by Alison Flood)
A national campaign to stop children's books being labelled as "for boys" or "for girls" has won the support of Britain's largest specialist bookseller Waterstones, as well as children's laureate Malorie Blackman, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Pullman and a handful of publishers.
The Let Books Be Books campaign seeks to put pressure on retailers and publishers not to market children's books that promote "limiting gender stereotypes".
In the week since its launch it has been backed by publishers Parragon and Usborne, as well as authors including Ros Asquith, Mary Hoffman, Eileen Browne, Pippa Goodhart, Laura Dockrill, James Dawson, Harriet Evans and the former children's laureate Anne Fine.
A petition calling on children's publishers to "stop labelling books, in the title or on the packaging, as for girls or for boys" because "telling children which stories and activities are 'for them' based on their gender closes down whole worlds of interest," has passed 3,000 signatures.
The move is the latest project from the Let Toys Be Toys campaign which objects to gender stereotyping of children's toys. It has convinced 13 retailers so far to not market toys based on gender.
Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy said: "I'm against anything, from age-ranging to pinking and blueing, whose effect is to shut the door in the face of children who might enjoy coming in. No publisher should announce on the cover of any book the sort of readers the book would prefer. Let the readers decide for themselves."
Dockrill told the Guardian the book project was an "urgent campaign that everybody needs to get behind".
"Children should have the right to choose their own literature and we should be supporting them to carve their paths of interests instead of narrowing them. It is ignorant, old fashioned and ugly to isolate anybody from the beautiful freedom and escapism of the mind that reading for pleasure brings," she said.
A Waterstones spokesman said: "Gender-specific displays are a definite 'no' … if a shop ever goes off-piste and does one we soon find out about it and get it removed … There's no need for them and there are far more intelligent ways to display books."
The campaign is attacking titles such as Usborne's Illustrated Classics for Boys, described by the publisher as "a collection of stories of action, adventure and daring-do [sic] suitable for boys", while its Illustrated Stories for Girls contains "brand new stories about mermaids, fairies, princesses and dolls".
The publisher told the Guardian last week that it had "no plans to produce any titles labelled 'for girls' or 'for boys' in the future". Parragon has followed suit, telling campaigners that "feedback on gender-specific titles is important to us" and "we have no plans to create new titles referring to boy/girl in the UK".
Ivy Press said it had "been working toward gender neutral titles and find both boys and girls enjoy art, crafts, science and discovery".
Waterstones said: "We don't buy gender-specific books centrally, so you won't find many in our shops. Some do stock the Usborne ones, which have excellent content. But these are being discontinued by the publisher and we support their decision.
"If someone is unsure of what they want to buy a child, we'd prefer to help them make an informed decision based on more factors than just the child's gender. That's why we have a brilliant range of children's books and informed booksellers on hand to offer help and advice."
A spokeswoman for WHSmith said the retailer does not publish any own brand gender specific children's books, but did not say whether the company would avoid selling such books from other publishers. "WHSmith aims to offer our customers a large variety of children's books across a wide range of subjects," she said. "I can confirm that we don't merchandise any children's book category by gender."
Katy Guest, the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday has pledged not to review any gender stereotyped children's books. On Sunday she wrote: "Any Girls' Book of Boring Princesses that crosses my desk will go straight into the recycling pile along with every Great Big Book of Snot for Boys."
Campaigner Megan Perryman said she was delighted with the response but added that campaigners would "continue to approach those publishers and retailers, such as Buster Books and WHSmith, who persist in marketing books in this way". She added: "This is not about banning books. This is about letting books speak for themselves without labels indicating who can read them."
The bestselling novelist Harriet Evans said: "I have a two-year-old daughter and it depresses me that one day she'll realise there are apparently limits on what she's supposed to like. I never had that as a brown-cords, orange-polo-neck-wearing little girl who happened to like pirates, fairies, tractors and The Railway Children (a book which is now apparently 'for girls').
"It doesn't just restrict girls, it harms boys too. The phrase 'cynical marketing' is much overused but in this case, it's completely apt – and that's why I love the Let Books Be Books campaign."
The initiative, which is backed by Letterbox Library, Inclusive Minds and For Books' Sake, is also endorsed by children's books charity Booktrust, which agreed that "dividing children at such an early age into these gender stereotyped roles is restrictive".
"Putting a pink sparkly cover on a book and saying it's only for girls takes away the choice for the child and sends a message to children about the role they must play and the activities they're allowed to enjoy," said Justine Hodgkinson, Booktrust's head of early years.
"We work directly with publishers who work tirelessly to promote accessible and inclusive books for children, so the response from some publishers and retailers that these books sell so well is disappointing – it suggests that parents and family members buying these books as gifts feel they don't have the guidance available to them to select a book for a child without the signposting being blatantly clear on the front cover," said Hodgkinson.