Books are for People, Not for Genders.

Winter Boy is just learning to read. He loves Thomas the Tank Engine. I thought he would have grown out of this almost 4 year long phase by now, but he loves is as much now as he did when he got his first Take and Play train. When it comes to books, he’s pretty clear about his interests. If it’s about Thomas the Tank Engine he will try to read it, stick it, colour it, press buttons on it. Although, i will give him his due, he is just starting to read actual words in books, and he eagerly reads whatever books he has from school, and he will attempt to read the words on anything that happens to be lying around.

Even bedtime is Thomas related if he has his own way. We try to break it up, for our sake as much as anything, as reading about a Really Useful Smug Engine can get quite annoying. Outside of the Land of Sodor, Winter Boy has no preference for ‘boy’ stories or ‘girl’ stories, whatever is easily reachable tends to suffice.

Summer Girl has gone through a (big) phase of insisting on ‘girl’ books. Glittery, princesses, fairies in tutus and pink sparkle everywhere; it has adorned her bookshelves since she has been able to read herself and be in charge of the book choosing. She has insisted on having the Rainbow Magic books, which are, in my opinion, dull, badly written and without imagination. However, in the spirit of wanting to encourage her to read, read, read, and not restrict or discourage her, I bought her a box set of 15 from the Book People, to place along with the classics on her bookshelf – Enid Blyton’s through to the complete Roald Dahl collection, and my absolute Favourite Book ever as a child – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I am unashamedly delighted that she has tried and failed to get to the end of a single one of the Rainbow Magic books, which are deliberately targeted at ‘girls’; the covers are marketed for girls – pink and sparkle and fairies, the fairies in all books are girls, the main characters are girls and beyond the lure of maybe finding your own name it has very little substance. Not surprisingly, she has quickly become bored and has even forgotten which ones she’s started reading.

Summer Girl has on occasions been drawn into the ‘boy/girl’ advertising, struggling to have the courage and strength to choose what she would like. She is only 8 so I wouldn’t expect her to have those skills yet. Instead she has been guided by the glittery lights and pinkness of the bookshops, posters and book covers around her, and by what her friends are reading. She once stopped in her tracks when I suggested she bought a dinosaur sicker book, (having watched her delightfully help her brother do his) and hesitate, before reaching for the Fashion Dressing Up sticker book, again.

I have tried to not dictate to her what she can and can’t read, stick, colour, draw. But R and I have encouraged her to think about what she likes, have the confidence to look beyond the dazzle of pink and flowery, and to read all the things around her that might interest her. Conversations about it being ok to enjoy science, have ribbons in her hair, play with her dolls and playing football have included book reading and it’s starting to sink in.

Last month we all went to London. She dragged me, literally, into an antique bookshop and browsed the dusty old books, and marvelled at them with wonder, while Winter Boy sat himself on the floor, flicking through the solitary small ‘new book’ box tucked in a corner, reading (you guessed it) Thomas. Bella picked a book; 105 years and one day old, from the day it had been inscribed with a message to its first owner. The cover is dark green, with no pictures, with real typed pages. No sparkle, no pink. ‘please? can I have it?’ So i bought her Tom Brown’s School Days. It’s her prized possession, although she is waiting for the Secret Garden to be finished so we can read it together.

If she didn’t have the courage to ignore the mass advertising and inevitable impact on her peers, she would have been denied this experience of choosing a book that has inspired people for years. She wouldn’t be able to enjoy all books to escape on the many journeys they can take us; she would miss out on so much.

Luckily, she is learning that its ok to read what she wants. which, at the moment is everything she can get hold of. But this hasn’t happened with the help of bookshops and publishers, who continually thrust in her face that she, as a girl, shouldn’t be reading Star Wars magazines, but should be reading magazines about make-up and jewellery; she can do those things, but as well as, not instead of. Although if you asked her directly she would probably still chose the make-up magazines if I didn’t heavily encourage her to get something (anything) else.

I will continue to encourage her to push through the constant barriers set around her to define her femininity as one-dimensional. I will continue to encourage her to be anything, and everything she wants to be; to read anything and everything she wants to read.

I shall also encourage Winter Boy to do the same, But, I won’t be encouraging him to read the Rainbow Magic books; not because i don’t want him to read ‘girl’ books, but because they are shit.

“Let Boys Be Girls”

I am lying in bed trying to summon the energy to do some much needed chores: calling in sick at work due to another ‘relapse’ of back pain; calling a good friend to arrange her to visit so I can countersign her passport; checking on Winter Boy who is doing goodness knows what in his bedroom, and well, er, going to the Loo. My reluctance to call people is because this involves a game called ‘Hunt the Phone Charger’; my reluctance to do that, aside from the pain this produces is also largely for the same reason as not wanting to go to the loo and not wanting to check on my boy – Every Single Room in this place looks like we have been burgled and I cannot bear to wade through toys, clothes and other debris just to find a phone and to find my son.

So, instead I am sitting here with the skylights open, the sun on my face, putting it all off in the name of ‘writing’. I have been thinking, with a smile on my face, about my little boy (who has, during the time of writing this wandered upstairs with the iPad asking me for daddy’s password so he can upload a Toy Story game) and his love of dressing up; it has got me thinking, not for the first time, about our values in this family of ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’ especially with campaigns around such as Let Toys Be Toys (encouraging retailers to change the way they advertise their toys to ‘boys’ and ‘girls’) and with some surprising attitudes of those in our social circle.

Like my daughter as a toddler (who, apart from occasionally forgetting to put knickers on before going out, has developed a sense of shyness about her body in front of friends and strangers in the last 6 months), he much prefers to be stark naked than trapped in the constraints of clothing; often discarding his clothes the moment he gets home. And even when he concedes that he needs to wear clothes, getting dressed can be a battle as he changes his mind about what he wants to wear for pre-school or to the park every 30 seconds or so. When Winter Boy has clothes on, he adores dressing up; between him and his big sister they have an ecclectic mix of princess dresses, doctors outfits, nurses uniforms and cowboy clothes, along with a few of my old clothes from when I was a size nothing (can’t believe I ever fit into some of those things).

But Winter Boy is never happier at the moment than when he is dressing as a ‘girl’. He has recently been photographed wearing his sister’s emerald-green sparkly party dress which shimmers in sunlight. Apart from being huge for him, he actually looked quite stunning in it and looked the spit of his sister at the same age. He wanted to be a princess and go to sleep as a princess that night, and so after a few enormous, sad, rolling tears of protest dropped onto the dress we let him get into his Thomas the Tank Engine adorned bed as Princess Winter Boy and after a princess story, he insisted we say “goodnight princess” to him.

We have just been given a big bag of clothes from a parent at Summer Girl’s school for Winter Boy. It’s all too big, but that hasn’t stopped him insisting on wearing his new Ben 10 shirt for 4-5 year olds to pre-school and his new 5 year old ‘Cars’ PJs to bed. However, despite his love of his new ‘boy’ clothes, he insisted, at 8pm on Friday evening, after stripping out of those much-loved ‘Cars’ PJs, that he was going to bed as The Queen of Hearts. After a few attempts at refusing by us parents (purely on the basis that it’s not jimjams), we gave in and let him dress up as the Queen of Hearts, have a story about Queens in bed; he went to bed without a fuss, tucked up in his Gruffalo duvet, with the little fluffy sleeves of the dress poking over the covers. He corrected me again when I gave him a kiss goodnight “say ‘Goodnight Queen of Hearts’ not Winter Boy!”. About 5am when he woke proclaiming that he no longer wanted to be The Queen of Hearts. R changed him back into himself and he snuggled with us, happily announcing that he loved being a Queen, but prefers being Winter Boy before going back to sleep.

I have been shocked at some of the things people around us have said about these events. Seemingly intelligent friends of mine have made comments such as ‘you can’t do that to him! it’s cruel!’ and ‘he won’t forgive you for that [photo]’. When he has had a colourful wrap in his (apparently far too long) gorgeous blonde hair, there have been cries of ‘but he’s a booooy!’ and one time a male friend actually took the hair braid out when I wasn’t there (I was a little cross about that one I can tell you).

Seriously, what do those who have a problem with him twirling in a dress or having fun braids, or wanting to be called ‘Queen of Hearts’ think is going to happen to him, other than growing up to be a well-rounded, well-adjusted child, and then into a well-rounded, well-adjusted man? Wearing dresses and having long hair and hair wraps wont ‘make him gay’ or ‘transgender’. If he is ‘gay’, well, then that’s just how he is anyway; as parents, and as his peers around him, we should be supporting and developing that aspect of his character as he grows, not stifling it by providing negative labels, which could lead to issues around sexuality, and ultimately unhappiness, as he grows into a man. If his sexuality is not already defined as ‘gay’, being the Queen of Hearts is not going to change that, it will just mean he is being a child having the time of his life. And I am loving watch his fun, cheeky, happiness grow.

Interestingly, my Summer Girl has just started a football club, as a result of a local good football club bringing coaches into her school. No-one seems to bat an eyelid at the notion of her dressing in a masculine manner, having her beautiful blonde hair scraped back, wearing football boots, shin pads, and football shorts, as she will ‘grow out of this phase’. She too is being the child she wants to be, not constrained by the expectations of adult society. And it’s fabulous. I should probably get up now…