I asked him if he liked the cover for City of Thieves, and he said it was great. We chatted a bit, and I assured him I'd pass his comment onto Orchard's design team. Now, there was no mistaking the hurt that boy felt. Here was a book he'd really liked (once forced to read it for an award). And he felt cheated by the cover.
His reaction, I fear, is probably more more to do the social attitudes of boys than the book's cover. I agree there are more ivy tendrils than necessary, but the cover is blue and yellow, not pink. What I think that young man objected to, without realising it, was the image of a girl on the cover. So no girls allowed at all? Difficult to get round that one.
When I got back from the NEBA (which I'm pleased to report Castle of Shadows won, despite the main character Charlie's misfortune in being a girl), I decided to have a trawl through my collection of children's books, gathered from years of visiting second hand book shops. I remembered those books from the 70s and 80s as much less gendered, to be addressing boys and girls equally with the covers. Pink was not an issue. Was I right?
The obvious place to start seems E. Nesbit. The Railway Children and The Treasure Seekers, here in their Puffin covers, present the classic gang of kids having adventures story which is a never-dying perennial to this day, in the hands of someone like Ali Sparkes. Assorted boys and girls on the covers, with or without dogs and grown-ups in attendance.
Moving forward, we come to one of my favourite writers, and a fellow Devon resident: Gene Kemp. Kemp was a teacher as well as a writer, and knew all about boys and their reluctance to read about girls. I can't help feeling she had a great time pulling the wool over their eyes and giving them the shock of their lives with the excellent The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. But it's Juniper I love best. An almost lost classic with one of the best heroines in middle-grade fiction. Seek it out! That's Juniper in the lead on this cover. No apologies needed for her: she's a girl, she only has one hand, and she's totally brilliant.
Now here are two absolutely classic 70s covers: Diana Wynne Jones The Ogre Downstairs, and Madeleine L'Engle's A wrinkle in Time. Girls and boys floating in air. Magic and adventure. No gender-specific marketing in sight.
One way to get around the issue of gender on covers is to leave the kids off totally. Easier if you have magic/fantasy elements, as in these two classics from the late sixties/early seventies: The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon, and Susan Cooper's iconic The Dark is Rising series.
In these days when marketing likes gender division because it's seen as easy to sell, and anything with a girl protagonist runs a gauntlet of pink and glitter, some publishers manage to still try to address the fact that there's a need for books which are for boys and girls both. Two recent examples of gender-less adventure books are Frances Hardinge's Verdigris Deep, which is a lovely cover but avoids the issue by the abstraction of the figures.
A more interesting example is ABBA's own Nick Green's The Cat Kin. The first cover, in the Faber edition, is totally genderless. You can't tell that one of those running children is in fact named Tiffany. But the Strident cover, which I prefer, addressed the issue head on and in gung-ho fashion. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.
I want to end with three covers of a Newberry Medal winning book from the seventies, which has undergone numerous incarnations: Bridge to Terabithia. I think the covers speak for themselves, but I find the latest one the most worrying. Here, the girl has been eradicated totally.
That's certainly one strategy for getting boys to read these books where girls are characters. And it's important they do so: what better way to learn to empathise with the other half of the human race? But I don't think that erasing girls from the picture is the answer.