It’s Not a Boy Read or a Girl Read

Josie Leavitt - December 1, 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.

21 thoughts on “It’s Not a Boy Read or a Girl Read

  1. Anne Hambleton

    Dear Josie,
    I feel exactly the same way! so many people (booksellers) try to box my new kid’s horse book, Raja, Story of a Racehorse, into a “horse story for girls” category, when several boys (yes, boys like horses too!) have loved it!
    Anne Hambleton

  2. Sandy

    I completely agree! And parents are not the only guilty parties in the gender segregation of books. In my experience in the publishing industry, publishers, book clubs/fairs, and book buyers for retail establishments also specifically request “boy” and “girl” titles. It has become second nature to gear content and packaging/artwork towards boys or girls. However, as a writer, I have been struggling with who my audience is. I would like to write books that appeal to a diverse audience, including boys AND girls. I hope that well-meaning parents and relatives will not steer their children away from my stories because they feature an opposite gender protagonist. As a consumer with young nieces and nephews, I will try to keep this in mind as I buy gifts for the holidays. Thank you for reminding me that I should not contribute to dividing books along gender lines!

  3. Bill Capossere

    We couldn’t keep our son in enough Ivy and Bean or Cam Newton for the time he was into those books and characters. And I devoured my sister’s Nancy Drew as soon as she finished them when we were younger (though granted she never picked up my Hardy Boys or Tom Swifts). It’s a silly distinction, handed down with the best of intentions perhaps, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is silly.

  4. Anke Wehner

    I can’t remember a single children’s book I read when I was a kid that was about a girl… No, wait, there’s Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, but the movie left way more of an impression on me. It occurred to me only in hindsight that it kinda sucked there were not more stories about girls having adventures, rather than about boys having adventures that might involve saving girls.
    It leaves me to wonder if it’s just my upbringing that’s weird, or if the whole sexism/gender segregation stuff really got worse in the last 20 years or so.

  5. Crystal F

    It’s funny that you posted this today – I just gave my son The Hunger Games to read yesterday and told him, “don’t worry since the main character is a girl you’ll still love it”. I didn’t even think that I was playing into this. I just knew this was a book for boys and girls alike even though the main character is a girl. It’s true he probably wouldn’t have thought about it. I guess I was just worried since he just finished Harry Potter. I’ve never actually steered him away from any books, but I played into the sentiment with that one statement.
    Thanks for this great post, I will think more about this from now on with both of my boys.

  6. Spellbound

    Oh, Josie… several times a week, at a minimum, I feel like banging my head against a wall because of attitudes like this. Although there will be those parents and grandparents who insist their girl will only want something “girly,” mostly my experience in bookselling has left me feeling so sorry for little boys, who seem to get much more boxed into what they are or aren’t supposed to like at such a ridiculously young age.
    A recent head-banging experience: a woman started to buy Kevin Henkes’s beautiful picture book LITTLE WHITE RABBIT for a three-year-old boy, and (although she personally loved the book) she then changed her mind because it didn’t “look like a boy book.”
    It’s a book about a rabbit. A boy rabbit, at that. And the predominate color on the cover is green. Has green become a “girl color” now?! Or is it just that the illustrations and cover are pastel instead of primary comic book colors? Aaaarrrrrgh!

  7. Radcliffe

    Great topic! I think boys are still socialized this way much more than girls. I recently read an article that said Disney changed the title of their movie “Tangled” at the last minute. It was called “Rapunzel” but they feared having the princess’s name in the title would make boys not want to see it! Meanwhile, as you mention lots of girls love Harry Potter (including this adult girl) 🙂
    It’s just not right!

  8. yamster

    YES! In fact, this is one of the things that bothered me most about the WSJ article that caused the big kerfuffle over YA books being too “dark.” The YA books that the author DID recommend were divided by gender. Boo to that, and yay to this!

  9. Michelle

    I was kicking around getting the Hunger Games trilogy for my almost-12-year-old son for Christmas. I thought he’d like all the action. Then I wondered if he’d enjoy it as much, given the action “hero” is a girl. Your post made me decide to follow my original instinct – buy that trilogy! Thank you.

  10. Michael W. Perry

    Ah, it looks like, as the dastardly editor of an obscure Hans Christian Andersen collection, Stories for Girls, I’ll have to rain on this unisex parade.
    What I object to isn’t the classification or non-classification of titles as “for girls” or “for boys.” In their place, they can serve as useful clues for kids and their parents as to which sex is likely to enjoy a book most. I’d rather have a boy reading ‘for boys’ books and enjoying them than to have him, through some misfortune of fate, exposed to unisex books that are really better for girls and learn to hate reading.
    I also object to hidden seventies dogmas that little boys and girls aren’t that much different apart from socialization. As a broad generality, boys and girls really are different. The new brain-scanning technologies are revealing what parents have long known about that. The efforts that we, as a society, need to make to turn boys into good men and girls into good women need to be different. And for that, good boys and good girls literature can play a role.
    I also suspect that, in practice, those who claim both-are-alike, agendas don’t really have that as their goal. Instead, they intend to make little boys read girls books and little girls read boys books. That’s the sort of remaking that I find objectionable, not least of all because it won’t change kids in any healthy way.
    At best, it will merely confuse and drain them of their assurance and confidence as men or women. And at worst, we’ll end up with what we already see around us: some women having men’s vices and some men having the vices of women. That’s a dreadful outcome.
    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent books and movies that appeal to both sexes. On MercatorNet, I just read an excellent review of a classic film, The Wizard of Oz, that made that point. The movie’s appeal, the author said, rests on what the film teaches about resisting bullying, something that both boys and girls must face.

    1. Amy

      I value you what you say as I raise two sons who are voracious readers. I am a librarian so in fact they get lot’s of choices brought home to them. They pretty much read what I bring but they migrate to the high adventures and those with great friendships and heroes that are believable. I understand these themes are not gender specific but a clear departure f. They enjoyed these lately: Jaguar Stones (Voelkel’s), The Haunted Mystery Series (Chris Grabenstein) or Phineas L. MacGuire books (Dowell). Our latest favorite is “Because of Mr. Terupt” by Rob Buyea – wonderful!!!
      However, and judge me if you like, but their school day is often counter-intuitive to their “boyness” as a general statement so helping celebrate “boyness” in literature is refreshing. I like your idea about not draining either gender from their very real need to be different.

  11. Lindsey

    Love this post. I was behind the curve on reading Harry Potter precisely because it had a boy main character (mostly resentment that it was yet another popular book with a boy main character), but was totally sucked in by the good story. And my husband and other guy friends have loved the Hunger Games without a second thought about the main character’s gender.
    I can understanding wanting to categorize for genre (Adventure! Romance! Supernatural!), but that’s more about individual preference than an inherent socially constructed idea of gender.

  12. Andrea Vuleta

    I see your point to some degree, Josie. but I have a slightly different take. I will happily stick those stickers on books that I deem “Great for a Boy” or “Great for a Girl” regardless of the subject or gender of protagonists.
    My guy readers love “Ivy and Bean” and “Sisters Grimm”, my girl readers love Riordan’s and Flanagan’s series.
    My theory is by putting that sticker on, I justify and enhance my recommendation of that particular title. Just another tool to break through the gatekeepers.

    1. Josie Leavitt Post author

      Great idea. I am all to often guilty of being too literal. I love the idea of mixing up the stickers and putting them on the opposite type of book. It’s clever and could enhance sales and get folks thinking outside the box.

  13. Carol B. Chittenden

    In my experience, parents are relatively willing to try books regardless of any gender overtone, and have a fairly good sense of what their children deem important. Many — but not all — little boys simply insist on powerful vehicles. Many — but not all — girls go for pink & sparkly. But non-parental adults are often choosing at arm’s length, and failing other indicators, will use what guideposts they already have. So if someone is buying a birthday gift for the boss’s grandson, they’re not going to climb out of the gender role rut, no matter what I offer them.
    When we opened our store I firmly believed that we would put out the books in such a way that the kids could choose freely, and we would certainly not lean on the old stereotypes. The children taught me otherwise, and when I asked a friend who is a leading researcher in the field of early childhood and gender, she confirmed our experience with amusement. Nonetheless, we still try to recommend books in gender neutral terms, and make sure we stock good books for the entire range of outlooks.
    So I just might be using those red and green stickers from Penguin after all.

  14. Alexandra

    Oh, if only it began and ended with stickers!
    Marketing to different sexes begins during the editorial process. It’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds when covers are being designed. It’s a consideration when deciding if the author’s gender might negatively influence a young reader of the opposite gender (thank JK Rowling for proving that middle-grade boys will still read a book written by a female author… but then again, she published as JK rather than as Joanne). This practice isn’t limited to books, naturally it’s a huge factor in toy packaging, movie marketing and commercials. I personally think that reinforcing these stereotypes has a very limiting effect on developing personalities in that it suggests ideals to both genders; young readers take strong cues from beloved books about how life is “supposed” to be. As a kid I was just as interested in Henry Huggins as I was in Beezus and Ramona although I was made all too aware by my elementary school librarian that I was checking out a book for boys. From what I can recall, Superfudge was read by every kid I knew, so I think this trend toward gender division has really advanced in the last twenty years. This is a timely and important post. Thanks for sharing, Josie!

  15. SC Poe

    Bruce Coville (best-selling “boy” book author) once opined that the true distinction between “boy” books and “girl” books is not the gender of the main character–it’s whether the book is more about the story or more about the character(s). If the book is mostly about the story, boys will read it.
    As proof, he points to his most popular book, MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN. The main character is a girl.
    This confirmed my own suspicions that certain books beloved of librarians and boasting the other kind of stickers (the Prize stickers) are really “girl” books, even if the main character’s a boy. Nothing against those books–it’s just that they’re not always the best way to appeal to an inexperienced, impatient, or reluctant reader (boy or girl).
    Maybe instead of relating to gender, the stickers should specify other selling points, like “can’t-put-it-down plot” or “action-packed” or “unforgettable characters.”


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