It’s Not a Boy Read or a Girl Read

Josie Leavitt -- December 1st, 2011

Yesterday I got an envelope from Penguin. It was a one-page, full-color sheet designed for quick handselling. Usually, these sheets push the latest books from the publisher,  and are often not all that useful, but this list was surprisingly well rounded, making it a good resource.  Sometimes these “cheat sheets” come in very handy during the crazy times of the holidays. At the end of a long day there are times when my brain leaves me when someone asked, “What can you recommend for a kid who has read all the Twilight books?” I’ll admit that sometimes I just can’t think of anything, so having a quick reference of five titles per genre is a great device.

The hand-out has 14 categories ranging from the obvious: picture books, middle grade, babies and young adult. My favorite category is “Fans of the Paranormal.” The hand-out features current books as well as series books. This is especially helpful for families who know that their child likes a series, but doesn’t know what the next book might be.  The hand-out has covers which is a great way to help a bookseller, or parent, find the book.

As much as I really like this, and I will use it, one thing I didn’t like was the repeated breakdown of books by gender. I even got two sticker sheets that had ornament-type stickers that say: “Great book for a boy reader” and “Great book for a girl reader.” The stickers will never make it on a book in my store. A massive pet peeve of mine is the division of books along gender lines. Honestly, there’s no reason to categorize books along gender lines.

I see it every day when a customer says,”He won’t read about a girl,” when handed a book with a female protagonist. This infuriates me. Why won’t a boy read about a girl? Or a girl read about a boy? If kids are told at an early age that it’s not okay to read a book that feature the opposite sex, what are we telling them? That those books aren’t worth your time reading? That it’s not okay to read about boys or girls and that you must only read about your own gender? By limiting access or reacting in a such a way that no boy will risk reading about Ramona, and no girl will read The Great Brain? What a pity that would be.

Someone came in today and was buying Clementine and Ivy and Bean for her son and I was so taken aback that I realized it’s never happened before. The parent clearly got it. Her son found the reading level of those books to be exactly perfect for his reading level and he liked the stories. What this eight-year-old boy understands is it’s about the story, not whether or not they are male or female. Imagine if kids didn’t read about opposite genders: boys would have never read Little Women and girls might have passed on Harry Potter.

What kills me is the kids don’t start off feeling this way. It’s often the adults in a child’s life that subconsciously steer kids away from opposite gender books. Admittedly, not all boys are going to want to read princess books (although some might) but something like  A Girl Named Disaster is sure to appeal to both sexes. As a bookseller, the challenge, especially this time of year, is to just put great books in the hands of customers, whether or not they feature same gender protagonists. The way I like to do this is explain some of the plot without mentioning gender. Once the adult thinks the story sounds good, they’ll buy it, because like that one boy today knew: it’s about the story.