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What should I read my son? The powerful forces of gender-specific marketing steer boys towards dinosaur, truck and superhero literature

I can’t hide Spiderman books from my son; there is just too much marketing. Credit: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

I can’t hide Spiderman books from my son; there is just too much marketing. Credit: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty


March 6, 2020   5 mins

For World Book Day my son, who is six, dressed as Dennis the Menace. Last year, our electrician gave us 200 copies of the Beano — in his forties, I suppose he felt ready to give them up. Dennis is my son’s platonic ideal. His ultimate ambition is to be a menace, and he has been counting down the hours to World Book Day, dividing the world into menaces, minxes, and softies. He dreams about replacing the jam in his father’s doughnut with toothpaste and he gives his days to such questions as: what is the ultimate fart prank?

I like the Beano, but I approve of iconoclasm always: I had him read School for Dads, in which useless Dads are re-educated. I would be worried if he was still reading the Beano in his forties but, in a way, I know he will be. He already covets his father’s Viz.

I want him to be a reader almost more than anything else. I want him to imagine the edges of the universe. Books are powerful enough to be dangerous: they can ruin or save you. I am very careful about his reading, because he is so open to it.

He has maps, history and fiction, and some dubious books from my husband’s childhood, which all the counsel the perfect happiness of slotting into a Protestant ethic by the age of seven without faltering. Due to this, he technically knows how to manage a sawmill. But how can I complain? I was so drugged by Enid Blyton’s suburban politesse that I am still undoing the damage. The class system is everywhere is children’s fiction. It is all over Harry Potter. At least Dennis is an antidote to that.

But as with adults, so with children: there is poison. I hate the Usborne That’s Not My… series. That’s not my fairy, reads one; the fairy is then subjected to a blunt, and very unfair critique: “that’s not my fairy, her wings are too fluffy. That’s not my fairy, her hair too frizzy. That’s not my fairy, her crown is too smooth”. Her crown is too smooth? Others discuss the inadequacies of mermaids, unicorns, elves and even witches, as in ‘that’s not my witch, she isn’t hereto-normative enough?’

Young readers find no ecstasy, then, in these stories — what’s wrong with the fairy? — but only a nagging absence of something. It is the interior monologue of an unhappily married but prosperous woman, which is possibly why so many people buy them. It is literature to incite lack, and it is worse than advertising, because they are not buying a fairy, although if you read too many books like this, you will probably try. Books at least should have ambition, but these don’t; they are infant reading for tiny, soon-to-be unhappy capitalists.

Then there is the superhero genre, which was invented to make nerdy Jews feel better. It’s a genre of denial, a poke of an unhappy man with a stick. I disapprove, but I can’t hide them from him; there is just too much marketing. Every third child in our village is Iron Man, who should really be in psychoanalysis, and the rest are Spiderman, who I can’t bear to analyse for obvious reasons. (He spurts things).

My objections are stylistic, too: a punch is not a sentence. They make him violent and silent — like them — and it’s depressing when a book is completely outdone in characterisation and feeling by a film starring Lego people. Everyone, I tell him, knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman. They just don’t tell him because they feel sorry for him because he doesn’t have any parents.

There are, among the dross, glorious things; but I worry that I appreciate them more than he does. Two of Julia Donaldson’s books are masterpieces: Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book and Tiddler, who single-handedly stopped my husband from eating (Little) Johnny Dory: such is the power of the word.

Charlie Cook tumbles into books. He reads a book in which a character reads a book; and in that book a character reads a book; and so on and on, and all back to Charlie Cook. Tiddler is — perhaps I had post-natal madness but I am sure that I am right — both a sophisticated rumination on the art of the novelist and a warning of the dangers of a life that is only lived in the imagination: a small, grey fish, a story-teller — a sort of fish Hilary Mantel — is so “trapped inside his story” he risks his life for dreaming. I adore Tiddler. I see him.

I really want him to read is fairy tales because of their protective magic. They prepare a child for a world of murder, cannibalism and cruelty: surely nothing can frighten a child who has imagined himself inside the gingerbread cottage? Fairy tales are older than gods we invented to protect ourselves from the very fears that they describe; and if you read fairy tales, I suspect, not much can harm you.

But something has happened to fairy tales since I read them. Their marketing has been polluted by the Disney genre: it plagiarised, painted pink, and destroyed. Fairy tale books look like Disney books and my son resists reading them because he thinks they are for girls; he sneers at Cinderella like an ugly sister in a Dennis wig. Gender-specific marketing is awful and profitable and it’s everywhere. It’s like Saudi Arabia in the children’s department. The violence he is offered — dinosaurs and trucks, and most horribly, a splicing of the two into dinotrucks (what?) — seems almost less awful.

He is willing to read subversions of fairy tales, which miss the point: why be something as dull as cynical at six, when you could travel into myth? He has The Three Little Superpigs and The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig and a Goldilocks parody whose title is too long to type but, since he does not know what he is supposed to be laughing at, how can he get the joke? I will try the Brothers Grimm on him. If I have to tear off the cover off, no matter.

Two things make me hopeful. I made him watch The Princess Bride and was pleased that, like the boy in the film hearing the story of the princess bride, he was initially repulsed by the kissing, but he stayed for the torture, and he loved it.

The other cause for hope is that we live in west Cornwall. There is a very specific mythology here, and it is celebrated in the stories we buy at the Edge of the World bookshop in Penzance, which has a Cornish myth section. We bought the story of Tom Bawcock, a legendary Mousehole man who went to fish in a storm because the village children were starving, and his cat Mouser, who subdued the storm with song.

If he can see the harbour in Mousehole where the village folk stood in the wind, lighting Tom Bawcock home, he will know the depth of the myths below and around him, all the way to the edges of the universe, and he will, perhaps, write his own myths; just dressed, for now, as Dennis the Menace.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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David Waring
David Waring
4 years ago

C. S. Forester Hornblower books

Robert Heinlein start with Starman Jones

W.E. Johns Tiger Clinton books

David Waring
David Waring
4 years ago

C. S. Forester:- Midshipman Hornblower

Robert Heinlein:- Starman Jones,Farmer in the Sky

W.E.Johns :-Tiger Clinton Space Adventure Books.
Rudyard Kipling :- The Jungle Book
AA Milne:- Winnie the Pooh

Jonny Chinchen
Jonny Chinchen
3 years ago

The writer makes the mistake of believing that the prejudices or beliefs of the writers of the books her son reads will be transferred directly to him, like a virus!

She seems hypersensitive to the subtext of stories, and so assumes they will have some enormously damaging effect on her son’s mind.

This is a fallacy usually observed amongst metro-lefties, who believe that every story / movie / play should be a perfect utopian representation of the way “things should be”, or if not, at least carry the message of “what’s right and wrong” very clearly. Another word for such art is “propaganda”.

Luckily for all of us, children are harder than this to brainwash, and will fall for a good story, regardless of the messages or ethics behind it. I view this in much the same way that a kid who eats a spoonful of soil will have a stronger immune system than one cosseted away from all dirt.

The best thing to do is let them choose their own books and throw in a few that you like or liked. Children have their own personalities and preferences, which ought to be respected.

Beyond that, people like the writer should have more faith in mankind?

ben.seeberger
ben.seeberger
3 years ago

My son has always enjoyed the prototypical male stories. But time-to-time, I do catch him reading fervently one of his sister’s princess books, or playing dolls with her in the playroom. Of course, the inevitable crying session does come later (“Daddy, I don’t want my dolls to KILL anyone, tell him please!” and then I get to explain that his sister doesn’t appreciate her dolls punching each other, but would rather they just cook for each other. The sooner he understands that the better.

There really isn’t a fine line to this or anything. It’s all beautiful in all its messiness.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago

For Heavens sake Tanya, he’s already six. You really must get him started on Henry James.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago

@Moderators
Why on earth did you remove my comment quoted below?!? It’s harmless teasing. Get a grip!

“For Heavens sake Tanya, he’s already six. You really must get him started on Henry James.”

Renee Harris
Renee Harris
3 years ago

I admire the authors intentions. Surely, we as parents want to have a sizable hand in shaping our kids, preparing them for a path that we hope is bent toward critical thought and material success. I can’t help, though, but question whether the author’s hand is a bit too heavy in carving out a sort of ‘mini-me’. I have 3 small boys of my own and having spent my latter years at a liberal women’s college, needless to say, I was not prepared. My thoughts of open-minded boys who’d play with dolls just as easily as they would cars was quickly thrown out of the window, as their natural inclinations took over. And–that’s proven to be just fine. Books are intended, I’d argue, to help give kids reflections of themselves, to some degree, but are also meant to expose them to (healthy, age-appropriate) ideas that are outside of themselves. Healthy and even age-appropriate are subjective nowadays, of course. But as a previous commenter has made note, I’d caution against censoring your young boy’s interest based upon your own set of prejudices.