness; about being bullied, about never quite understanding how to wear skirts, and about still not quite knowing how to do the whole ‘woman’ thing. And I’m a gatekeeper. I mediate and share children’s literature with a lot of people of all different ages. Sometimes I disengage from the personal and achieve objectivity of a sort. And other times I don’t. So my preconceptions on design are huge and I sort of think it’s borderline impossible to achieve or critique ‘art’ without subjectivity. Oof. That’s a massive statement, but I’m going to let it hang because perhaps it needs to be out there.

But one thing I have, regardless of my own issues and colour preconceptions, is the faith that the child of today is brilliant. They’re smart, savvy individuals. From the boys I met who told me all about their obsession with Lian Hearn, through to the girl who lectures me on the amazingness of Agatha Christie, through to the smartest of boys who conceptualises un-genderable Pokemon creations of his own with powers ranging from being able to throw cheeseburgers at people through to being able to rub out exam mistakes; these children are consumers of media.

Maybe then now’s the time for somebody to pay tribute the work of Dorothy White and chronicle the journey of literacy with their child? For researchers to get right in, right at the start of literacy, and start to figure this out. I’m an idealist but when it comes to things of this nature, I can’t even begin to assess the situation without some sort of facts. My story, my personal background, irrevocably influences my attitude towards design even when I try to not let it.

All of this comes from me. Grumpy, grown up, still figuring it out, still confused, me.

So – if the research is happening or has happened – let me know. Are you working in this area? Do you have facts and figures? Shout about them.  Because I think we need something like that  in order to even come close to resolving this discussion.

11 thoughts on “Gendered books in children’s literature

  1. Thought-provoking! Have you read Cornelia Fine, The Gender Delusion? Debunks a lot of the pseudo neuroscience around this stuff. Having observed one boy and one girl plus friends through the pre-school years it’s clear that although some boys like diggers and football and some girls like princesses and fairies there are significant numbers to whom the converse applies. My 4 year-old is a much more girly girl than I was at her age and I do wonder whether that is because pre-schoolers are so obviously targeted with gender-particularised stuff, including picture-books (princesses and fairies ad nauseum) in a way that my generation (70s childhood) was not.

  2. Very interesting blog post – I have lined to it on my blog, hope you don’t mind! I am sure that in the publishing world books are marketed to appeal to different genders and this is the case with children’s books as much as any other. My daughter reads widely but if a book ‘looks’ too boyish she will often not bother to pick it up. She’s not into pink fluffiness either but she is sort of lured towards cute covers. It’s a bit like me sometimes with women’s magazines. I buy them thinking they will be good for a change and then regret it immediately when I start reading the content. That kind of craving for something sweet and then realising it’s sickly.

  3. Wish I has something concrete to contribute, but I don’t , other than to say how much I’m enjoying all the debate and thought provoking this larger conversation has created! Thanks for this post.

  4. Great post! I’ve linked to it on my one on the topic btw. I feel similarly about the absence of research (or at least, my ignorance of any research) – I think I read the same comment about that! Publishers, obviously, aren’t academics, and anything that works (ie sells) ends up being the truth/the status quo. The cause and effect at work with pink books is hard to untangle – do people buy pink books for girls because that’s what’s there, or are people seeking out pink books and therefore publishers make them? Do girls like pink or get taught to like it?

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