Children’s Author, Sue Hampton on the Pink/Blue Divide

We were delighted when Sue Hampton, a former teacher who has written many books for children, offered to pick up on a point raised by several of our speakers: the gender divide starts young.

Sue Hampton
Sue Hampton

Having taught for nineteen years before I became an author, and subsequently visited 600 schools, I’m familiar with several statistics about gender issues in children’s books and literacy. Firstly, the majority of teachers are women (87% in primary, 62% secondary). Secondly, according to the National Literacy Trust, girls achieve better reading test results, enjoy reading more and spend more time on books, all of which impacts on writing standards. Thirdly, 15 out of 18 titles shortlisted in the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2015 were written by women and some of the bestselling novels for young readers in recent years were by J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.

In my career as a primary school teacher I was made aware of the drive to close the achievement gap with reading and writing tasks targeting boys.  Eight years later I find that when I’m asked to work as an author with more able writers, these groups are predominantly female and beyond Y5, often overwhelmingly so. If we are looking for gender equality in children’s fiction, reading and writing, the evidence might suggest that it’s boys (and possibly male authors) who are at a disadvantage. I must also point out that Michael Morpurgo has created some of the strongest female characters I’ve encountered on the page. However, I would argue that if we look wider and deeper, while everything for girl readers may be pink, the picture is far from rosy.

In society today we see a gender divide across clothing, shoes, toys and books that presents girls as pretty princesses until they grow into teens who love boys and shoes, and boys as technically-minded fans of war and football. It’s a divide that limits everyone, generating characters as stereotypes and marginalising, or at least unsettling, the girl who is too independent-minded or physical for the market – along with the emotionally literate boy. I met a teacher who thought she had secured a writing future until her prospective agent told her she would have to change her strong, adventurous female protagonist to a boy – and this pink-blue divide, presumably as much a sales ploy as a well-intentioned outstretched hand to draw boys in, inevitably shapes attitudes and expectations around identity. This may explain why, when I ask classes Y5 – 7 to create a character to follow the powerful male baddie who begins my book The Dreamer, at least 70% of the boys imagine an avenging hero who will conquer him, and almost all the girls foresee a female who will redeem him with some kind of love.

Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, The Hunger Games, like the movie Brave, has a female action hero. But I’d argue that strength doesn’t have to fulfil traditional male criteria of competition and domination, and that peace and justice may be better served if children’s fiction celebrates alternative kinds of courage and power. I believe one solution to the self-fulfilling prophecies of blue and pink fiction lies in stories embracing diversity and individuality regardless of gender. It’s my intention to create boy and girl characters, whole and complex, who are uniquely and honestly themselves – just as we would like our children to grow up to be.

Sue Hampton’s latest book for adults is Flashback & Purple.

Please do share any of your ideas about how to avoid such gender stereotyping by using the comment facility below.

Men Who Read Women

After attending all three Something Rhymed salons, which he wrote about here, the male novelist Leslie Tate offered to write us a piece on why he values the writing of women.

Since I met my wife Sue Hampton ten years ago, she has helped me to appreciate several wonderful women authors, especially Marilynne Robinson, Carol Shields and Anne Tyler. In return I’ve helped Sue enjoy Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

For me, the appeal of these writers follows from a lifelong interest in people, relationships and psychology, but also a delight in inventive language. ’Stripped down’ Hemingway-style prose seems to dominate the thinking of most creative writing schools today, but I’m more interested in the range of effects to be found in women’s writing. My problem with minimalist prose is that it’s an orthodoxy that often leads to a kind of ‘objective’ approach where the main characters remain distanced in a typically male, heroic (or mock-heroic) fashion.

I call this the minimalist fallacy.

I’ve always wanted to enter the minds of characters, so I find female writers who do that can take me to unfamiliar places/points of view. They see things from the other side, taking the road less talked-about. It’s an adventure – and, as a man I welcome the challenge!

Illustration by Hugh Thomson of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, who protested that he never reads novels. This image is in the public domain.

Superficially, my experience as a novelist has confirmed gender stereotypes. So during bookshop signings I’ve noticed how the non-fiction sections seem to exert an irresistible gravitational pull on some men. In schools you might well think that all boys read comics while the girls study only novels. And when Sue and I talk to groups, it’s often the men who probe proofing/timeframe ‘inaccuracies’ whereas the women look for in-depth characterisation and developed relationships.

I believe we need to become conscious of how gender stereotypes are being transmitted, in order to resist them. In the minimalist fallacy the majority of readers have been persuaded to focus on plot-twists, mystery and action. A book is praised for being ‘clever’ and the selling-point is usually the story or ‘how it grabs you’ (notice the laddish metaphor) or its relevance to something in the news. And in academic circles we are warned to avoid sentiment because writing needs to be hard-edged and rigorous.

Personally, I don’t rate a book by its narrative devices or lack of stylistic ‘mistakes’. I know the ending to a Shakespeare play but that doesn’t stop me watching it again. And I really don’t care who leads the race, wins the battle or stands out from the crowd. What counts for me is the feeling tone, and that needs to be deep, complex, authentic, relevant to our society but also universal. I don’t believe writers are there to simply entertain, stage fight scenes or keep the reader guessing.

I’m not alone in this. Many men are more interested in relationships than action or technology. They might be good with computers or sound-systems but they also wheel buggies, play music, hug, and support LGBTQ. So rather than play to the well-armoured men, we need to talk about women’s writing to the other men who don’t necessarily identify with the stripped-down action male ego. That means talking about relationships and the internal view, about passion and commitment, but also characters with varied feelings that match what they’re going through. We have to say no to ice-cool Bond-types or Punch and Judy in our books. It also means re-evaluating the minimalist fallacy in our own reading habits, our creative writing courses and our reflective/critical thinking.

Leslie Tate, is the author of Purple.