“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.

 

 

24 thoughts on ““He Won’t Read Books About Girls”

  1. Caden Webb

    I agree with this post, but only to a certain extent. Admittedly, I tend to steer clear if books with girls in the cover. Why wouldn’t I?!? Think about the types of books that have girls on the cover. They tend to be biographies, pre-teen books for girls, and romance novels. These books clearly cater to the interests of a female reader and further identify themselves as such by the cover art. I have no problem with empowered female characters. Katniss was brilliantly written to be frustrating and admirable to BOTH genders. I remember growing up with the Animorphs series. Each new book followed one of a small collective of characters. The books rotate through both the male and female characters and appropriately ascribe the narrative voice to the character’s personality (including socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, and age). I didn’t care when the new book followed a female character, nor did the cover art having a girl throw me off. The issue with most “female books” is that the characters and storylines perform a hyper-catering to the female reader and make it hard for boys to relate. When a character and a book transcend gender stereotypes and include a compelling storyline, it doesn’t really matter what the protagonist’s gender is. Neither men nor women enjoy consuming media (books, movies, etc) where their gender is dummied down, hyper sexualized, and made peripheral. Books cater to audiences. Ultimately, it will come down to parents and teachers promoting books with strong characters – regardless of the gender – and sharing them with their kids. Only then will boys and girls alike feel free and have the hunger for quality literature independent if Te protagonist’s gender. As of now, gender identifying books are very much a niche market. Boys will read boy books, and girls will read girl books. They are consuming what is catered to them in the most watered down sense. We need more books like The Hunger Games, Animorphs, and the Ramona series that transcend one dimensional gender targeted characters.

  2. Allison

    One time, when taking a train to a family function, I persuaded a little boy who was running around, to sit next to me and watch the recently released DVD of THE INCREDIBLES on my computer (with his parents permission of course). At some point Elasti-girl does some amazing stunt and the little fellow (who couldn’t have been more than 6) piped up “She can’t do that! She’s a giirrrrrly.” I was floored.

    I think often times parents/mentors/guardians don’t event realize the impact they’re having on their kids when it comes to media and perception of gender. It’s easy to forget that children learn so often by *example* — I definitely think it does kids a disservice to limit what they have access to just because of perceived gender preferences/lines.

    As a bookseller, though, it’s so easy to fall into the boy book/girl book trap, and as you mentioned, the YA publisher marketing engines certainly don’t help. But I was thrilled when a 12-year-old boy drove all the way to a book signing we hosted with a YA “girl book” author and when a couple of girls drove an equally long distance to a YA “boy book” author event. It reminds me to think more openly about these books myself.

  3. Heidi

    Wrong as it may be, it’s also true. My son loved all three Hunger games books, and I know for a fact that if they had featured a Katniss cover, he would have just passed on them. It’s just in their nature. And as any mother of boys can tell you, the more you try to prove your point (“No really, honey, it’s a good book, I promise you’ll like it!”) the more they resist. And, cheers to those boys who just don’t care.

    But rather than complain that boys don’t want o read books with girl-featured covers, I applaud the designers who can make a book appealing to both genders, no matter its protagonist.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Yes, true. And for the record, I’m not complaining about the boys. I’m complaining about the assumptions WE make about what kids will and won’t read. Unisex covers — heck, great, unique, non-cookie-cutter covers in general — are to be heralded!

  4. Dianna Winget

    When do you think this gender bias really comes into play? Very young children don’t seem to care whether picture books feature boys or girls, do they? Maybe by the time a child hits six or seven, peer pressure has taken over and they start to be affected. It would be interesting to see what would happen if teachers in the early grades addressed the issue head on and encouraged the kids (or even assigned them) to read books that featured characters of the opposite sex.

  5. Ann

    I just bought my 6-1/2 month old son a copy of Madeline and I read it aloud to him two nights in a row. I hope to continue the tradition of exposing him to all sorts of books for years to come.

    1. Cheryl

      Good for you, Ann. Buy the first book of the Betsy-Tacy series, “Betsy-Tacy” by Maud Hart Lovelace. If you begin to read the chapters one at a time when your boy is about four, he will laugh so hard at what these girls come up with that he won’t notice that the stories are about little girls. He will want to have you read the second book “Betsy-Tacy & TIb” and by the time you have read him “Besty-Tacy go over the Big Hill, ” he will be able to read the 4th book “Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown” himself. And, possibly he will love “Winona’s Pony Cart” too which is a very sweet story of compassion and smart parents and inclusion!

  6. Kevin A. Lewis

    Boys don’t dislike girls, per se, but every young demographic wants to read stuff that reinforces their peer group and self-image, and unfortunately these days the pendulum has swung so far towards the girl’s side of the market that boys feel marginalized and left out. Nobody wants to go back to the days 40 to 50 years ago where girls were invariably depicted as delicate flowers and proper young ladies who fainted at the sight of a mouse, but nowadays girls get to be action heroines, warriors, and strong characters who find their own way, whereas boys are expected to cultivate a wide variety of fashionable disabilities and handicaps to be even allowed into the story. (especially in YA) So it’s no wonder that most boys with any self-respect apply for political asylum in Manga as soon as they hit 14; gatekeepers in the industry very obviously dislike them unless they’re depicted as sad losers or humorless vegetarian fantasy heroes wearing purity rings, so why stick around if there are cute Japanese girls in the next aisle of the bookstore who might actually talk to you?**************

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Hi, Kevin. It is getting a little drastic, isn’t it? I must say that when I’m setting up face-outs in my YA section, I am often hard-pressed to find books with boys on the covers, especially since we have separate sections for Sports and Action/Adventure. Realistic fiction featuring boys is harder to find, in part because fantasy and science fiction and spy/action stories are by far more popular with male teens. But is that a chicken/egg conundrum?

      1. Christine

        Maybe the real gender gap is fiction vs. non-fiction. I know a lot of male readers (of all ages) who aren’t interested in fiction at all. They want fact-based or how-to stuff, including biographies and histories. I have an avid birder all because some species of hawk was ripping apart an unfortunate pidgeon in our backyard. That was ‘cool’ and he couldn’t wait to figure out what particular prey bird it was.

      2. Kevin A. Lewis

        Well, “realistic fiction” is most of the problem from where I sit; (I was a bookseller at Borders for 15 years, so I have a lot of floor-level input on this) in the Deals section of PW over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen triumphant announcements of so-called “boy’s books” featuring heroes with dyslexia, multiple face surgeries, and a traumatized 3rd-world kid whose story is told in verse… Now, I’m inclined to think most of this is just Newbery Medal fishbait, but these books can’t all win, and how many of these yarns sounds like something Bart and Milhouse would rush out to buy? And it’s interesting that you never see a book these days where the guy “wins the fight and gets the girl”. Rather than go on about the overly-PC attitudes of a lot of agents and editors regarding boys, let’s have a literary quote from a century or so ago which I think sums it up nicely: “Mrs. DeRopp would never in her honestest moments have admitted that she disliked Conradin, although she may have been dimly aware that thwarting him “for his own good” was a duty that she did not find particularly irksome.” So for all the ceremonial lamentation about where the boy readers have gone that happens on occasion, there’s quite a few gatekeepers out here who are quite happy with the status quo. But, there’s a lot of money in this market, and somebody beside Rick Riordan may eventually discover this…

        1. Cheryl

          Speaking of “Boy’s Literature,” I think that the great brain of The Great Brain series are just wonderful books for boys and girls. The relationship between the parents and their attempts to help their son be more compassionate of children who are not as clever as he is make any parents feel for them.

          IMHO, I wish someone would republish the author, John D. Fitzgerald’s three Adult books, “Papa Married a Mormon,” and the other two whose titles I no longer remember. They are terrific books, the children’s series and the three adult books.

  7. Pam Mingle

    I love the Little Women story too. Had a similar experience while teaching fifth grade. The mother of one of my boys called to tell me that he was so into THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, even though he’d never liked fiction before, especially with girls as the MCs! Made my day.

    As a teacher, and before that a school librarian, I always wondered why girls were fine with reading books about boys, but the reverse wasn’t true. I realize now that it’s the result of the attitudes of some parents, teachers, and librarians rubbing off on the boys they come in contact with. I hope the popularity of The Hunger Games will start to change the status quo.

    1. Kathy

      The Witch of Blackbird Pond…quite a good historical child’s novel, I read it as a child – good for both sexes to read.

      I’ve read that JK Rowling went by her initials because she didn’t want boy readers to dismiss her because of her sex. And she chose the hero to be a boy to better hook the male readers. (Nevermind that Hermione was the brains…)

  8. Becky

    I would think that just getting kids to choose reading over other activities would be a victory in and of itself. If a boy prefers reading “boy books” as a child, there’s plenty of time as he matures to explore more varied subjects. I tended to read very girly-themed books as a child, but that hasn’t limited my reading choices as an adult. I have two daughters, and although I do attempt to steer them away from the Barbie, princess, and fairy books, the important thing in the end is that they love books and reading.

    There is something to be said, however, for encouraging more gender-neutral book covers.

  9. Kat Kan

    When my younger son was about 11 years old, he was curled up in a chair in my study, reading a Little Lulu book (Dark Horse has been reprinting the comics for years) and chuckling. At one point he looked up and told me it was a really good book, but “it’s really for girls.” I said “But you’re reading it, right?” He stopped, looked throughtful for a moment, and said, “Oh, yeah.” Then went right back to reading it. He read every volume of Little Lulu since he was 10 years old. He’s now 17. He rejects movies and tv shows that are “girly” (mostly because I – his mom – don’t like them!), but he is much less judgmental about gender in his reading.

  10. Kathy

    Books are designed to attract the target audience. For years romance novels had ever more scantily clad females draped around nearly naked men. Sales dropped (because I think readers were embarrassed to be seen reading them) and covers changed to baskets of flowers and other non specific art. Book covers are designed to appeal to a particular reader, unfortunately that cover can often embarrass or even repel any other reader. You really can’t judge a book by it’s cover!

  11. Christine

    Boys–for all their would-be bravado so many of them are fragile and easily embarassed. You want them to read a book with a female protagonist, don’t tell them that, just say ‘it’s a great story’ or give them enough of a plot to pique their interest. As for the cover–hey, if it’s your book and it’s got (horrors) a girl on it, cover it up. They make skins for phones and tablets, aren’t there book covers anymore?
    Can’t do anything about the limited intelligence of any parent who says what their kid will and won’t read based on stereotypes–won’t read “To Kill a Mockingbird” because Scout’s a girl for instance. I know guys who quickly got past the fact that Scarlett O’Hara’s a girl to enjoy “Gone With the Wind.” They should be happy the kid is reading at all.
    On the flip side, I don’t understand the hysteria of not buying girls books about princesses and fairies and, well, pink things, tiaras, and girly dresses. It should be a phase like any other and girls can be steered to other subjects as well. Although girls are generally much broader-minded when it comes to reading books that feature boy heroes. But then our gender rocks!

  12. Carol B. Chittenden

    Sure would be nice to see some men modeling rational behavior in this area! I wonder if the privacy of e-readers will allow boys to feel they have wider choices.

    And I’m always astonished by the vehemence of some customers (mostly ones even older than myself) about the “color coding” of giftwrapping.

  13. Barbara

    I tried to get my son to read Patterson’s Maximum Ride series but the first book showed a girl on the cover and he told me he wouldn’t read it for that reason. I tried to disuade him but he kept saying “what would his friends think” – none of them had admitted to reading them, yet, he has read the Hunger Games, it’s sequal Catching Fire, and is currently reading Mockingjay and he has read Patterson’s “Daniel X” series but that’s about a boy. I doubt I’ll change his mind unless perhaps I have him read the original which was Beach House (where the winged kids were introduced to 2 FBI agents). He may not like to read about girls but he is an empathetic, considerate. sensitive boy and a friend of mine keeps saying I’m raising a kids who’s going to be a “great man”. I kind of agree with her.

  14. SuzzyPC

    Elizabeth,
    You are so right! I saw a woman yesterday choose not to buy “When We Were Very Young” (my favourite books of poems ever, I think) as a baby shower present because the jacket colour was pink “in case the baby is a boy” she said. What baby knows or cares what color the jacket is. Good golly!

  15. Karen

    I discovered recently that my son has read every single American Girl book his younger sister brought into the house from the library, and it genuinely excites me to think how that may feed into the kind of man he is someday.

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