Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Still Second Sex, Even on Skates - Clementine Beauvais

A few anecdotes. I know, they're very banal. Please add yours to the comments.

1) A friend (and fellow children's literature academic): "I'm going to buy your Sesame Seade book - it looks great! I'll buy it for myself, of course - the boys [7 and 9 years old] won't want to read it, since it's for girls."
Me: "It's not for girls."
Friend: "It is."
Me: "Seriously, it's not. It's not a girly book at all. It's an adventure story."
Friend: "Well, the cover is pink."
Me: "The cover isn't pink."
Friend: "It is pink."
Me: "It isn't pink."
Friend: "Really?"
Me: "Well, look for yourself."
Friend: "Oh, that's funny, I remembered it as pink. Well, there's still a pink line at the top."

2) An email, or rather ten emails, from teachers, in preparation for school visits:
"I've looked at your books, they look great. I was just wondering if you have an equivalent set of books for boys? Or else the boys might feel left out during the school visit."

3) A friend: "All your books have female main characters."
Me: "Yes."
Friend: "Will you write for boys too one day?"

4) The head of the children's literature department in a national bookstore chain, looking genuinely surprised: "You know what? I've talked to a few parents who told me that their boys really enjoyed the Sesame books!"

5) "He liked it even though he's a boy!"
"He had to admit he really liked it!"
"He even wanted to read the second one!"
"It's funny, he didn't seem to mind that it was a book about a girl."

6) "This book will appeal to girls who like strong heroines."
"This book will delight girls between 7 and 11."
"It's a perfect book for little girls."

7) Acquaintance: "Would you self-define as a feminist?"
Me: "Yes, radically so."
Acquaintance: "Ah. That's why you only write books for girls, I guess."

One is not born a book for girls, but becomes one.


Clementine Beauvais attempts to write gender-neutral books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes for all ages, and the latter a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade mysteries, with Hodder. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.


adele said...

La Lutte continue! We used to say that during Les Evenements in 1968, but it's still true in this case! Good on you for highlighting this!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

wish I'd known that time...

Stroppy Author said...

(Did Simone write any books for boys?)

It's terrible.I have also had, though, 'can you write a story for girls?'

Girls can read books with boys in, too. It's the other side of the same coin.

Joan Lennon said...

Sigh. We have to re-fight these battles again and again.

Andrew Preston said...

(1) To me, the cover screams 'girls book'. Title Sleuth on Skates (neutral).
Followed by large picture of very girly looking girl. Very girly authors name. Girls name for illustrator. In context, colour at top of page would read.. 'pink'. Tiny picture of boy in background. Not even second sex, more like third or fourth.
Yep, absolutely defo..., a book for girls, before a page is opened.

Heather Dyer said...

Funny - especially conversation #7. You just can't win! I have exactly the same with my book. I think the publishers end up choosing one gender to target (by way of the cover) because they're afraid they won't be able to sell it if it doesn't fit an identified target market? 'Everyone' sounds implausible, perhaps. Shame.

Edward M said...

I don't have my copy of Sleuth on Skates with me, but from what I can remember of it, and from skimming over Gargoyles again, I would concur that it isn't a book for boys.

Then again, it isn't a book for girls either. The characters aren't defined by their gender, after all - Sesame isn't smart and inquisitive because she's a girl, just as Toby isn't clumsy because he's a boy. The gender distribution in the series is interesting, but primarily because it bucks the trend for investigative, boundary-breaking, physically active protagonists being men or boys. It's a shame that 'books about girls' and 'books for girls' are still being conflated in this way.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thanks for the comments. It's not just about my book, but about the general weariness that every book with a female character is 'girls only', whereas of course, as Anne says, books with boys are assumed to be gender-neutral.

And yes, there's more to it. Yes, name of the author/illustrator; yes, a touch of pink in an otherwise blue/green/purple background signifying it as 'girly' (while a touch of blue in an otherwise pink/yellow/red background would never signify it as 'boyish'). And yes, more generally, as Ed says, the impossibility to accept that a book may be genuinely gender-neutral.

Yes, it really gets at me sometimes.

Catherine Butler said...

Part of this is the way publishers seem determined market books exclusively to boys or girls. For one example amongst many, see Scholastic's My Story series, divided into "books for boys" (http://www5.scholastic.co.uk/zone/book_my-story_boys.htm all about killing people in different times and places) and books for girls (http://www5.scholastic.co.uk/zone/book_my-story_girls.htm offering, interestingly, a far more varied selection of experiences).

I was talking to someone only the other day who said that her publisher had encouraged her to throw her lot in (writing wise) with one sex or the other - purely, as far as I can see, for marketing reasons.

This kind of segretation is replicated in areas of toys and of course clothing, as doughty organizations such as Pink Stinks and the Achilles Effect remind us - but apart from being appallingly regressive in terms of restricting of gender roles, it also seems pretty shortsighted. Why are publishers so keen to turn away half their potential market? No doubt they will point to responses such as the ones you have listed, but that is a chicken-and-egg argument.

Ms. Yingling said...

Every year for five years, I've had a "Guys Read Pink" event at my blog and school library. I encourage boys to read books with girls on the cover, and it's always as if they need permission to do this. They find that (shocking!) the books are every bit as good, and they are then more open to reading a larger variety of things. The event will start on Sunday, 2 February. Perhaps this isn't the best way to get boys to read more widely, but it works well at my school!

Tatum Flynn said...

Excellent post. I am SO TIRED of the sentiment that boys can't/won't/shouldn't read books about girls, when the obverse is the norm. How do we expect boys to grow up thinking of girls as PEOPLE, when they never see things from their point of view? The whole point of literature is to put yourself in someone else's shoes for a few hours - why should gender be a factor?

There was a really excellent discussion in the comments on NY librarian Betsy Bird's blog about this recently: http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2014/01/09/newbery-caldecott-2014-final-prediction-edition/

Unknown said...

This is seriously SAD. Kids can't even pick up a book without checking the Adults-Unconsciously-Assigned-It-for-Boys/Girls label.

A Wilson said...

I get this ALL THE TIME. I had to give my godson a copy of one book with a homemade cover that I slipped on over the top of the publisher's choice to get him to read it. I am now engaged in a conversation with the publisher about rejacketing, as it has become evident that boys do like my books, but parents don't like buying them any that have sparkly or pink on. Bah!

John Dougherty said...

Wanted to comment on this yesterday, but not at my desk much at the moment and my phone doesn't seem able to post comments.

I've taken to asking in my schools events for a show of hands from children who've been put off a book they wanted to read because an adult told them "that's for boys and you're a girl," or vice versa. I get to see a lot of hands that way.

On the other hand: at signings, I'm currently bringing a collection of coloured sharpies & asking kids to pick the colour they'd like me to sign in. I'm encouraged by the number of boys who happily choose pink.

Ms Yingling - your 'Guys Read Pink' events sound great. And you're right: if we keep giving kids the message that books are for everyone, we give them permission to read what they want. I keep saying, "Authors don't write for boys or for girls, we write for readers, and if you want to read a book, or if you're enjoying reading a book, it was written for you."

Lily said...

Excellent, excellent post. And I love the idea of Guys read Pink even if I think it's sad such days are necessary.

Wow, how amazing that author/illustrator's names not just being female but being 'girly' (?!) can apparently gender-categorise a book. And really, poor boys being told and believing they can't read half the books being published. That's discrimination.

Emma Barnes said...

Yes, yes, yes. I've had similar conversations, most recently on facebook where a friend said he wouldn't be allowing his 7 year old daughter to read my book, because the cover is pink. I see where he's coming from, in a way, but is he going to only allow her to read books about boys?

Like John I think a lot of this is more about adults' attitudes than the children themselves. I've heard lots of parents and teachers say "X won't read about a girl" but I've also had boys queuing up to read Wolfie and have it signed - despite the female lead - because they are gripped by the fact that it's an adventure involving a wolf!

And I'm a bit sceptical that this development is new, even if the rows of pink covers are. I'd suggest girls' fiction (school stories, ponies) has often been a bit of a despised ghetto, while "mainstream" books are often boy-led. OK, jumping off the soap box now!

C.J.Busby said...

When I had my first book accepted, I was asked if I minded being C.J. Busby rather than Cecilia Busby as the publishers were worried about attracting boy readers. I didn't mind, actually (I quite like the relative 'anonymity' of C.J.) and the books do seem to get equal numbers of enthusiastic boy and girl readers but whether that is to do with name or covers (no hint of pink) I don't know. I agree horsie books were a bit of a girl ghetto back in the 70s/80s, but I do think the divide in young children's books between pink/glittery and green/black/ninja is worse now. In economic terms, though, if you have boy books and girl books, you force parents to buy different books for each gender instead of the same books for both.

C.J.Busby said...

I do think, though, that your publishers are signalling 'girl' categorization in their choice of cover: it IS quite flouncy,and the colours are quite pastel. Maybe you should raise this with them? Perhaps, in the same way some books have 'adult' and 'child' covers, we are going to have to start having 'girl' and 'boy' versions of the same book!!

Jon Biddle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Biddle said...

In the library of one of the very first schools I worked in, there was actually a shelf labelled 'Books for girls only'. Luckily it disappeared rather quickly.

It's a shame that companies such as The Book People still have a tendency to have pages called 'Books for boys' and 'Books for girls' in the catalogues we send home with the kids. I don't know if they think they're helping parents select suitable books or what.

DavidKThorpe said...

It's not that Sleuth on Skates has a girl on the cover. It's the style of the design that makes it look like it's for girls and gives the impression of pinkness. I've just written a book for older kids that has a strong female lead and is a female Alex Rider type thriller. I've indicated a design style that LOOKS a bit like the Alex Rider books. We'll see what happens.