Judith Evans
Books For Boys & Girls

Charming and ever so slightly camp, or retreating to the sexism of a bygone era? Judith Evans finds fault with the Iggulden brothers' recent publishing phenomenon.

By Judith Evans

In the book world, the talk was all about the feat achieved by the author Conn Iggulden, who managed to have simultaneous number-one UK bestsellers in fiction and in non-fiction at the same time: the publishing equivalent of, say, winning Wimbledon and the Ryder Cup in the same year.

Publishing people were astonished, congratulatory, paper-coloured with envy. Not only had he reached the top of the fiction charts with Wolf of the Plains, the first of a series of books about Genghis Khan, The Dangerous Book for Boys – written with his brother Hal – had seduced book-buyers all over the country with its handy instructions on topics ranging from ‘The Seven Ancient Wonders of the World’ to ‘Skimming Stones’ and, just a little worryingly, ‘Artillery’.

Critics also adored the book, which has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Some commentators raised the possibility of its encouraging boys to hurt themselves – only to move into a tirade about our risk-averse culture, to which books like this, they felt, presented a refreshing alternative. With its retro cover design, the book was perfect for parents and grandparents to buy for young lads who neglect fresh air and fishing for the unhealthy pleasures of the computer. The idea of actual danger awoke the same lads from their Playstation trance for long enough to try out some of its ideas.

Absolutely no one mentioned the crashingly obvious problem with this book. Not only does it evoke nostalgia for past, simpler days of fresh air, character-building games, and a bit of rough-and-tumble: its title also evokes an age when girls stood powerless on the sidelines, reduced to threats of thcweaming and thcweaming until they were thick. 

Almost endearingly, the Telegraph’s Christopher Middleton argues the book isn’t ‘anti-girl’ because it has a chapter on how to treat girls ‘decently’, as though being the object of one chapter equated to being the subject of all of them. Will the publishing industry redeem itself when, later this year, Viking publishes A Glorious Book for Girls? You can probably guess my response to this; suffice it to say that HarperCollins’ press release promised the book would ‘hark back to simpler times when girls made coconut ice with their grannies’. They will also be treated to the joys of making elderflower cordial and playing cat’s cradle.

Copycat titles have now come out from Buster Books: The Boys’ Book and The Girls’ Book. Despite being identically subtitled How to Be the Best at Everything, the books invite girl readers to be the best at keeping secret diaries and customising their clothes (at least it’s honest enough to admit that these are indeed competitive activities) whilst boys learn ‘to do an ollie on your skateboard’, ‘talk in secret codes’, train parrots and fly helicopters. Girls are also offered soft-psychology skills such as ‘dealing with bullies’. The book is contemporary enough to teach girls to encrypt text messages and set up web pages, but the closest girls get to adventure is genteelly ‘teaching a dog to fetch’.

Georgie, aged nine and three quarters, reviews The Boys’ Book on Amazon as ‘A cool book for boys (and me!)’, explaining: ‘it shows you how to do loads of things like make aeroplanes (paper), de-organ an Egyptian mummy (eww) and how to get rid of hiccups, etc. etc.!  I can't wait till the girls version of it comes out (as I am a girl!)’. The Telegraph reviewer’s daughters felt that for them, the Iggulden book ‘might as well have been written in a foreign language' – indicating that they may have had a different style of upbringing from Georgie, who I suspect will be disappointed by The Girls’ Book.

Perhaps these books are intended to be ‘charming and ever so slightly camp’, in the words of the Independent, which dismisses the ‘antideluvian’ gender politics of these books as tongue-in-cheek. Probably the publishers thought they were on to the same win-win situation as the Yorkie marketers, who realised their male customers could gain a self-indulgent pleasure from buying a bar marked ‘it’s not for girls’, whilst ‘girl’ customers could feel like rebels – or ladettes at least – by also buying them. Of course, such labels weren’t meant to be taken seriously! What humourless arse would think they were?

Whilst a lucky few live a life so remote from this level of sexism that they can find it laughably absurd, I need hardly point out that this isn’t true of most. Information about the vast inequalities still present in our society is so readily available I hardly need reference it here (though a couple of recent examples can be found here and here). Though the racism of the pre- and post-war periods is no longer welcome in Britain, the sexism of that time is still so omnipresent that grandparents who lived through it are invited to pass it on as a gift to the new generation. A veneer of irony doesn’t cover the ugliness of the real picture.

It’s clear that members of the literary community, like everyone else in fact, are often afflicted with nostalgia for an imagined golden age – when editors had free rein, when English teachers offered life-changing inspiration, when electronic media had yet to invade our hallowed turf, when young William came in with a bruised knee to read adventure stories by the fire. But we’re also supposed to be a community of thinkers.

It’s astonishing that the intelligentsia has no problem with this shameless retreat from a brief era of semi-equality, nor that the women who increasingly dominate our industry don’t feel a twinge of shame. I wonder how Amanda Ridout of HarperCollins feels about young girls being encouraged to gaze at their navels and customise their skirts whilst boys destroy and conquer.

I have no problem with fishing, nor with elderflower cordial. But it’s astonishing that in a publishing world led by thinkers and filled with women, no one even thinks to protest about this packaging, nor to create a stylish, futuristic package for a book on how to be the best – for kids.
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