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Can a Book Be Gender Neutral?

Guest posting today is author Fleur Hitchcock. Fleur is the author of Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week SHRUNK! as well as THE TROUBLE WITH MUMMIES and DEAR SCARLETT (published by Nosy Crow) and has written two books live online with hundreds of school children. THE YOGHURT PLOT – a book that might just be gender neutral – publishes on 5 June. This blog post is cross-posted from GirlsHeartBooks.com.

The Yoghurt Plot by Fleur Hitchcock

Fleur HitchcockSo I’ve written this book. And it’s got a central character who in my head is neither boy nor girl, or possibly both.  And, even at the end of the process, I’m none the wiser and I’m wondering if it even matters.

I always start with unknowns, I reckon that the writing agonies usually sort them out – all those things to do with parents and siblings and settings and ages, I find they move according to the central character and it doesn’t do to fix it too early.  So this book was no exception.  I burbled along, spinning the tale, unaware that I was avoiding making a choice – waiting for Bugg to do something obviously male, obviously female. 

But Bugg never did – in fact, I don’t think that real children do.  Until puberty or peer pressure forces itself upon children, children are just children.

Personally I hung out in a gang of rural misfits, aged from 4 – 11.  We dressed up as soldiers, we rode bicycles into the river, we caught sticklebacks, we stole and wrecked our parents’ soft furnishings, and we paid no attention to anyone being male or female.  Yes, the littlest boy threw stones and the littlest girl dressed up in large muddy skirts but the rest of us were jean wearing sexless creatures, more interested in food and whether or not it was possible to walk on cow pats without going through the crust.  We were all filthy, unkempt, wild children.  

Even in cleaned up childhoods, it’s obvious that some children are risk takers and can’t be trusted with a box of matches, but others aren’t. Most like dressing up, most like animals, some love blood, some hate it, some ride bicycles, others never learn. But they aren’t necessarily boys or girls.

When I’d reached the editing stage I felt I ought to look through the book and search for a clue to give me a definite answer. But even in the final edits, I couldn’t find anything in Bugg’s character that proved  ‘Girl’ or ‘Boy’.   I wondered if I could force a decision – make Bugg a girl, or make Bugg a boy, ignoring the fact that I knew deep down that I didn’t think it actually mattered.

Eventually, with the collusion of my editor, I decided to leave it alone. ‘Let people make up their own minds,’ she said – which interestingly they do. On the Love Reading for Kids website Bugg is described as a boy.  Does this make it a book that appeals to boys? Does it make parents buy it for their sons? If I had decided that Bugg was a girl – would that automatically make the book a girl’s book?

A link to the LoveReading reviews page for The Yoghurt Plot

Then came the cover.  We tried to make it gender neutral, but it was very difficult and there were time constraints.  Despite lightening the jaw, and thinning the hands, Bugg still looks a little maler than I’d like but it’s much harder to draw ungendered that it is to write ungendered. It means that  lots of people will assume that Bugg is a boy – which is fine.  

But having read this, you’ll know what was in my head and you can decide for yourself, or not – because, does it really matter what sex a character is?  Does it really affect your enjoyment or perception of a story?  

For me, Bugg is a universal child, and that’s where it begins and ends. 

You can order THE YOGHURT PLOT, read a sample or a letter from the editor, and buy the book (which might even ship a little early!) here. Or you can buy it from the wonderful Lovereading For Kids on the links above. And subscribe to their fabulous free newsletter that recommends the best in kids books! We love Lovereading.