Bookseller+Publisher, 20/08/2012

When Kathy Kozlowski, children’s specialist at Readings Carlton, looks at the shelves of junior fiction in her store she sees the ‘stereotypical favourites’. ‘For boys it’s action, dragons, pirates and spies, and for the girls it’s fairies, best friends, princesses and cute fashion.’

The gender divide is most prominent in the six- to nine-year-old range, says Kozlowski, where publishers are trying to publish ‘high-appeal, easy-reading series’. ‘Personally, I find the formulaic targeting of that age group most distressing. It seems to be telling them at a young, vulnerable age what they should like and how they should think.’Hardie Grant Egmont’s commissioning editor Marisa Pintado is also critical of the gender divide in children’s books. ‘Publishers are trapped in this mindset thinking that boys read a particular kind of book and girls read a particular kind of book and never the two shall meet. I just don’t think that’s true but it’s a difficult mindset to shift.’Reluctant readers … or publishers?
A common argument in support of ‘gendered’ children’s books is that they appeal to reluctant readers—in particular, reluctant male readers. There is certainly evidence to suggest that boys and girls approach reading in different ways.

‘Boys prefer books that are shorter or contain shorter sections as they like the feeling as they pass milestones,’ says Adele Walsh, program coordinator at the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria. ‘They also prefer strong imagery or books that contain actual images like graphic novels and illustrated novels.’

Susannah McFarlane, founder of LemonFizz Media and former publisher of Hardie Grant Egmont, became an expert on the subject after working on several series for reluctant male readers. McFarlane admitted that in some ways she had been guilty of gender stereotyping during her time at Hardie Grant Egmont, where she worked on the ‘Zac Power’ series, and then at LemonFizz Media on ‘Boy vs Beast’. ‘We unapologetically wanted to give those boys things they wanted to read about in a fast-paced adrenalin read,’ she says.

McFarlane agrees that publishers ‘need to be careful about how we publish, mindful of what stereotypes we perpetuate’. ‘Should we have given Zac or Kai more emotional texture, showed the softer sides they would both inevitably have? Maybe, but that would have added layers that worked against our literacy mission. Do the ends justify the means? I hope so, I think we have helped make readers who can go on to read more nuanced stories.’

To this end, McFarlane is working on a new project that will ‘tackle the relatively unpublished emotional life of young boys’. ‘There is plenty for girls on this (possibly too much empathetic talking and not enough doing!) and little, certainly in more accessible fiction, that acknowledges the emotional issues young boys face. Not big “pull your life apart” stuff but everyday stuff—school, family, friends.’

Kozlowski also believes that there is a market for books that focus on the common interests between girls and boys. ‘We need more books with practical, adventurous girls and boys’ books about friendship and school life—look how popular the “Wimpy Kids” series is,’ she says. Walsh agrees, observing that ‘more than anything, boys (and girls) prefer books that contain humour’.

And who says boys don’t read books with female protagonists? ‘I have taught many classes where boys enjoyed the exploits of female protagonists by authors such as Tamora Pierce, Emily Rodda and Suzanne Collins,’ says Walsh.

The trouble with trends
While ‘gendered’ publishing is more common in junior fiction, it’s also a concern in trend-dominated YA fiction. Zoe Walton, children’s publisher at Random House, observes that ‘trends can influence a market so strongly that a particular genre or target market can become skewed toward one gender and genre at a time’.

A good example of this is paranormal romance, a genre that has been heavily marketed towards girls on the basis of its romantic content—something that has drawn criticism from the book community.

‘Romance is one of the things girls like, but I don’t think it’s giving teenage girls much credit in saying that’s all they seem to look for in a YA book,’ says Pintado. ‘It is worth noting that there are love interests featured in a number of the more popular YA series for boys—Alex Rider
has one.’

Interestingly, the current trend for dystopian fiction, including series such as Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ and Patrick Ness’ ‘Chaos Walking’, seems to have closed the gap between girls and boys books, attracting readers of both genders.

Covering up
It’s not just what’s happening between the covers that counts. Cover designs are often influenced by gender assumptions, which perpetuate the gender divide in children’s and YA fiction. ‘If you were to walk into the shops last year, you’d have seen whole shelves full of covers featuring gorgeous girls in flowing dresses,’ says Random House children’s publisher Zoe Walton. Boys would not have been impressed.Girls are more fortunate in that they are less likely to be teased by their peers for reading ‘boy’s books’. ‘A girl can pick up an action-adventure title and it will be no big deal, but a guy borrowing a pink-covered title in the library would be judged harshly,’ says Centre for Youth Literature program coordinator Adele Walsh. ‘This could be an instance where e-readers allow boys to read titles without the pressures of gender expectations.’