Our kids’ grey matter is neither pink nor blue – when will book publishers realise this?

Last weekend, my niece and nephew told me 'pink is for girls and blue is for boys'. They’re two

 

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After I wrote in March that we won’t review children’s books that are obviously marketed at only girls or only boys, I started to feel sorry for the publisher Michael O’Mara.

He had defended two Buster Books titles which divide activities into “girl stuff” (looking good) and “boy stuff” (sport and rudimentary weapons). To be fair, I thought, he’s not the only publisher to limit children’s imaginations rigidly along gender lines; just the only one to admit it explicitly. Then, last week, I received the new Buster Books catalogue, and it is worse than I thought.

First, early years colouring books define the code that girls’ books are pink and boys’ books are blue. Then, children learn that girls are “beautiful” or “gorgeous” while boys are “brilliant” and “amazing”. Boys are offered a Boys’ Book of How to Survive Anything, Anywhere, while girls get a Girls’ Book of Glamour and suchlike. Then, when everyone knows their place, the boys can read about Science Activities as their sisters focus on being Bridesmaids. I’m not saying that publishers are deliberately doing this to keep girls in their place; just that it’s a nasty side-effect of trying to make twice as much money out of parents. It bothers me because last weekend my niece and nephew, who are both brilliant, and beautiful, told me that “pink is for girls and blue is for boys”. They’re two. Who is telling them this?

I’m not the only one who thinks that the genderfication of children’s books and toys is harmful. Last week, Hannah Webster, an education expert and spokeswoman for the Independent Association of Prep Schools, complained about the “pernicious” effects of “everyone [being] attributed with roles and characteristics regardless of their individual identity”. The week before, I talked on BBC Radio Wales with children’s author Jonathan Emmett, whose research suggests dividing books by gender is bad for boys’ literacy. Before that, I appeared on a panel with neuroscientist Dr Lise Eliot, the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, who explained that being raised male or female is like growing up hearing different languages. There’s nothing innate about whether we learn English or French, maleness or femaleness, she said; the only innate ability is language-learning itself. She told me how the media are always desperate to find studies that show measurable, physical differences between girls’ and boys’ brains. In fact, she said, there are “no significant differences”. None.

So, the experts agree: boys and girls do not have innate preferences for fighting or nurturing; books and toys encourage these preferences to develop; this is damaging, to both boys and girls. My niece and nephew also agreed. When I said that “All the colours are for all the children”, “OK,” they replied. It is so simple, a two-year-old can understand it. When will publishers catch up?

Twitter: @katyguest36912

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