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What Happens When Your Son Falls in Love with a "Girly" Book Series?

Rainbow Magic book series covers

It doesn't take a skilled gender detective to deduce the target audience of the Rainbow Magic books for early readers. These wildly popular books feature covers that literally sparkle, covered in lithe fairies dressed in pointedly feminine clothing and accessories. The series' titles boil down to Feminine-Name the Feminine-Noun Fairy (as in Grace the Glitter Fairy or Bethany the Ballet Fairy). They're published under the pseudonym Daisy Meadows.

These are the girliest girls' books in Girlville.

Why am I so familiar with these gems of English literature? Because they're among my six-year-old son's very favorite books. He devours them, shrieking with laughter at the bumbling goblins. We spend hours playing Rainbow Magic 

Fairies: "You're Queen Titania and I'm the Museum Fairy. What could a Museum Fairy's object be?" Or, "We're all goblins. Where's Goblin Steve?" These books are very big in my house.

Well over a hundred Rainbow Magic installments are available, but the plot is always the same. Jack Frost and his goblins have stolen some magical object (the weather fairies' feathers, for instance). The displaced objects cause some sort of wonkiness (unusual weather, say). Kirsty and Rachel, human BFFs and friends to the fairies, help recover the objects. The goblins are ugly, mean, and male, and they always lose. The fairies are pretty, sweet, and female, and they win through the power of friendship.

Reading the books is actually teaching my son an unexpected lesson: recognizing sexism. 

The Rainbow Magic series is not just popular in my house, although the fact that the glittery books litter our boy's floor is a bit unusual. Rainbow Magic is a noteworthy instance of contemporary girly-girl culture. According to a corporate press release, it's "the biggest girls' brand in series fiction," with global sales of over 20 million copies. Huge in the US, the books command even greater market share in the UK: "Daisy Meadows" was the most-borrowed children's author of 2010 in UK libraries.

These very popular books are sexist, formulaic, and utterly cheesy. The titles read like a list of stereotypical girl interests (colors! flowers! pop music! cute animals! princesses!), which would bother me even more if I were parenting a daughter getting this stuff thrown at her from all sides rather than a son who has to fight for the right to like anything pretty or soft.

The dialogue is a painful mix of stilted and peppy, riding exclamation points to dizzying heights. Our heroines Kirsty and Rachel are cloying to the point of barf-worthy. And a powerful story element, fairymagic, is reduced to figures like Claudia the Accessories Fairy. Seriously, can you imagine being the freaking Accessories Fairy? I mean, Shannon the Ocean Fairy? Okay. Morgan the Midnight Fairy? Sure. But poor Claudia.

In this world, only girls get to have fairy adventures—or be fairies. This troubling fact has not escaped my child's notice. After his first few Rainbow Magic books, he began to speculate about gender imbalances. Upon further reading, he discovered that there is at least one male fairy—King Oberon—and that female goblins seem to exist off-screen in the form of "goblin mothers." My son hopes, rather poignantly, that someday he'll come across a Something-or-Other Fairy "that's a he." His latest theory is that the (sadly nonexistent) Baseball Fairy might be male.

I doubt most girls would spontaneously notice these gender dynamics. The books so smoothly and clearly invite girl readers to identify with "the girls" and also with the fairies. Reading as an outsider, though, my child can't help noticing that boys are never pretty, sweet, friendly, or fun in the books' world.

He objects to all that, but he doesn't let it stop him from throwing himself into the fantasy. As awful as the books are, I admire his attitude.

I also have to admit that—perhaps because of this boy-outsider vantage point—the Rainbow Magic books have led to some interesting interactions in our family. We speculate about the goblins' perspectives and whether the fairies are truly as kind as the books imply. We strategize: how could the fairies better address this nonstop stealing? He makes up original fairies and corresponding magical objects. We've even brainstormed titles for an awesome seven-book Bathroom Fairies series.

Would I pay actual money for one of these books? Not in a million years, no. And yet they do make my child's face light up. As long as these stories are open to questioning and play, I'm okay with their place in our home.

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Comments

18 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Thank you so much for writing

Thank you so much for writing about this! My husband and I are planning on having a child in the next two years, and although we have had many conversations about gender stereotypes and sexism throughout our relationship, I have only recently started to understand how the hyper-feminine girl oriented literature impacts boys' development of who is "allowed" to be soft and gentle, or loving and solve problems through dialogue and building friendships. I am very interested in finding books that provide examples of girls being strong and assertive, as well as boys being caring or nurturing. I think it is so important for feminists to incorporate humanism in their teachings, because until we recognize the restrictions gender stereotypes place on boys and men, we will never reach equality. Thank you.

Fairies in Folklore

Your son might be interested to know that folklore has plenty of male fairies, as well as related figures like elves, brownies, and tomten that are most definitely male. He might enjoy The Giant Golden Book of Elves and Fairies (http://ow.ly/isy8V), which is illustrated by the wonderful Garth Williams. Worth noting: Folkloric fairies are not particularly nice, although they can be helpful when they feel like it.

In the meantime, it's outstanding that you are able to get some great conversations out of these books -- my daughter likes them, too, and they really are fairly terrible -- and you two should start writing that Bathroom Fairies series immediately. That strikes me a sure-fire hit with kids of all genders.

"Girly"

I object to the fact you use "girly" in a pejorative sense, like it's synonymous with sexist.

Being Girly

Thanks for saying this. I find it ironic that the only acceptable way to be female here is to be devoid of typical feminine traits. Surely there is a place in the discussion for us.

Hmm. Traditionally feminine

Hmm. Traditionally feminine characteristics/behaviors/values/etc. are certainly cool by me; in fact, I live a very conventionally feminine-looking life. What worries me about contemporary girly-girl culture, and about contemporary children's culture more generally, is the strong push toward gender policing and the binary gendering of EVERYTHING (toys, books, colors, etc., as well as attributes like pretty/strong). I wish girls weren't being pushed so hard to be a certain way--a clearly defined and marketed "girly"--and I wish boys weren't being pushed at least equally hard NOT to be that way. (For more on 'girl' culture today, you might check out Peggy Orenstein's interesting book Cinderella Ate My Daughter.)

Girly vs. Feminine

I believe there's a lot to be admired in traditional traits that were once taught to girls but not boys and should be made available to all children - nurturing, home economics, making and repairing clothes, cooking delicious, healthy, sustainable food, making peace and bringing families and communities together. There is not, however, much positive to be gained from what girls today are taught it means to be a girl by pop culture - materialism, makeup, obsession with appearance... consume, consume, consume and then find a boy to fund your consumptive habits. I'm all for books where girls of various shapes and sizes are respected for their ability to care for animals, cook, sew, etc. (as long as there is ample opportunity for both girls and boys to also participate in non-traditional activities). Where I do draw a line is at teaching girls that everything has to be sparkly and pastel-colored, style is more important than substance, and pretty people are good and ugly people bad. To me, that's where "girly" comes in. It's princess culture. It's teaching girls that they should never grow up but remain ditzy and dependent and let men make the tough decisions for them. That isn't feminine, it's just materialistic. It's like the difference between teaching a boy carpentry or wilderness survival skills (which, again, girls deserve equal access to if that's their interest) and teaching him that he needs a machine gun and a giant pickup truck to prove his manhood in the suburbs.

The Funny Thing Is...

I can see these books' appeal. As a boy growing up, I loved things like Transfomers, Go-Bots, M.A.S.K., G.I. Joe, Silverhawks—and also the Care Bears and the My Little Pony. Why? Because they all had this magic element that toy makers have been exploiting for decades: Compartmentalism. By that I mean each franchise had different characters with a unique sense of style—perhaps a unique weapon—and a unique personality. As a boy, I was obviously supposed to like the first five of those cartoons. But the Care Bears were irresistible. Each bear has a unique color, a unique belly design and a unique power—yet they're all bears. The framework is delicious. You almost can't help but imagine what other types of bears there might be: what their color would be, what their design would be, what their power would be, etc. It's that quality of individuality in a uniform framework that, for whatever reason, many kids find exciting (and why I was initially turned off by the Care Bear cousins which aren't bears!).

When I was looking just at the covers of these books, I noticed the exact same thing, and, despite myself, got mildly excited. The first thought: How many other fairies are there? What do the covers look like? What's their object? Etc. This element of design is something that transcends gender and speaks to the inner OCD programmer in all of us. Furthermore, exploiting this compartmentalism may be even more dangerous than sexism itself. It's too easy to get someone hooked! If you invent the Red Book of Fire, the Blue Book of Water, the Green Book of Trees and then stop there, immediately someone starts thinking, "Well, what of the black book? The white book? The purple book? I must see them all!"

Well, my mind is blown for the evening

You know, you are absolutely right. I never thought of it that way before, but this was certainly behind my determination to read all of Andrew Lang's fairy tale books (THE BLUE FAIRY BOOK, THE YELLOW FAIRY BOOK, THE PERSIMMON FAIRY BOOK, THE UNATTRACTIVE SHADE OF PUCE BOOK, etc.) as a child, and I can see how it's worked for a number of other successful series as well.

*wanders off slightly dazed, muttering to self*

As a gal who grew up reading

As a gal who grew up reading The Babysitters Club, I can confidently say that Claudia is the PERFECT name for the Accessories Fairy.

How have your son's peers reacted to love for these books? There was a boy in my class who read BSC and was teased mercilessly for it.

Babysitter for Free

I have to say, your son sounds absolutely adorable, and I would love to read these stories to him and discuss the doings of Baseball Fairy. Any time you want a babysitter!

Perhaps, since he loves this fantasy world so much, you and he should start creating stories about Baseball Fairy and other male fairies? It would be fun for him and help him create the sort of balanced characters that he is looking for, within this book series. Writing fan fiction is a great way of bringing into existence the elements that you want to see in an already existing fictional landscape, and I'm sure it will engage him creatively as he can make up his own new characters and draw out any action scenes.

You have got to to be kidding!

Oh, for god sakes! This is without a doubt the most idiotic article that I have ever read!

He's a KID! I very seriously doubt that he even understands what the words "sexist", or "sexism" even MEANS! He's a KID! Let him use his imagination, for heavens sake, something that all of you "cackling, old biddies" don't understand & obviously DON'T have! Kid's NEED to use their imagination-that's a vital part of BEING a kid!

I couldn't believe when I saw one comment that mentioned "baseball faeries?" This is "reverse sexism". That person is PROMOTING their belief that baseball is strictly for boys! You hypocrites!

I grew up with movies like Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, & I am anything BUT sexist. These books are obviously written for a SPECIFIC age group. They are written to make a child use their IMAGINATION-something you obviously are incapable of understanding!

I am a 58 year old male, & I take great joy in reading books like the DISNEY Fairy books. I have read & re-read many of these several times! I run an online animation forum, & I very much enjoy cartoons like RAINBOW BRITE, MY LITTLE PONY, THE CARE BEARS, & STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE. Books & cartoons like these books that are mentioned in this article, as well as what I have mentioned, are NOTHING MORE than pure escapism! There is nothing "sexist" about them!

What all of you are obviously incapable of seeing, in books like these, (as well as the books & cartoons that I have mentioned), is the FACT that the stories in these books are not REAL! They are NOT "promoting' any sort of "agenda" or "stereotypes", because they are NOT REAL! DO YOU UNDERSTAND THIS ONE BASIC FACT??? They are NOT real! They are meant to ENTERTAIN-NOTHING MORE THAN THAT!

Let kid's be kids. Let them have their imaginary worlds. I have seen my 11 neiece & nephews grow up so fast, & they will grow out of their imaginary worlds. They are only young for a very short time-let them enjoy their "fantasy worlds" while they ARE young. That's what being a kid is all about. Let them use their imagination, something that none of you obviously remember or have anymore.

This kid very clearly was the

This kid very clearly was the one who noticed gender disparities in the books, and brought them to his parent's attention. Kids are very aware of gender, and of what it means for us culturally. Claiming that they don't understand "sexism" is ridiculous. They do.

This parent is obviously letting the child use his imagination with these stories, and beyond them. It was the child in the article, in fact, who first imagined the "baseball fairy," and the commenter, showing a clear understanding of the power of imagination, suggested that the kid be encouraged to create his own stories about his imaginary baseball fairy. DId you even read the article?

Your use of the phrase "cackling, old biddies," and the way you rudely insulted the intelligence of a group of women you don't know, makes it quite obvious to me that you are, in fact, kind of sexist, despite your strident proclamation otherwise. Be respectful of your company and try to engage in fruitful dialogue, rather that coming into a space that is not your own and shouting at everyone about how stupid they are.

If anything I think kids

If anything I think kids think harder about gender than grownups. Kids are very aware of unfairness, and there is a huge hw girls and boys are treated, what they are expect to do, and to like, And lets not forget the ever popular No Girls Clubs. Little me was super mad about those and other things.

I came to this post through a

I came to this post through a series of retweets and am so glad I did. As a second grade teacher I enjoyed hearing your perspective on the Rainbow Magic series, as well as all the comments. There are many reasons the series is popular. First, it is marketed well and included often in the Scholastic book clubs. Many parents and teachers use Scholastic as their "go-to" for book recommendations. Reading series books is a great way to hook a young reader-they know the characters and patterns of the story, so comprehension is easier. Children in this age group love reading stories where the characters are black and white, with good characters and evil characters. I try really hard to not label a book "girl" or "boy" in my mind or in my classroom, but lets face it our children are constantly bombarded with messages from media and unknowing family members as to what "a girl would like". While many girls initially gravitate to the fairy books in my class, once I begin to help all my students create their reading identity I notice they branch out and find different series to read. I have also had many girls abandon the rainbow magic books when they realized after a few chapters they really didn't like the book. They only picked it up because they saw a friend reading it. Remember most readers pick up a book because a friend recommended it!

I think it's great that you question the role of gender in these books and you share your thoughts with your son. And thank you for letting him continue to read the books, even though you don't like them! And I too can't wait until the bathroom fairy series comes out!

Kids recognizing sexism

My boys (9 and 6) both recognize and point out sexism and stereotypes and I think that is great! They also buy into notions about "pink is for girls," which isn't surprising given the cultural saturation. We talk about it though and they can recognize it and that counts. Media is NOT neutral. It contains specific values and messages and those soak in and form the basis of kids' thought patterns/values when they're young. I'm glad that my sons are being taught at the same time to notice the stereotypes and be able to able them accurately, rather than being under the mistaken notion that media is benign or uninfluential!

Nice post!

Sassy Boys Series

Oh, and by the way, my boys and I have planned out a series called The Sassy Boys Club, after they noticed and wondered why boys never are described as "sassy."

There Should be Boy Fairies!

I think it's great that your son is reading a series that is considered 'girly' - as a mum of two daughters, I was somewhat relieved when my eldest rejected those same books.

It is a constant source of frustration to me how much merchandise for children - and books and toys are far worse at this than TV shows or movies - is single gendered. Not only is it targeted at either Boys or Girls, but its visual code is starkly binary, so that only the most self-assured children would cross those gender lines.

It worries me when girls or boys are faced with stories that leave the OTHER gender out of the equation - when in fact play and early reading is such an important tool for figuring out social balance. Boys who read about and enjoy female characters are more likely to consider girls to be people too as they grow up - rather than some mysterious species they can't understand. Books like the Rainbow Fairies annoy me not because they are unapologetically femme, but because they shut boys out of the world and give the same message to girls that all-male Lego sets give to boys - the other gender is somewhere else, separate from you, and you don't have to think about them.

My 8 year old daughter, who has close male and female friends, has figured out on her own that she likes stories about KIDS, which aren't "boy-y or girly". She has found that in comics like Tiny Titans, Teen Titans Go and even old Peanuts reissues, but rarely finds it in chapter books aimed at her age group. Enid Blyton got this right, as did E Nesbit and Arthur Ransome - groups of kids of all kinds, having adventures together. I wish there was more of that now, and so does my daughter.

I HATE these books

My first encounter with these vile books was when my daughter and her friend announced that my son couldn't join their 'Rainbow Fairy' game as there were 'no boy fairies'. Cue howls of woe. My daughter then said doubtfully. 'You could be one of Jack Frost's naughty goblins.' Even more howls of woe!

My kids usually play together really happily, and readily join in one another's games of all kinds - it was really sad to see. And how miserable to paint a scenario where males are either 'bad' or 'the king'. Great...