Mr Men 'makeover' sees Little Miss Fabulous and Mr Adventure enforce gender stereotypes
The new generation of 'Mr Men' and 'Little Miss' - in which Little Miss Fabulous wears high heels and Mr Marvellous is an athlete - only forces boys and girls into boxes
Most of us believe that books will open our children's minds and fuel their imaginations, but sadly, many books are doing just the opposite by flogging old-fashioned stereotypes about what boys and girls can and should be.
It's a problem that has plagued parents seeking progressive, exciting books and toys, only to find themselves surrounded by rigorously colour-coded shelves playing on assumptions that girls like pretty pink princesses, while boys like burly blue action figures.
Yesterday's announcement of new character additions to the 'Little Miss' and 'Mr Men' series further hammered that point home, with Little Miss Sparkle, defined by "her shiny presence", and high-heel-wearing Little Miss Fabulous, who ignites the jealousy of Little Miss Splendid with her "long and luxurious and silky" hair. Mr Marvellous, on the other hand, is an athlete and prankster, while Mr Adventure is described as a thrill-seeker.
"We don't do new characters very often," Adam Hargreaves, son of the late 'Mr Men' creator Roger Hargreaves, explained to the 'Guardian'. "I was trying to capture what is currently interesting."
In celebration of 'Mr Men''s 45th anniversary, they are also giving some classic characters a makeover, including Little Miss Naughty, who has been redesigned as the rather more buxom, red lipstick-wearing Little Miss Reality TV.
Since it was published in 1971, the iconic books series has been embraced by generation after generation, but parents have expressed disappointment that the new books reinforce stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or a girl.
The news drew criticism from groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, a UK-based organisation that aims to fight the aggressive gender-coding of toys. The group has also launched a Let Books Be Books campaign to target gender stereotyping in the publishing industry, backed by the likes of authors Philip Pullman and Anne Fine.
Sarah Webb, the best-selling author of the 'Amy Green' and 'Songbird Café Girls' series, says the new characters "seem slightly out of touch with modern girls".
"Why not have a Little Miss Adventure, or a Mr Sparkle? I'd love to see that. It seems very retrograde and very old-fashioned. I have a 13-year-old at home who is very much a Little Miss Mighty and would have no time for Little Miss Sparkle, she would stomp her out pretty quickly," she says, referring to her daughter Amy.
"I think the problem is that we as adults assume that books about girls are for girls but books about boys are for everyone, and that is something we need to look at and question."
Let Books Be Books volunteer Laurie Winkless, a physicist from Dundalk now living in London, says her own background in science and engineering inspired her to join the campaign.
"I feel strongly that the messages we give them as children about what they should and should not be interested in can have a huge influence on their choice of careers, and on their perception of what they can do," she says.
"I came from a house where both my parents always encouraged my love of learning and that shaped me. I didn't have those limits or feel that certain toys weren't for me."
While there has been progress with toys like GoldieBlox, launched to encourage an interest in engineering in young girls, classic unisex toy company Lego caused a stir when it introduced separate lines aimed at boys and girls. The Danish company has since attempted to remedy the split with female mini figure sets showing women as palaeontologists and astronomers.
Ms Winkless says she still sees it as a move in the wrong direction, and added that the 'Little Miss' characters held a particular sting for her.
"From a personal point of you, the Little Miss Fabulous and the Mr Marvellous really grated on me. The lady has to look a certain way, it's all about 'pizzazz' and 'shine', while Mr Marvellous is great at everything and he actually achieves things."
Whether it's gendered colouring books or flashy pink covers emblazoned with cursive fonts and cupcakes, the publishing industry tends to favour a gendered marketing strategy that can leave some young readers feeling excluded, says Aoife Murray, spokesperson for Children's Books Ireland (CBI), the national organisation for children's literature.
"When publishers are marketing books, I feel like they're very specific about who they want a book to be aimed at, and don't realise that in that case they might be excluding a lot of others," says Murray.
She says in her work with CBI, which hosts free book clinics around the country where parents and children can drop in to get reading recommendations, she says they have noticed the effects of gender stereotyping in their discussions with young boys in particular.
"Unfortunately, we meet a lot of young boys who have managed to get it into their heads that books that feature girl protagonists aren't for them. If we say to them, 'do you like adventure books?' They say 'yes', and we suggest this book or that, but they say, 'no I can't read that, that's about girls'.
"It's immediately discounting the experiences and knowledge of 50pc of the population, and that can only be dangerous when they get a bit older. Men don't buy as many books that are written by women."
She mentions JK Rowling's decision to publish the 'Harry Potter' series under her gender-neutral initials as evidence of the bias against female authors, asking: "How many books would she have sold if her first book had said 'Joanne' instead of 'JK' on the cover?"
Murray says the response to the new 'Mr Men' and 'Little Miss' characters in the CBI offices was one of "surprise and disappointment".
"The 'Mr Men' and 'Little Miss' series are a great leveller, everyone knows them from childhood," she explains. "I feel like these additions, instead of describing all the things that girls can do as well as boys, they describe women and girls in terms of what they look like rather than what they can do and assign different values to them. It's disappointing to see that in 2016."
Beth Kilkenny, from Dublin, is mum to Jake (6) and Rachel (2), and says she finds books and toys are often categorised in ways that narrowly force children into boxes.
"Even if it's not explicitly labelled as 'boys' toys' here, 'girls' toys' there, it's obvious when you walk down the aisles who should be looking where. Why not shelve the dolls next to the 'Star Wars' figurines so both options can be considered for everyone?
"I feel that we should be trying our hardest to avoid putting our children in any kind of box when it comes to gender, especially at formative ages. All children should feel able to choose all toys," she adds.
Kilkenny, who runs the parenting blog 'The Mother Hub', adds that she "won't be rushing out" to buy the new 'Little Miss' and 'Mr Men'.
Sadhbh Devlin, from Bray, Co Wicklow, who has two six-year-old twins Sábha and Lile, says: "I don't like the idea of reading my girls a story about two female characters being jealous of each others' appearances, unless there is a wonderfully written moral at the end about not being so shallow.
"I was a big fan of these books throughout my childhood and always found the characters to have lovely human qualities that were easily identifiable with for all genders. Why should the Mr Men get to have all the fun while the Little Misses just bicker about clothes and hair? That's hardly equal."
One of her daughters adores all things pink and fluffy, while the other loves science and archery, and has a particular fondness for Batman - although her mum says she wishes it was Batgirl.
"She wishes she had a Batgirl hoodie, but they don't really exist. So I find myself in boys' sections looking for toys that just have the Bat logo on them that can be used for either boys or girls," says Sadhbh, who runs the blog 'Where Wishes Come From'.
"My family would never point out if something is just for boys or just for girls, so she's just blissfully unaware. The stereotypes are there, and I'm going to try and avoid them for as long as possible. I want them to know that they can be and do whatever they want."