It Happened To Me: I Spotted Sexism on the Floor at BEA

After spotting the books on display I snapped a surreptitious photo and uploaded it to Twitter. I called the books “insanely offensive,” which was a feeling shared by other users.
Publish date:
May 31, 2013
sexism, books, childrens books, gender issues, books and their covers

Easy-Bake Ovens that come in pink. Talking Barbies who hate math. A newly sexed-up Princess Merida. Gender stereotyping is alive and well in the toy industry and on the big screen.

And, as it turns out, in publishing, as I discovered at Book Expo America yesterday when I came across two children’s books titled "Nice and Pretty" (pink) and "Brave and Smart" (blue) at a publisher’s stand.

The 10-page books, for ages 3 and up, have a place to insert your child’s photo -- your daughter’s photo sits atop the “nice and pretty” character (wearing a skirt, surrounded by flowers, natch) while your son becomes a sailor with a boat and a snail. Not only is she reading about a nice and pretty girl, she becomes her. Isn’t that sweet?

That the girl character is pictured reading a book on the front cover is only a small consolation to this editor.

After spotting the books on display I snapped a surreptitious photo and uploaded it to Twitter. I called the books “insanely offensive,” which was a feeling shared by other users who were either quick to condemn the books or curious as to what year these “vintage” books were published (forthcoming June 2013 according to the publisher’s catalog). One hyperbolic suggestion was that we should “burn them” which of course reminds us the importance of thoughtful dialogue.

Others were quick to suggest alternate tongue-in-cheek titles such as "Girls like Glitter," "Boys like Bullets," or my favorite: "Quiet and Good at Baking." That these books inspired such an immediate and dismayed response was heartening -- but I’d expect nothing less from fellow book lovers watching #BEA13 for the latest news.

Book Expo America is America’s largest publishing event and attracts people from all over the world. Agents, editors, rights directors, and authors come together to celebrate the fact that books still exist. It’s a place where publishers display their upcoming titles in the hopes of creating some buzz surrounding their release. Where we celebrate the celebrity memoirs that keep us in business and marvel at the beautifully produced and wonderfully written debut novels that will likely lose us money.

It's a place where we bask in the world of words and remember why we got into publishing in the first place. It’s a place for industry gossip, great after parties, and thoughtful discussion. That these books were so proudly on display gives us an opportunity to engage in the latter activity, and figure out what went wrong.

I’m happy these bizarre books appear to be an anomaly in the generally awesome and innovative world of children’s publishing -- and I’m happy that social media now enables us to identify and hold to account the outliers who slip up every now again again -- either through ignorance or, well, I’m not sure what else it could be. I’m sure this publisher means no harm; that they perceive a demand for these books and whether they actually sell is part of a larger problem, obviously.

The publishing industry has long been a place where like-minded misfits, revolutionaries, anarchists, and well, English majors gather together to publish books that not only entertain us but challenge the status quo -- and that we sometimes fail spectacularly means an opportunity for growth.

Having an awareness of the ingrained inequalities that women continue to suffer in our society is something we can all work on, no matter our age or gender. The young McKenna Pope who successfully lobbied Hasbro in 2012 to create a gender neutral Easy-Bake Oven is evidence that we’re doing something right. That books like "Nice and Pretty" or "Brave and Smart" exist today are evidence that we still have a long way to go.

Our associate publisher recently bought every woman in our office a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In." Whatever you thought of the book, it was heartening to know that those in charge, at least in my office, get it. We need to talk about these things.

We have discussions about the number of women we publish and we talk about the problem of gendered cover designs and how to promote more women into our management ranks. I’m happy to work in an industry that so quickly recognizes these many imbalances and works to correct them.

AZ Books, I hope you’re listening. Unless we speak up, unless we risk being “not nice,” we won’t get there. It’s the brave and smart thing to do.