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.