(I posted this to the CCBC-Net discussion list as the current topic is on Gender Roles in Picture Books. Slightly off topic there but I want to share it with others here, too):
Recently, at a Simon and Schuster fall preview for librarians, we were introduced to a reading recommendation app on the Ready to Read site — that can be found here:
This is set up so that parents and teachers can find beginning readers that fit their specific, individual young readers’ needs — you can choose by interests, by reading levels, by age/grades, etc. At the preview, several of the attending librarians (including me) were aghast to find that the first question of identifying a young “Reading Star” is:
“Is your Reading Star a boy or a girl?” with the BINARY choices of BOY and GIRL.
And if you followed through with one of the two choices, the books recommended tend to be stereotypically for a specific gender — even if the choices of interests might not be stereotypical.
I did two quick searches:
Girl + Age 6 + Grade 1 + Sports (skipped reading level) got me:
Henry & Mudge and the Happy Cat, The Really Rotten Princess, and whole bunch of Annie and Snowball books, Katy Duck books, Eloise books, and also a few Childhood of Famous Americans (all males) books.
Boy + Age 6 + Grade 1 + Sports (skipped reading level) got me:
Henry and Mudge books, the same Childhood of Famous Americans, and Jon Sciezka’s Truck Town books, Robin Hill School books, Mike the Knight books, a book on Martin Luther King Jr. and another on Johnny Appleseed.
(What I didn’t quite understand is how the Robin Hill School books are pegged as “BOY” books and not gender-neutral to be picked up by both choices.)
After the first wave of shock subsided, I started considering: why did S&S think it so important to identify GENDER as the first and ultimately most defining question that split the recommendation path into two? Because, I imagine, market research must have shown that even in 2013, a child’s gender and his/her traditionally and socially assigned gender role remain the most common and most unconscious “invisible stamps” that we adults affix on any child.
One asks a new (or expectant) parent, always, if the baby is a girl or a boy. Going into a children’s clothing store is stepping into a Binary World where you only visit ONE side of the store if you are looking to buy an outfit for a specific child. One feels really bad and apologetic if one accidentally uses the wrong pronoun when addressing a child or if one mistakes a child’s gender due to presumptions based on outfits, hair styles, or mannerism. (Heck, we even do that with dogs and cats!)
So, I guess what I am trying to say, in a very round about way, is this: there is a huge societal and economic factor in what kind of books published for children. For each one of us who wishes to bust the traditional gender-role assignment, there are dozens (or hundreds?) of marketing and sales people who KNOW how traditionally gender-assigned merchandise (and yes, books ARE goods for sale) just do better on the mass market.
I do not blame the publishers to not regard exacting social changes as their number one mission. I just wish that there eventually will be enough demand from the parents, teachers, librarians, and the kids themselves to turn the tide. We will then see plenty of non-traditional gender roles in books for children as a matter of fact, not a social changing agent — but a reflection of the world around us.
However, I also don’t want to sit back and just take it passively. Educators and parents CAN help by making some waves in small ways. I wanted to do something about this Ready to Read App.
So, I emailed the marketing director and found that more than one person had expressed our dismay at the Binary Options on the App. The Ready to Read team listened to us and added another option on that page: SKIP. Which allows for parents and teachers to say, “I actually don’t care if the books are stereotypically assigned to girls or boys — just give me stuff at the right level and addressing the kid’s interests… ” I applaud this clever solution!!!
I did another search today:
Skipping gender + Age 6 + Grade 1 + Sports got me:
(curiously) not MORE books and not ALL the books that were assigned to BOTH girls and boys — there are Annie and Snowball and Henry and Mudge — but Robin Hill School and Truck Town are completely missing and no more Childhood of Famous Americans…) I guess the team still needs to work on their algorithm but at least this is a start!