“He Won’t Read Books About Girls”

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 5th, 2012

In her March 30 essay, On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, in the New York Times, author Meg Wolitzer talks about perceived disparities in the evaluation and reception of fiction by men as opposed to women. Without getting mired in the debate — people get very uncomfortable very fast on the topic of gender discrepancies, disproportionately allocated awards and keynote speaking gigs, etc. — I will say that our culture does have some entrenched ideas (habits, really) about differences between men and women, and it affects our children from an early age. I know we’ve blogged about this before, but it’s a big issue and it’s not going away.

I’m not saying there aren’t differences between men and women, some hardwired and some culturally and environmentally acquired. But we do a huge disservice to our children and their ability to grow into compassionate, thoughtful, empathetic adults when we steer them away from things we think of as “belonging” to the other gender. If The Hunger Games had featured Katniss on the cover instead of a gold medallion against a black background, sales to boys would have been fractional. This is a frustrating truth. And it’s our fault. We steer kids—no, we steer boys—away from stories they might respond to from a very early age.

So often at the store, we hear parents say about a great book, “Oh, he won’t read that. It’s about a girl.” Really? By accepting and perpetuating, pandering to, this mindset, we are basically saying — to ourselves, each other, the boys, and most damagingly, to girls — that it’s okay not to have in interest in the experiences of HALF THE HUMAN RACE. I mean, it’s not even possible not to be interested in what half of the world does and says and thinks. And we wonder why there’s an empathy problem in our culture….

It’s true that many boys will resist books with girls on the cover. That’s partly because there is some undeniable difference in boys’ and girls’ interests (I’m certainly not suggesting that all boys will like all books about all girls). But it’s also partly because we train them from an early age to think that books about and for girls are not relevant or worthwhile to boys. I’m here to fly the flag of opposition to this and say, as you already know: a great story with fantastic characters will speak to readers across gender lines. We adults who put books into the hands of children can’t give in to the lazy, absurd pink/blue dichotomy that afflicts toys and baby clothes.

Forgive me if I’ve shared this anecdote before but I love it: I’ll never forget this sixth-grade boy from my school librarian days in New York City. Each class from second through eighth grade came into the library every day for a half hour of silent reading. They plucked their book from their class shelf, curled up in child-sized wicker chairs with cushions, and settled in to read. (To my mind, this daily reading diet remains the strongest, most effective literacy program I’ve ever seen in a school.) Anyhow, this boy—a typically masculine kid, smart, funny, popular with his classmates—had chosen Little Women as his book at one point. His male classmates tried to tease him unmercifully about reading what is inarguably the most femininely titled book in literary history, but he shrugged it off, utterly unconcerned. “You’re missing a great book,” he said dismissively, and buried his nose back in the adventures of Jo, Meg, Beth, Amy, and Laurie.