Stopping Sexism Before It Starts

I am a relatively calm person. This is a good thing, because I’ve always had jobs where I’m public facing. I’ve stayed calm whilst being vomited over by poorly patients, spat at by children who have lost their ability to express their frustration in a more meaningful way, and whilst talking to parents who are cheerily telling me things that make my hand itch to grab the phone and call social services. And while otherwise lovely, intelligent people say things like ‘well we are being representative by having only white children on the cover. We only have white children here.’

But some things make my blood boil, and those things usually come under injustice, prejudice or wilful ignorance (and often all three). The picture below was retweeted by Letterbox Library, and ticked that ol’ blood boil trigger box straight away.

sexist bks

Why do I detest these horrible books from Scholastic? It goes far beyond the sickly pink cover on the one hand, featuring a skirt-wearing, cerise-tights-clad girl in front of a mirror, who looks like she’s been transported back in time a few decades, and the red cover with the grinning boy on the other, throwing his arms out energetically and surrounded by all-action exploding fireworks…

It’s not just me – is it? Which word leaps off the cover at you on the (can’t call it girl’s book, because Scholastic tell me it isn’t) – sickly pink book? Would it be ‘GORGEOUS’, by any chance, rendered as it is in capital letters in a font size five times that of the book’s equally disturbing subtitle, ‘Smart Ways to Look and Feel FABULOUS’? And could it be that the word that leaps out from the other book is ‘CLEVER‘? (Subtitle: Smart Ways to get SMARTER’. Er… smooth…). The girl is just laying on her front, waiting for life to happen, while the boy is grinning and full of pzazz.

By the way they are presented, and their use of colour, font size and picture, I feel these covers suggest that girls should be aspiring to be GORGEOUS (boys need not apply), while boys should have the ultimate goal of being CLEVER (so they can look after those girlies having a nice lay down). The more I looked at them, the more concerned I got. Particularly because Scholastic sell themselves as a responsible children’s publisher, and have now partnered with the Booktrust, who have a mission statement that seems to contradict all these books stand for (and who seem to have removed my comment about this on their site. They’re happy to keep my comment on mental health and the Books on prescription info I posted, but nothing critical, it seems :/ ) So I posted comments on Scholastic’s Parents FB page, Book Fairs page and Tweeted them too:

“So Scholastic claims it ‘recognises that literacy is the cornerstone of a child’s intellectual, personal and cultural growth’, and then publishes trash like this. Please join me in asking them to withdraw these disgustingly sexist books from their catalogue – unless you too think boys need a guide on being clever whilst girls just need one on being gorgeous.”

This attracted some attention.

“I really can’t believe that there are books like this out there – I do hope they withdraw them, young people don’t need this sexist twaddle!!” Hear Hear!

“The trouble this type of thing is how insidious it is. By having just the boy on the “clever” book it sends a message which people, of all ages don’t realise they are getting but it seeps in regardless.” Exactly!

I received no tweets back but got an identical reply from Scholastic on both their FB pages:

“Thanks for sharing your opinions on these titles. We understand your frustration regarding these titles and will be looking at changes to the book covers for any new editions. To clarify, While How to be Clever features a boy on the cover, this book is meant for all children and is written by a female author. The title How to be Gorgeous has a focus on how to be a strong, empowered, and confident young woman in today’s world. To view some of the content of these books, please visit and “Look Inside”. Again, thank you for posting!”

Ah, I see. A female author. THAT makes all the difference. Obviously a woman would never write or design anything remotely sexist! As for the rest of it… frankly it was patronising and I felt they were making it worse! And told them so.

“Thank you for your reply, but I’m sure you will admit that there aren’t many boys – wrongly or rightly – who will be picking up a pink book with one of the most insipidly unempowered-looking young ladies I’ve ever seen, featured on the front cover – particularly when it sells itself as a guide to looking ‘gorgeous’, and is, as you have admitted in your comment, focussed on how to be a strong, empowered, and confident young WOMAN’. All children need empowering; and if you really supported equality you would drag this concept into the 21st century, make ONE book, and realise that these differentiations are discriminatory in the first place. Tell a girl that because she’s a girl, she ‘needs’ ’empowering’, and she’ll presume she was weak in the first place. Then, through use of font and branding, make her believe the ultimate goal is to be gorgeous, and she will believe no other goals matter. And don’t get me wrong, my disapproval of the not-so-subtle insinuations perpetrated by the ‘boy’s’ book is equal. A word it seems Scholastic are not familiar with.”

In the meantime, the discussion had also attracted these two comments:

“I understand your point but my 6 year old daughter would pick up the clever book regardless of who it was geared to. Much of the sexism can be countered with a little additional guidance from the adults.”

“No offense to the above responders, but it’s up to US, as parents, to reinforce positive things into the minds of our children, unless you’re planning on relying on written word to do this for you. My advice: just don’t read the books. Just because they’re published, doesn’t mean that they’re suited for every child on the planet”

Hmm. Well, I appreciate that these people took the time to post and get involved, and I respect their opinions. The problem I have with the attitude that these comments share is that, firstly, Scholastic are adults. And like child protection, which is the responsibility of every adult in the UK, I believe fighting stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice should be the responsibility of all of us too. So here was my final word:

“They’re not suitable for ANY child on the planet. Inclusion means it’s up to EVERYONE – NOT just us, as parents, or as educators. Yes we can fight the battles; but maybe book publishers who give every appearance of being modern and inclusive in their mission statements, shouldn’t be giving us a reason to fight in the first place. I DON’T expect to rely on the written word to reinforce positive images; I DO expect the written word not to undermine them. Particularly when that written word is from a children’s publisher who very much claims to do otherwise.”

It will be interesting to see if Scholastic DO look “at changes to the book covers for any new editions:. Watch this space. And don’t get me wrong, Scholastic are nor the only culprits. I removed this ‘kindly donated’ book from the shelves at work before half-term, published by Priddy Books:

treasure girls bk

Slightly less offensive, but still stereotype central… the fight goes on! 😀





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