Saturday, 25 September 2010

Dangerous Books for Boys? Celia Rees


'Gove's new curriculum: Dangerous Book for Boys', so read a headline on the front of The Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago. Nice sound bite, but the underlying sexism of the Secretary of Education's remark made me shudder. I leaf on through the paper to find a fresh faced young man in shorts - Gareth Malone - who has a new TV series designed to get boys to read. No mention of getting girls to read, but a quick perusal of the article shows that won't be necessary because girls like nothing more than to be sitting down reading a book, while boys are 'restless and won't want to sit down as much as girls,' according to Professor Stephen Scott of King's College, London. Now, I'm all for schemes for getting children to read, and read more, but was struck by the irony that Michael Rosen, when he was Children's Laureate, also had a series on BBC 4, called Just Read, where he transformed the reading culture of a school in Cardiff and sparked the Just Read Campaign, but it would never have occurred to Michael to work with just the boys. For him, it was, and is, supremely important for ALL children to read, regardless of gender.

I find this renewed emphasis on gender alarming. It seems to be a reaction to a perceived gap in attainment. Boys are falling behind and this is a reason for a full blown moral panic. No-one thinks to congratulate girls for their levels of attainment, for actually gaining parity and pulling ahead for the first time in history. The thinking seems to be, girls are OK because they like sitting down and learning stuff, but boys have to be taught differently because they are restless creatures who can't sit down, etc. etc. - was this true of Michel Gove himself, one wonders? Or of David Cameron and George Osborne and the rest of their cohort at Eton? Or the Miliband brothers at Haverstock Comprehensive School? Hmm, probably not. I bet they were all busy learning their lessons and sitting still as still.

The thing is, I don't like genderisation. Never have. I don't like it in education and I don't like it in books. I don't like the classification of books into girls' books and boys' books. It seems to me to be every bit as pernicious as age ranging. It also means I get classified as a writer, which I don't like, either. Over the last few years, I've noted a marked increase in questions like: 'Why do you always write books for girls?' The answer is: I don't. Even if the main character is a girl, it doesn't mean that the book is specifically for girls. I write for everyone, anyone. I don't discriminate along the lines of age or gender. I'm like Philip Pullman's storyteller in the market place. There for whoever wants to stop and listen. The riposte is often: 'Why do you have girls on the cover, then?' Again, why not? 'Because boys won't read it, stupid!' Really? There's a girl on the cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sales figures would suggest that men are reading that book.
I've got news - from the same newspaper. Men and women are not wired differently. Their brains are the same. All these supposed 'differences' are created by social conditioning and environment. There is no Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus divide. So no more girls are from Planet Pink, Boys from Planet Zarg. Genderisation in literature coarsens the appetite while restricting the fare on offer. Maybe it's time for Children's Books to ditch genderisation and grow up.

17 comments:

catdownunder said...

In Africa men commonly wear pink - prison uniforms are often pink. On the other hand I never wear pink! Many of the local children have worked their way through my library and, so far, nobody has said it is a library 'for girls' - but I never suggest that it is!

Martin H. said...

Bravo! This is a message that really needs to be picked up. Back in December of last year I was heartened to hear of the 'Pink Stinks' campaign.

Linda said...

Hurray for you! With you all the way!

hilary said...

Hear, hear!
I have been pink branded, girl branded for far too long, for all my many, many objections.

Leila said...

Boys are restless because they are taught - by society, school, parents - that it is expected of them. My male Bangladeshi relatives are brought up to be quiet, modest, respectful and obedient to their elders, and to cry at the drop of a love song, and that's how they behave. I don't think this is a particularly Good Thing, but it does demonstrate that nurture is more important than nature.
If I show my books (Jacqueline Wilson/ Cathy Cassidy style covers) to a class of mixed boys and girls, the boys switch off the moment they see the cover. The girls, on the other hand, switch on. You can see they know what is expected of them.
I wish the publishing industry would realise that everyone - parents, writers, readers - are sick of the girl/boy cover division.

Charlie Butler said...

Absolutely agree with this. The idea that girls getting better marks than boys is a cause for moral panic (something we heard nary a peep of about it was the other way round) is simply misogyny. (Men aren't from Mars and Women aren't from Venus, but pop psychology really is from Uranus, as some wag pointed out.)

The unnecessary gender-marking of books is pernicious. The latest example I came across was on web site for Scholastic's My Story series, which divides its titles into books "for boys" and "for girls", purely on the basis of the sex of the main character. Why on earth would any publisher wish to put off half their potential market in this way?

Book Maven said...

I am with you 100% on this one, Celia! Well said.

Book Maven said...

I am with you 100% on this one, Celia! Well said.

Katherine Langrish said...

Me too! And it needs saying!

Leila said...

Just came across this relevant post: http://robdougherty.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/boys-reading/

verilion said...

As a teacher, I totally agree with your point, and boy do I hate the suggested age range thing too. And pink covers while we're at it!

Leslie Wilson said...

Dear Celia,

Well said! I was reading my novel, with a girl narrator, to a group of school kids on Friday, and particularly noticed one young lad who was clearly utterly drawn into the story. It fills me with horror to think of my darling little grandson being regarded, not as himself, but as some kind of stereotypical male. On the other hand, I spent years telling my daughters they could do as well as boys, and why should we get so anxious if girls do well? Anne Fine's daughter Cordelia has apparently written a brilliant book on this subject, which I must get hold of. And isn't it infuriating that right from the word go there are these colour-coded clothes for boys and girls - and apparently red is now a girls' colour and boys can't wear it. Duh!!

adele said...

Terrific post, Celia and you're quite right of course!
The point about the Dragon Tattoo is well made. I always tell boys when I speak to them that it's funny how boys don't like girls on covers of books until suddenly, as if by magic, they like nothing better than a pretty girl gracing the cover of a book they're reading!

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Helena Pielichaty said...

What a timely piece. I agree with everything you've written, Celia. There are plenty of reluctant girl readers out there who are overlooked in both the classroom and the bookshop. Librarians are picking up on this. I was asked to speak at a YLG conference last year about my Girls FC series (about a girls' football team) and to focus on reluctant girl readers.I didn't know why they asked me to focus on that aspect particularly until I realised there was a second thread going on here - that football is seen as a subject for non-readers, regardless of gender. Double whammy.

Katherine Roberts said...

Does this seem to happen more with younger books than books for older readers? It seemed strange to me that my Seven Wonders books were promoted by my publisher as boys' books... because four of them have girls as main characters! But the subject matter is adventure rather than romance, so maybe that's why.

In my own reading, I am drawn to subject matter traditionally enjoyed by boys - fantasy, SF, adventure, horror, thrillers. I don't really enjoy romance... but I do like horses!

Overheard in Waterstones yesterday: 8 or 9-year old girl telling her mum with stamp of foot: "I DON'T want FAIRIES!"

Life is Choices said...

I think it would be quite interesting to do a reality show on this subject beginning at birth. We might find that what we have been subliminally taught isn't accurate at all. I am a female, an enterpeneur, a business owner, a mom, an aunt, a daughter and a wife. I have cared for my children and for others. I have been given the honor to raise a son and a daughter. In my experience and others, girl's naturally gravitate to certain things, and boys others and eventually to each other. Thank goodness we are all different. It doens't mean we should not be given the same opportunities and be paid the same. Beyond that this topic is a little non-sensical. I am proud of my daughter and who she has become at 25 and I am proud of my son who is a 27 year old man. Proud of the fact that they can be who they are, female and male, and yet, be secure enough to embrace it. Maybe that is what we should really be focusing on - feeling secure in who we are. The agenda out there in our schools, universities and society in general to erase the male figure is really sort of humorous. Considering without them, us "GIRLS" would not exist. My suggestion is that we all find something really worthy of our time to be an activist for. Make a difference in our world. This topic is very "ME FOCUSED" and it is becoming a little outdated, like a bad hair style.