Mom & Pop Culture: Gender is NOT a Genre

Recently, somebody tweeted me a link to a blog post lamenting the fact that children’s books at their local book store (in Australia) were categorized by gender.

Sci-fi? Sure.

Comedy? You bet.

Boy? Girl? Well…

My first question is WHY? Especially when it comes to children’s books. Our family is made up of voracious readers, and I’m overjoyed that my son has followed in those footsteps.

Books don’t discriminate, so why should we?

My son’s interests are many, and—like most almost-five-year olds—ever changing. That means we have books that feature pirates, princesses, trucks, bugs, birds, and the occasional missing Waldo.

If I walked into that particular bookstore and went to the boys’ section, what books would be there? I doubt I would find some of my son’s favorite stories. Fancy Nancy would surely not be upon the shelves. And where would his vast collection of Eric Carle books go? Would they be filed under “boy” or “girl” or…”other”?

In my mind, they would settle in quite nicely under “kid.”

Beyond how books are shelved (and to be fair, I have never seen children’s books classified by gender at my local bookstore, thankfully), there’s also the issue of what sorts of books are there. Despite the fact that it’s almost winter, let’s take a quick look at a set of books that graced the shelves of many bookstores this past summer:

Cover of The Boys' Summer BookCover of The Girls' Summer Book

…because apparently your children’s summer activities need to be segregated based on their sex. Just like the boys/girls section in some bookstores, why isn’t it enough to have a “Kids’ Summer Book?”

Would the book have turned out to be too long if it included fun summer activities that all kids might enjoy? Perhaps they got tripped up over what color the cover should be, seeing as they went with the done-to-death blue = boys and pink = girls for these books.

Just looking at the covers, I’m still left wondering, Why the need for two separate books? Both have pictures of bikes, gardening supplies, and summer treats. There are a few differences, but neither that scream “ONLY BOYS CAN DO THIS!” or vice versa (I’m pretty certain girls do not hold a monopoly on horses or that only boys can do Karate).

The descriptions of the books (via Barnes & Nobles’ website) tell somewhat of a different story. The boys’ book includes a description chock full of active wording and excitement, whereas the girls’ version has a much more passive feel.

“This book is sure to be a hit with boys! It’s filled with puzzles, quizzes, and activities, not to mention tips on how to pitch a tent, how to make your own treasure map, and how to build a powerboat! This book is a must-have on any summer road trip packing list. Just grab a pencil and you’re good to go!”

“With activities like making fortune tellers and throw pillows, and tips such as how to plan the perfect picnic, girls are sure to love this activity book! It also includes spot-the-difference puzzles, doodle pages, mazes, and more!”

Fortune tellers and throw pillows?

Growing up in the suburbs of a busy New England city, summer for me was a blur of camp, swimming, pick up games of streetball, exploring woods, trips with my family, eating lots of ice cream, and other kid-friendly activities. Nothing that I remember doing was heavily entrenched in one gender or another. It was simply summer fun.

While I’m all for inspiring our children and providing them with a book of solutions when the dreaded “We’re boooooooooored. What do we do now?” occurs, these solutions do not need to be gender codified.

With gender stereotypes pervading our TVs, movies, toys, clothes, etc., can’t we just have kids’ books without adding more labels?

Previously: Cataloged Stereotypes, Drowning in the Fountain of Youth

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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4 Comments Have Been Posted


Growing up for me was also an active blur. Along with coloring, dolls and other indoor "girly" activities, climbing trees, skating, bike riding, and games with the neighborhood kids would take up my young summer days.

It shocks me (though not really. Sad right?) to see this set of books further indoctrinating kiddos. As if toys weren't bad enough at doing this, the last neutral zone is being taken over by this nonsense.

I guess clear gender lines disappearing is that scary...

This reminds me of some

This reminds me of some frustration I was recently feeling at the library. Although it had nothing to do with children's books, I was disappointed because I looked in the section where the books on feminism and women's issues where and there were literally about 6 - 7. I tried not to get too angry and remembered my local library is part of the whole St. Louis County system where there is many other libraries. However when I looked at the catalog online I was still disappointed - the first book to appear when I typed in the keyword feminism was a book by Phyllis Schlafly. Needless to say there was really not much to choose from - mostly watered down summaries of "everything you need to know about women's issues."

Our children's section, however, is actually pretty good. I used to babysit and take the kids to the library and there was actually a diverse array of choices - not gender segregated - that covered many different topics.

Still though, it's disappointing that there was so little variety on women's issues.


This reminds me of the outcry (my own included) when Game of Thrones was reviewed in the NYT. The female writer of the review made a point of saying, "I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first."

Female sci-fi and fantasy fans erupted - and probably many of them - like me - also have no idea who Lorrie Moore is.

I attended an publishing event that had a clear segregation between GIRL books and BOY books. It seemed silly, and of course those pesky fantasy/adventure stories were focused on the boys. I gave them to my neighbor's child because she loves any story that involves magic and supernatural powers. She has already finished them.

Just saying that while marketing absolutely makes a difference and influences choices, girls and boys will find their way to the genres they love. And the summer activities they love. I'm hoping that both of my kids love the Little House books as I did. And I am hoping that they consume with unquenchable thirst the stories of Sparrowhawk's adventures as I did. (I'd prefer they found Harold Robbins a little later than I did. So confusing!) But I'm pretty sure that they'll also fall in love with books that I found boring.

This also brings up another

This also brings up another problem, gender genre books also segregate kids who don't see themselves as a boy or girl despite their physical appearance. This farther pushes the idea that there is no middle ground, you are a boy if you look like this and you should act and like this. If you are a girl, you should like and want and dream of this. This could be damaging for kids trying to find their sexual identity.

In girl kid books, the main female character's problem usually surrounds her looks. If she isn't pretty enough, she gets a make over. If she likes boy things( and is good at them) she needs something to soften her up for boys to want to approach her or she is battling the "mean girl". If she is establish as pretty, there is something wrong with her like she has trouble loving or doesn't know her true self. In the conclusion, our girl protagonist will overcome her oddity or quirk, best the mean girl, and win herself a nice boy.

Boy books deal with action and the boy proving himself worth of something. Rarely is that something his looks because even if he is unattractive, by the end, the boy will get his chick. Inner beauty stories never have to do with boys usually because their attractiveness isn't one of their defining characters usually and will just make them the under dog. They are rarely insecure about their looks, pushing another misconception about male beauty, while unattractive girls have low self esteem and dream of more. But it is usually resolved by some make up and new clothes. when the theme "what's on the inside counts the most" is used, the girl is very rarely ugly.

One book that i love that handles female beauty in an awesome way is "Fairest" by Gail Carson Levine who made the popular "Ella Enchanted". The main character is part troll so she is described as very ugly but her inner strength and nice personality make people adore her. she eventually wins her prince, troll human and all. this book is a great girl book because it really proves that beauty isn't everything. Another good book like that is the "Ugly Princess and the Wise Foo"l. Perfect to teach third graders what really matters about you.

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