Who says my son shouldn’t read the Railway Children?

Ellen's children, reading

Ellen's children, reading - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s 2.4 children

I’ve got a new library book for us to read tonight,” my daughter told me as, pyjama-clad, she clambered into my bed for our favourite part of the evening routine.

“But it’s not suitable for him,” she said, pointing at my son who was already tucked in, waiting for his story.

“Is it scary?” he asked.

“Nope,” she said. “It’s about a unicorn and a fairy.”

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“Then why can’t I listen?” he asked.

“The front cover is pink and sparkly,” she said. “That means it’s not for boys.”

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“If it’s a good book then we can all enjoy it,” I told her firmly. “There is no such thing as boys’ books and girls’ books.”

Many would argue that I was wrong about this of course. Because somewhere down the line publishers have reduced children’s books to pink or blue status.

Now shops stock such gems as Usborne’s Illustrated Classics for Boys, described by the publisher as “a collection of stories of action, adventure and daring suitable for boys”, while its Illustrated Stories for Girls contains “brand new stories about mermaids, fairies, princesses and dolls”.

The Railway Children has been classified as a “girl’s book” in some stores.

And I have even seen a copy of Roald Dahl’s Matilda with a bright fuchsia cover – marketing what is arguably some of the best children’s literature in a reductive fashion that would have the author turning in his grave.

Putting across a message that any book is only for girls not only takes away choice but it also suggests that in life a child has a distinct role to play based on their sex and therefore can only enjoy certain activities.

It is for this reason that I am wholeheartedly supporting a brand new online campaign called Let Books Be Books, which is petitioning publishers to ditch gender-specific children’s books.

Children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Phillip Pullman are among its supporters.

And so far both Parragon and Usborne have agreed that they will no longer publish books specifically titled “for boys” or “for girls”.

Buster Books has unfortunately said it will continue segregating young readers in this manner, an odd decision when you consider that alienating half the market makes little business sense.

Now when I was growing up I shared toys, games and books with my brother and sister.

We all liked pirates, mermaids, dragons and princesses.

Our favourite books included The Twits by Dahl, Charlotte’s Web by EB White, The Narnia chronicles by CS Lewis and The Hobbit by Tolkein.

We liked Lego, the train set, Tonka trucks, Tinkertoys and dressing up.

We would spend hours engrossed in make-believe games with the dolls’ house, riding our bikes, building dens, having sword fights or playing cowboys and Indians in the garden.

Monopoly, Cluedo, Snap and Scrabble all provided opportunities for us to play together too.

And this brings me to the Let Toys Be Toys campaign which was launched in December with the same idea as the books drive – to stop the gender stereotyping.

Campaigners have already convinced 13 retailers to not market toys based on sex.

Among these are Toys R Us, Boots and Tesco.

And earlier this year Education Minister Elizabeth Truss joined the discussion claiming toys aimed at boys could actually discourage girls from taking subjects like maths and science.

She said companies marketing chemistry sets exclusively at boys was the “antithesis of what we want to promote” in the state school system.

And she called for parents to buy more Lego for their daughters to get them interested in engineering.

Shortly afterwards Marks & Spencer pledged that its range of toys would be “gender neutral” after being flooded with complaints about its Boy’s Stuff and Little Miss Arty ranges.

Boy’s Stuff included planes, dinosaurs, racing cars, a marble run and a pop-up fire station while Little Miss Arty included fuzzy felts, bead kits and a fairy painting set.

These are all things which would appeal to both my children so it’s great news that soon the packaging won’t put either of them off.

As the campaigners leading the Let Books Be Books drive said “real children’s interests are a lot more diverse, and more interesting” than “robots, space, trucks and pirates” on one hand or a “riot of pink sparkles, fairies, princesses, flowers and butterflies” on the other.

My son loves superheroes, swords and football but he also likes to paint his toenails with glitter and wash Barbie’s hair in the bath.

My daughter loves the colour pink, likes to dress up as a princess and make beaded jewellery but she also enjoys playing traffic jams with the toy garage and getting filthy making mud pies.

They are both individuals, you see, with their own distinct set of interests.

And the bottom line is that they should be allowed to explore these – both through playthings and literature - without feeling pigeon-holed.

You can find me tweeting @EllenWiddup.

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