When you enter a book store, you browse books by genre: History, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Psychology, Women’s Studies. When you enter a children’s book store, at first glance, they’re sorted much the same way: Board Books, Non-Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Young Readers. But, of course, that’s just at first glance.
Purchasing a gift for a 2-year-old last week, I went to the closest bookstore in search of one in their children’s section. On their flyer they claimed to have “award-winning books and toys” and when I entered, I was pleasantly surprised with their array of quality, reasonably priced, and interesting toys. I find that quality kids’ toys tend to also be gender-neutral/learning toys, so I was pleased with my find. I chose a toy and move onto the book section, thinking I’d find some equally cool book for my little friend.
I had one request: a book with a simple narrative whose protagonist is a girl that isn’t a princess/fairy/butterfly/unicorn. I searched for a bit before I got the salesperson’s attention and asked for his help with my search. He quickly started searching in the database and online for something Feminist but all he could come up with were altered takes on princess books, where the little girl is some version of smart bad-ass. Having searched for Feminist books online, I had found those same lists consisting of books that did little to subvert gender stereotypes for girls through their ‘girl-power’ themes. While I’m all for empowering girls, I don’t like that the only books I find doing it are about princesses.
I continued my search solo while he helped a few other people in the store. One woman there was also searching for a gift and the salesperson’s first question was, “Is this for a boy or a girl?” While I wasn’t going to start lecturing the guy on my personal philosophies, my idealist self wished I could have heard, “What sorts of things does this child like to play with?” Now, I’m sure the follow-up would have inevitably been, “Well, she’s a girl so…” or “He’s a boy so…” I like to remain optimistic.
I found a few other stereotyping books that irked me before I settled for a nondescript truck book without any gender pronouns (because I couldn’t find a good truck book with ‘she’ or ‘her’ in it). But my frustration is one that seems to be recurring. Every time I go online to buy a children’s book or go into a bookstore, I rediscover my annoyance with the children’s book market–the way it’s organized, the way people engage with it, and the way hardly any subversive reading material is available for young children today. What is perhaps most upsetting is that what I mean by ‘subversive’ is really ‘non-stereotypical,’ which doesn’t sound very subversive to me at all. I posted a study awhile back in one of my last articles about how a troubling majority of children’s books have male protagonists, and how it’s an issue for little girl readers. For me, it is not only an issue for little girl readers, but an issue for kid readers in general. Little girls and little boys need strong female role-models in their books.
Emily is a contributing writer for The LAMPpost. You can find more of her writing on her blog, “Kids and Gender.”