Monday 18 September 2017


There’s been a lot of talk recently about the decision by John Lewis to stop labelling children’s clothes as “boys or girls” – I never realised quite how divided things were until I became a grandparent and discovered that even baby wipes are marketed in both blue and pink packaging (despite the contents being identical)!

I’m not sure why some people are up in arms about children’s clothes being labelled with just an age range. If you look at boys and girls clothes, the differences are ridiculous, especially considering all children like to do the same sort of things ie: be a child. Clothes need to be adequate for the task in hand which means coats should keep them warm, shoes should be tough enough to withstand kicking balls whilst keeping toes safe, and trousers  thick enough to protect knees when they fall. A glance at the girls’ ranges in almost every shop will show you that the majority are totally unsuitable for any of these activities … they are thin and skimpy in pale pastel colours that get dirty the minute you put them on.
I have nothing against pink or sparkly - my 3 year old granddaughter loves sparkly things and I’m rather fond of a bit of glitter myself (though prefer it with black or red) but it’s the messages we are sending with different styles of clothes that I object to – “just sit and look pretty little girl, you’re not meant to get dirty or play and explore the world because your clothes aren’t suitable for doing that”. And it’s not just the implied message via the types of clothes; the actual messages on them are appalling. Go and look at ANY range of clothes and you’ll see what I mean – girls just want to have fun, girls are pretty and lovely whilst boys are clever and strong and adventurous (and don’t get me started on “suggestive” messages on T-shirts for 5 year olds)!

The argument that you can buy from any section is fine except that parents are taking on board this message about boys v girls and will say “you can’t have that because it’s in the boy’s section (believe me, I’ve heard them). They also seem to be concerned about the social stigma of having somebody ask why their daughter is wearing a boy’s top or is mistaken for a boy. Of more concern is a child being bullied for the same reason (and yes, this happens too). I’ve also been in a situation where a girl has turned up wearing a boy’s t-shirt that a boy in the same group also happens to be wearing … and the boy has been teased over this! If they were wearing “just” a children’s t-shirt, this wouldn’t happen.
Let’s move on to toys and books.
The majority of shop displays have a definite split between the type of activities considered suitable for girls and boys - you can probably guess what it is but if you aren’t sure then take a look at the fantastic “Let Toys Be Toys” campaign! All children need a wide range of play to develop different skills. The reality is that 51% of the population is female and if we don’t encourage girls to look at science and technology as being valid to them, to stop sending the message that playing with construction toys or science kits is for boys and that craft activities are for girls, then we are losing out on a huge source of creativity and inspiration that is important for our future economy.
Not all of our future scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and business leaders are going to be men! There’s a saying “You can’t be what you can’t see” and this applies to both boys and girls, though particularly to the latter.
And what about books?

Fortunately, the majority of librarians I know are pro-active in supporting diversity and inclusion within their stock (and this is one of my most popular workshop topics) – they have books with strong female characters, stories about boys who are emotional and cry, tales with both boys and girls fighting evil and saving the world. Unfortunately though, many publishers still seem to market books aimed at one or the other sex … either via the cover design or using gender-labelling in the title or blurb. The latter is, happily, becoming less common but any glimpse in a book shop will show you a plethora of pink and glittery covers that are obviously aimed at the “girlie” market.
I will be the first to admit that I’ve used these covers to lure students into picking up (and then hopefully reading) a book. Anything that gets them reading is my motto, and I will unashamedly be manipulative and use any means to achieve this. But it is a sad fact that, whilst girls are frequently happy to read a wide range of books with varying covers, boys will rarely pick up a book that they think looks “girlie” which is a shame as the covers often hide a fantastic story (the secret is to wrap it in brown paper and run a lucky dip in the library!).

You would imagine that my granddaughter, having a rather outspoken grandmother, a mother working in the emergency services and an aunt who is an adventurer, would be immune to any of this. But no … a few months ago she announced that “girls don’t play football”(much to our horror)! This was soon corrected with the use of a rather wonderful book (“What Are You Playing At?” by Marie-Sabine Roger) but goodness knows where she got this message from – at the age of three.

I do find the statement “boys are boys and girls are girls” rather odd because what’s the definition of a boy or girl within the context we’re talking about … ie: the colours they like, the games they play, the toys they enjoy or the books they read? There isn't one. There’s nothing wrong with girls liking pink or boys playing with cars. Nor is there anything wrong with girls liking rugby or boys being interested in art.
But pink shouldn’t be the only choice available to girls (or cream if you’re lucky) and by sending the message via their clothes that “girl’s stuff” is pink, they automatically veer towards pink toys, which we’ve already ascertained are restricting their play and thus their development.

Also by constantly focusing on appearances we are creating generations who value what they look like above everything else. This applies to boys too - we expect them to be strong, brave and fit into a specific mould. Any child that doesn’t conform to these “norms” struggles and that’s where the problems start.

Girls and boys who are different, who do not imitate what society expects of them - girls who don’t like pink and pretty or boys who don’t like football and rough stuff - are often targets for bullying. Bullying reduces self-esteem and self-confidence as does feeling that you are not accepted. This results in an increase in mental health issues including self-harm, depression and suicide.
One of the most important (yet often undervalued) roles of the school librarian is the pastoral aspect and I’ve spoken about this before in a previous blog. I know from experience that this role has increased over the years and statistics reflect this yet there’s only so much we can do and so much support we can give; to truly combat this issue we need a healthier approach to letting children develop naturally and not trying to label them or put them into boxes.

You might think children’s genderisation isn’t important, that it doesn’t really matter. If you get a chance try and see the BBC TV programme “No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?”  - in which a class of seven year olds state that “boys are cleverer and have better jobs” and that “girls are pretty and look after children” - these perceptions were actually affecting the children's belief in their capabilities within the classroom as well as their self-worth and self-confidence. At seven years old!
Now imagine they are receiving the same signals time and time again via their clothes, their toys, their books, not to mention media and society for the rest of the time they are growing up? Do we really want to programme our children’s brains – and thus their futures – in this way?

I was recently in a high street shop where the girls t-shirts had the message “Fun All Day” and “Funtastic” whilst the boys said “I want to see the World” and “Create the Future”!!! Come on parents (and grandparents and aunts and uncles ...) … don’t you want your daughters to see the world or your sons to have fun? They’re not mutually exclusive …

Tuesday 5 September 2017


It’s back to school time (although my colleagues in Scotland went back a few weeks ago) and I’ve noticed a few “top ten books for teachers” lists doing the rounds so thought I’d come up with my own one for school librarians. This is NOT a definitive list! I have at least a couple of bookshelves full of library/education-related books, all of which I could have included – although that would make this a bit of a tedious post so … a short but sweet selection! These are all books that deal with reading or managing a school library but as we work in the education sector, many books aimed at the teaching profession are also invaluable to us in our roles.
In alphabetical order by author (because I’m a librarian), these are books that I find myself recommending and talking about at workshops I run, and going to for ideas and advice.
·         The Reading Environment – Aidan Chambers
First published in 1991 but still relevant today, this gem of a book looks at the reading process and environment, as well as considering ways to engage students with books. There is a companion volume “Tell Me” that deals with the discussion of books.

·         Reading by Right – Joy Court (Editor)
A collection of chapters, written by expert practitioners, that looks at successful strategies for overcoming reading barriers, from birth to teens, to ensure that every child can “read to succeed”. Case studies are backed up with international research, and the book has excellent references and appendices that enable you to explore this issue further.

·         Unlocking the Reader in Every Child – Susan Elkin
This book is jam-packed with ideas for creating and sustaining readers, from young children through to older teens. It covers learning to read and looks at reading in different situations as well as the use of various formats.

·         Free Voluntary Reading – Stephen Krashen
A series of articles that were originally published in a variety of journals, Krashen has supported his arguments with extensive references. If you are unsure whether FVR has any value, this book will give you food for thought.

·         Innovative School Librarian Second Edition – Sharon Markless (Editor)
Considers various models of library practice and explores the wide range of issues that librarians face in their differing roles within schools. Adopts a strategic approach with examples from “real-life” situations.

·         The Book Whisperer – Donalyn Miller
No idea where I discovered this book but I’m so glad I did! The by-line is “awakening the inner reader in every child” and it’s full of clear, practical advice about getting and keeping students reading. Whatever your situation, you’ll find something to inspire you. US-biased but relevant to librarians everywhere!

·         The Rights of the Reader – Daniel Pennac
There can’t be many who haven’t seen the poster illustrated by Quentin Blake (and I would hazard a guess that many school libraries have this on display) – this book discusses those rights and covers all sorts of ideas around reading. It’s an absorbing and fascinating book that gets you thinking.

·         The CILIP Guidelines for Secondary School Libraries – Sue Shaper (Editor)
This covers every area of school librarianship from staffing and policies through to information literacy and promotion. It provides guidance and support regardless of your situation, and has recommendations, suggestions for further reading and examples of best practice. One to give to your senior management team!

·         Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! – Vintage (various)
My last book isn’t so much about the practicalities of running a school library or suggestions for reading-related activities but a collection of ten essays by authors and people in the publishing industry talking about why they consider reading is important. Every reader will find something of themselves in these chapters.
I’ve stuck to printed books for this list but there are many superb blogs and online resources that I also go to regularly for ideas and inspiration. And there are also several excellent books that I’ve left off … probably everyone who reads this blog will have a favourite that I’ve not included. If that’s the case then please do add details in the comments … I love getting book recommendations!
NB. I realised after I'd written this blog that I had missed off a source of information on school libraries that I use constantly ... and that's the fantastic School Library Association publications (probably because they're kept in my study rather than in the bookcase). These publications cover every aspect of managing a school library and are suitable for all types of schools. They are written by experienced practitioners, full of good advice and excellent value-for-money. You don't have to be a member to buy them (although if you are you'll get a discount).