Whilst doing my Communications degree last year I decided to complete a subject called 'Writing for children and adolescents'. For three months I studied how to write children picture books and I became dejected by the amount of books that were not only sexist and stereotypical in their advertising but also their content.
The more I explored themes and characters in these books the more I realised how we are conditioning our children to buy into views that only serve oppress both genders. Boys were adventurous, strong , loud and liked blue, cars, trucks and trains. Girls on the other hand were sensitive, cautious, polite and like sparkles, pink, and princesses. Boys were superheroes and girls were sidekicks (if they even made an appearance). Of course there are exceptions. There are many books that upend gender stereotypes but, I wondered, are they enough? The simple answer is, no.
A person is born male or female but 'femaleness', 'maleness', 'femininity' and 'masculinity' are cultural and societal constructs - these are not qualities one is inherently born with. We know this because not all boys want to play with cars and trains and not all girls want to be princesses and fairies.
As a consequence, I desperately wanted books to stop being advertised as a gendered product so I opened a Twitter account called @LetBooksBeBooks. I had heard of @LetToysBeToys and was a HUGE fan of their achievements but books weren't being discussed at that time.
In one of my assessments my lecturer graded me low a score on a writing assessment because he said 'creativity should never be compromised by education.' That's not verbatim but that's what he meant. The grade matters little to me, but his comment about creativity trumping education had me confused for a while - a long while, actually.
I get that kids love to read comical books, fun books, shocking books, books that engage them to think magically about this world. I also know that kids don't have the extended experience adults have in this world and so our responsibility as adults during a child's 'absorbing stage' is to give them as much information as possible so they, as they get older, can make wiser decisions. That's the point, no? Letting children read only what they want to read is much like letting them eat only what they want. You would never let kids just eat ice cream or sweets or pasta? Parents tend to aim for a balanced diet, right?
Shouldn't we aim for a balanced reading diet too? Shouldn't we be observing and monitoring the reading material we hand our children? Shouldn't we be aiming for an all encompassing view of this world rather than a stereotypical and sexist one?
Personally, I decided not to take my lecturers advice, instead I started writing picture books that coalesce creativity with education. I write books with ungendered characters that allow children to negotiate their gender with their experience of the world. Additionally I do not stereotype family into the nuclear - mother, father and children. And though I'm not published, I know it's only a matter of time before publishers catch up to this way of thinking.
Now, back to my Twitter handle.
@LetToysBeToys started a campaign about a month ago focusing on books and asking publishers and marketers to stop gendering books. It has been a huge success but in the process people have confused my Twitter handle @LetBooksBeBooks with their hashtag #LetBooksBeBooks. I have remained silent on Twitter for some time so as not to distract from their work and progress, and it's killing me because I so want to engage in the conversation. I am a strong supporter of what @LetToysBeToys are achieving and am hoping to continue similar efforts here in Australia and wherever else in the world they'll listen to us all.
But I want to take it one step further: surely, I can't be the only children's writer who believes the current narrative we give our children is flawed and damaging. I want writers to ask why they choose a particular gender for their character. Why does a story require a boy or a girl to be the protagonist? It will be confronting, it may even be annoying but maybe we should start questioning writers's how they chose the gender of their characters and their reasons?
I'm not against books that have solely male protagonists or female protagonists, I am however opposed to books that focus on one gender at the expense or compromise of the other. Stories should ultimately be about experience, sadly I find too few books published that represent the diversity and capabilities of females.
In the meantimte if you have any questions about my work or would like to engage/debate/give feedback then please go right ahead, I'd love to hear from you.