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Campaign to end gender bias in children's books gains pace

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A drive to end gender bias marketing in children's books has won the support of Britain's largest specialist bookseller Waterstones.

The retailer pledged its backing of the Let Books Be Books campaign, which is asking publishers to take "Boys" and "Girls" labels off books and allow children to choose freely what kinds of stories and activity books interest them.

"These books exist, but we think there are better ways of choosing for children than basing it on whether they are a boy or a girl," said Waterstones spokesman John Howells.

"We're aware that people do feel very strongly about grouping these books together for one gender only," he said, adding that the bookseller would try and avoid its stores separating out boys' and girls' fiction.

"When they do pop up we find out out about them very quickly because people tell us or will post a picture a Twitter. We give the shop a ring and gently remind them," he said.

Time to call time on gender-specific children's books?

The Let Books Be Books campaign is an offshoot of the Let Toys Be Toys drive and is a parent-led crusade that grew out of a thread on website Mumsnet.

In the week since its launch, it has attracted high-profile backing from the likes of children's laureate Malorie Blackman, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Pullman and the former children's laureate Anne Fine.

This weekend, The Independent on Sunday added its voice of approval, with literary editor Katy Guest announcing that the paper would no longer review books marketed to exclude either sex.

Publishers Parragon and Usborne also pledged to no longer publish books specifically titled "for boys" or "for girls" in response to the campaign.

Boys and girls should be free to choose what books interest them, the Let Books Be Books campaign argues

"Just like labelling toys 'for girls' or 'for boys' these books send out very limiting messages to children about what kinds of things are appropriate for girls or for boys," reads a mission statement on the Let Books Be Books website. "Blue covers, with themes of action and adventure, robots, space, trucks and pirates contrast with a riot of pink sparkles, fairies, princesses, flowers and butterflies. But real children’s interests are a lot more diverse, and more interesting, than that.

"Children are listening, and take seriously the messages they receive from books, from toys, from marketing and the adults around them," it added. "Do we really want them to believe that certain things are off-limits for them because of their gender?"

The campaign has the support of children's author Anne Fine

Carnegie Medal winner Anne Fine, who wrote best-selling children's book Madame Doubtfire, has hit out at gender-specific division of children's books, branding it "nonsensical."

"Good books are not pink and blue; they’re just not," she said. "It’s not popular with parents or women. It’s a serious matter because it does narrow children’s sense of what they’re allowed to do on like in a horrible, horrible way.

"It’s a serious matter, the pinkification of girls," she added.

Other commentators have pointed to the fact that some of the most popular children's books - including JK Rowling's Harry Potter series and C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories - are not marked by gender and have appealed to both boys and girls.

What do you think? Is it important to end gender bias in children's books? Or are there bigger battles to be fought? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features and Let Books Be Books

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