Being A Feminist In the Kids’ Section

While we at the Riot are taking this lovely summer week off to rest (translation: read by the pool/ocean/on our couches), we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Wednesday, July 8th.

This post originally ran April 16, 2015.
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I work at a bookstore, and I have several different specialities. The first is lesbian books, but that hardly ever comes up. I’m also the Harry Potter expert during staff disputes. That comes up a lot. I also have coworkers ask me about my opinion on social justice issues fairly often. But my official title is “Children’s Book Expert” (aka “Empress of the Children’s Section”). Aside from the inherent weirdness of attempting to be the “expert” on a such a broad subject, there is one part of being in this position that has been particularly difficult, and that is the extreme reinforcement of the gender binary in the children’s book section.

I’m not talking about the bookstore I used to work at, where a manager once suggested we shelve all the children’s books into a “Girls’ Books” section or a “Boys’ Books” section. Instead, it’s this seemingly harmless question: “What do you suggest for a [AGE] [boy OR girl]?” That is by far the most common question I get as a children’s book seller, and it’s one that gets harder and harder to stomach the more I hear it. It should go without saying that there is no such thing as girl’s books and boy’s books. Girls aren’t all interested in the same subjects, and neither are boys, and neither are nonbinary kids. Telling me that you are looking for a book for a girl is about as useful as telling me you are looking for a book for a brunette.

I tend to follow this up by saying “Sure, do you know anything they’ve read and liked?” and just going from that instead, but sometimes customers double down. “Oh, she just likes typical girly things.” “But would a girl like this book? Is it for girls?” “Oh no, my son wouldn’t read that, it’s for girls.” I once had a customer tell me “No, I won’t get that activity book. Sticker books are for girls.” Now stickers in themselves are gendered?

Hearing questions like this every day for years is so disheartening. It’s this casual sexism and cissexism that is being reinforced on children, even before they can speak. But I think the very worst thing about it is that despite my feminist and queer beliefs–despite the fact that I know that knowing people’s gender tells you nothing about their interests, despite that I know that these kids haven’t even gotten a chance to interrogate their own gender, despite that I believe that all genders need to read about each other (especially boys reading about girls’ experiences, which is rarely encouraged)–I participate in it. I rarely offer up a book with a female protagonist to a customer who has asked for a book for a boy, because I expect it will get shot down. I freely recommend books with boy protagonists when asked for “girl books”, but I rarely reverse that.

It’s something that I am trying to work on. I know that I avoid it because I don’t want to get a customer’s withering look after I suggest Tamora Pierce for a 12 year old boy, but by trying to avoid this disapproval, I’m reinforcing the idea that only books with boy protagonists are suitable for boys.

Of course, having this all take place in a retail position makes it even more complicated. After all, my job is to give the customer the book they want, not the book I think they should want. For now, I wear my All Books are Girl Books t-shirt to work and keep trying to challenge myself to not be complicit while still doing what I’m paid for. Meanwhile, I’m giving my nieces Lumberjanes and Tamora Pierce and Holes by Louis Sachar and Ella Enchanted and Sherman Alexie and every other book that I think will help them expand their minds and discover things about themselves and the world, regardless of what colour the publishers decide to put on the cover.

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