Some years ago, when I was judging a book award, I entered the room and found two other female judges, both librarians. We had three hours to make a decision. It took us four, even though only two books were on the table after about thirty minutes.
And then came the long stand-off between one of the librarians and me. One book had a female protagonist and the other a male protagonist. And the argument went something like this:
“But boys aren’t reading, and I can hand this book to a boy,” said Librarian 1.
“Well, I’m sure that’s true, but it isn’t as well written,” I said.
“Yes, but…but I can turn a boy into a reader,” said Librarian 2. “Imagine what he could read. We could have another reader for life.”
We have had many people tell us that boys are in crisis, that boys don’t read enough. Guysread is an excellent website dedicated to getting boys to read. I do think it’s a legitimate problem; I’m not saying we should ignore it. Instead, perhaps we need to rethink our approach.
To date our approach has been to write, publish, and market books for boys—books about machines, dinosaurs, and sports, but few—if any—about other concerns boys have: friendships and relationships. These are typically considered “girl concerns.”
I’ve raised a boy who is a consummate reader and I’ve tried to figure out how he escaped this epidemic of boy non-readership. My son reads everything from literary to not, from nonfiction to fiction. He devoured when he read middle grade. For a short time, we worried as his reading slowed while at the end of middle school, but he came roaring back into the young adult genre.
I’ve also raised a girl who is a consummate reader. Like her brother, she reads everything and then some. After reading her brother’s Harry Potter and Rick Riordan, she got frustrated. “No girls”, she complained. So we went to book people: libraries and booksellers and teachers. They all quickly ran out of recommendations. They had been well prepped to recommend male authors and male protagonists, ready to solve the boys in crisis problem. But for girls? Well, they’d recommend the same books because, as I was told again and again, “girls will read anything.”
What does that mean that “girls will read anything”? That we are less picky? That we are less discerning? Less qualified? Or is it a case of: we aren’t the squeaky wheel? That we don’t need to be catered to and represented?
Either way, this litany of questions sounds to me like a litany of excuses that reinforce a biased expectation: girls can/should read across gender, but boys, who need prodding to read, should be catered to.
We are afraid to give boys the chance to read “girls’ books”, afraid we’ll alienate them and they will no longer be readers for life. But who says that boys can’t read across gender, too?
What if, instead of catering to a narrow definition of boys’ interests, we encouraged boys to read across gender as well? What if, instead of having essentially pink and blue literary aisles, we claim reading as gender-neutral territory?
A few months ago Laura Ruby showed me Maureen Johnson’s wonderful post about gendered covers that visually demonstrated how marketing skews female covers to look “cute” and “funny” rather than literary. It’s remarkable to see how these subtle differences change the way that women are regarded in the field. It’s remarkable to note how people have suggested that children’s literature is skewed so heavily to estrogen side of things when in fact, female novelists only comprise 56% of novels in published in 2012 Children’s literature (although the awards don’t represent that, running at only 36% for books with YA female protagonists). Having a nearly equal voice, we are told, is regarded as though we have a dominant voice. This recalls a recent study which demonstrated that only when women spoke 30% to a man’s 70% did the listeners feel the talk-time was equal.
In choosing fiction for children, we all suffer from internalized sexism. Certainly I did. I had thought I had been giving my son books about girls and boys, until my daughter started reading middle grade, and suddenly the dearth of books became clear.
But perhaps most notable for me now is that my son’s resurgence in reading as he moved into YA was simply this: he started reading more and more books with female protagonists—that is what brought him back to reading. While we frequently hear the complaint that boys leave reading because of the dominance of female protagonists, my son came back to reading because of female protagonists.
So, when I say, “don’t forget about the boys,” I don’t mean we need to prioritize books about dinosaurs and robots, about boy books. We don’t need to reward boy books because they can reach male readers and female readers, both. I mean instead, we need to start to recommend “girls’ books” to boys. We need to stop protecting boys from girly books with girly topics—romance, sentiments. We need to stop protecting boys from girls themselves. We need to remember that boys have all sorts of concerns, like girls, and we need literature that answers child concerns, eliminating the notion that concerns and interests are gendered at all. And we need to stop thinking of it as “girl’s literature” just because it has a female protagonist or a focus on romance or relationships; coming of age requires empathy across genders in addition to representation. Girls are being taught this empathy; don’t forget about the boys.