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8-year-old flags 'sexist' children's books; bookstore takes notice

Oct. 3, 2013 at 8:27 AM ET

These were the books that Constance Cooper's 8-year-old considered 'sexist'.
Constance Cooper
These were the books that Constance Cooper's 8-year-old considered 'sexist'.

Constance Cooper’s daughter, KC, is no shrinking violet. In fact, Cooper describes her 8-year-old as articulate, passionate and a great reader, qualities parents hope their children exhibit as they grow.

So it was not a huge surprise to Cooper when, this past summer, KC became upset after an ordinary trip to their local bookstore, Half Price Books, in Berkeley, Calif.

“We were browsing around in the bookstore, and suddenly I heard my daughter calling out, ‘Mama! You have to look at this!’” recalls Cooper. “So, of course, I thought she'd found something she wanted to buy, but it was completely the opposite. She was looking at two books that had made her so enraged she was actually in tears.”

The books, titled “How To Survive (Almost) Anything,” included a boy version and a girl version. In the boy version, the chapters covered topics such as “How to Survive a Shark Attack,” “How to Survive in a Desert,” and “How to Survive Whitewater Rapids.”

The girl version addressed such issues as “How to Survive a BFF Fight,” “How to Survive a Fashion Disaster,” and “How to Survive a Breakout.”

“The one that got to my daughter the most was ‘How to Survive a Camping Trip’ because she loves camping,” Cooper said. “It was sad to read ‘camping may not always be a girl's top choice of activity, but here's how to make the best of a bad situation and survive in style.’ The picture had a girl dreaming about lounging on a beach. Later it said, ‘Besides, fresh air is excellent for the skin, and a brisk walk is a marvelous workout.’”

KC was so upset at the sexist nature of the books that a bookstore employee took notice and asked her what was wrong.

“After looking through the books, the employee agreed they were offensive and pulled them from the shelves! She said if she had seen them first they wouldn’t have been there to begin with. She was great because she took action and validated my daughter’s feelings.”

Joshua Lynn, a manager at Half Price Books, has clarified to TODAY Moms that the books were not removed from the store, but rather were moved to a "less prominent area of the children's section."

"While we certainly understand why the books upset her and commend the girl for speaking out against stereotypical portrayals of gender roles in books, I would like to stress that we are strong advocates of First Amendment rights and do not advocate censorship or removal of "objectionable" books from circulation," Lynn said.

Cooper, a science fiction writer, is proud of her daughter for drawing attention to the books, and took this experience as a lesson learned for both KC and herself.

“I saw this as an opportunity to explain to my daughter that it’s not always girls who are hurt by sexism, but boys too. For instance, the boys’ version of the book implies that all boys do is fight and deal with disasters. In reality they might actually benefit from a lot of the advice in the girls' book, like ‘How to Survive Shyness’ or ‘How to be a Brilliant Babysitter’.”

And what would have normally been a simple ir­­ritation to Cooper became a much more meaningful reminder thanks to her daughter’s persistence.

“If I'd seen those books on my own, I probably would have just sh­aken my head and gone away without saying anything and felt angry when I thought about it later. As adults we see so much of that sort of thing, and we get worn down. I hope my daughter will continue to think critically about the messages she's given in our culture and speak out when she thinks something is not right.”

Of course not everyone agreed. 

Cooper said she posted the experience on her writing website, www.constancecooper.com, and submitted the link to boingboing, one of her favorite blogs, "because I knew from reading it that the editors are concerned about issues of gender and culture and also how to raise kids to think critically."

"Unfortunately it triggered a somewhat nasty flurry of comments about censorship, which I feel really distracted from the point of the post," Cooper said.

Editor's Note: A previous headline stated the books were removed from Half Price Books. This post has been updated to include comments from the book store’s manager. 

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