A Bookshop Visit

With around 10 000 children’s books published in the UK per year, booksellers understandably have a demanding task to choose those titles to stock, let alone which to place on prominent displays. Studies have shown that retail displays are major drivers of sales in bookshops. Bookshops approach the decision-making process in varying ways – some charge for premium positions, others are chosen at the booksellers’ discretion without financial incentive.

I recently visited the children’s department of a local bookshop. Here is the view that greeted me:

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Usbourne were one of the first publishers to sign up to ‘Let Books be Books’. These books do not explicitly state the gender of their intended audience. And yet. Take a look at the reverse of this display:

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It is not easy to ignore the not-so-subtle gender implications in these displays. By pointing this out, I am not trying to say that girls should not like pink and dresses and sparkles. Anyone who knows me will recognise this preference. But what does strike me harks back to Walter’s rallying cry of ‘choice’. What if these displays and publications suggest to any boy that he is not welcome to the world of ballerinas and dresses, or that his parents should discourage an interest in dolls or interior décor? And what if, flipping this around, a girl feels less inclined to build her own spaceship or her relatives feel uncomfortable buying her a book about sport? While there may not be a gender sticker over these titles, I can’t help but feel that there is a clear message of intent, and I wonder what the impossible-to-directly-measure repercussions of such divides could be.

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Living Dolls

Thank you so much to everyone who has been commenting and completing the polls so far – you have been awesome!

So to keep you up-to-date with some of my research, I want to draw your attention to a specific title, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter. What really stood out to me is her emphasis on CHOICE. Living Dolls presents anecdotal and scientific evidence to argue that creating a society which harshly segregates the interests of girls and boys is damaging to all of us, and limits the choices available to anyone.

Creating a world where girls are, in her words, ‘modelling themselves on the plastic charm of a pink and smiling doll’ leads me to question the role of the publisher in this cycle. Certain arguments exclaim that the publisher is merely responsive to the whims and habits of a buying public and is only able to create what the market demands (and purchases). But what about the other side? Publishers are gatekeepers to culture rather than slaves to public preference. The other side of the argument goes that while there is of course a business obligation to create sales, publishers arguably have a moral responsibility to produce content which shapes our understanding of what society is and could be, rather than passively reflecting what may have come before. Through the perspective of Living Dolls, the second viewpoint appears the more convincing and promising option.