What Colour Skirt Does Your Four Year Old Wear?

I work in a bookstore, and often, when someone comes in looking for a book for a child I find myself asking two questions: boy or girl? what age? These enquiries are disquieting of course, since I consider myself a feminist as well as someone who doesn’t believe that age defines interests or abilities. And, since the customer often refers to the child  by gender and age  I can justify my behaviour by suggesting that it is the customer who defines my approach.

But that’s just lazy on my part. And consciously self deluding. Because on days when I am a book lover before I am a book seller those are not the questions that I ask.

“What is your child like? What books have you read together, or have they read on their own, that they’ve truly loved? Does your child love reading, or like it, or are you trying to engage someone reluctant to pick up a book? What is your child curious about, what do they talk about, and who do they appear to admire?”

Personal, possibly presumptuous questions, but they need to be asked with care and genuine interest, because the right book at the right time can change your world. And the right book isn’t based on age or gender, or what everyone else is reading; it is particular, special, right for this person at this time. Often, the customer provides information of a sort; “he’s eleven, and he likes playing on the computer. Oh and he’s good in school and he plays soccer.” Or “She’s twelve and really social. A good student.” I hear that a lot. Apparently, there are an unending amount of kids who are good students(whatever that means) who are social, who play soccer, who like spending tons of time on the computer—clones with different coloured eyes and hair but identical interests, thoughts, abilities. However, the kids who frequent the book store aren’t nearly as easy to classify. Maybe that’s the problem. We don’t know what other classifications to use but the ones that have been handed to us, by schools by magazines, by whatever or whomever decides the cultural norms. Of course, we may not want to share the special or idiosyncratic or confusing aspects of our children with a stranger, a bookstore clerk(note here: books are important, so it’s worthwhile getting to know your librarians, and your booksellers, so that you can find the ones who resonate with you…..and avoid the ones who really don’t). Or perhaps we don’t know what to say, because we don’t know our children that well, and that makes us uncomfortable. That last possibility isn’t as troubling as it appears though, since most of us couldn’t tell anyone what we’re like either. Still, in searching out the right book for any individual there are clues, of a sort, to help the seeker find the book that will open the world at a different page, though it’s good to remember that they are seldom as banal as age and gender.

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