March 23, 2012

Boy Books vs Girl Books

        I was going to do a post on feminist fantasy, it being March and Women's History Month and all… but along the way I found myself off on this tangential rant…
        So, the world of juvenile literature is divided into Boy Books and Girl Books.  Certain books are targeted to the stereotypical interests of girls, while others are aimed at the stereotypical interests of boys.  That's inevitable and probably even a good thing, because of course not everyone is interested in the same things, and any child (as I was) with no interest in either of those genres (shopping vs survival in the woods? romance vs sports?  Ack!) doesn't have to read them.  What I find very much stranger, stupider, and more troubling is that all juvenile books seem to have to be separated by the sex of the intended reader.  And if a book appeals equally to both, it's got "cross-over appeal," instead of just being, well… just a good book.
        There are the irritable accusations that girls are expected to read Boy Books, but boys can't possibly be expected to read Girl Books… There are the articles about the disproportionate amount of juvenile fantasy being written by and for girls… which, when combined with the fact that (as Everyone Knows) Boys are Reluctant Readers, means that boys are apparently being left with nothing they could possibly enjoy…  There are the cover designs that tell readers clearly what they should and should not pick up (The rules: if there's a girl on the cover, boys should skip right over it.  If there's a boy on the cover, a girl can be shown in the background to indicate that girls may also read this one, and if it's really meant to be "cross-over," the cover must be carefully designed to show neither boys nor girls in close-up…  I've joked about giving a whole new meaning to the idea of boys covering their reading material in brown paper to hide the girly picture on the cover…)
        But none of this really seems to be accurate to my own experience as a reader or as a mother of two readers, one boy and one girl.  To begin with, it is absolutely true that as a girl I liked to read about strong female characters in books - not necessarily always, but definitely a lot.  But as I watch my children read, and see their reactions to the books we read together, I don't see either of them having any reluctance to embrace characters of either sex.  For example, we all enjoyed
     The Facttracker, by Jason Eaton, with the main character a boy
     Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, with the main character a girl
     The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, with the main character a boy
     Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, with the main character a girl
        T and P are still only nine, and perhaps as they get towards the teenage years they'll start to insist on Girl Books and Boy Books… but what I see as a huge trend these days is books featuring at least one each of male and female main characters.  Among the fantasy books that both P and T have recently read that both have been into are
     Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling, featuring a boy and 1 boy and 1 girl sidekicks
     Fablehaven series, by Brandon Mull, featuring a sister and brother
     The Cabinet of Wonders series, by Marie Rutkoski, featuring a girl and 2 boy sidekicks (plus a male tin spider)
     The Familiars series, by Epstein and Jacobson, featuring a male cat and 1 female and 1 male sidekicks
     So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane, featuring a girl and 1 boy sidekick
        There are tons more examples, of course, and you'll notice that while there are usually more boys than girls, there is always at least one of each.  In fact, these boy/girl friendships occur in fiction at rates wildly exceeding reality.  (I certainly didn't have boy friends as a kid, and while P and T are often happy to play with each other's friends, I think that's just a twin thing.  Their own friends divide strictly along gender lines.)  In short, it looks like all these books with both male and female main characters exist for the very simple goal of "cross-over appeal."  But that's not a bad thing.  Indeed, it's a great thing.  First of all, why on earth shouldn't boys and girls be friends?  And why shouldn't boys and girls enjoy the same books?  Why wouldn't you expect all kinds of kids to enjoy reading about the heroism of people like themselves? (Hence the much-needed recent rise in books about characters of all different ethnicities and backgrounds, too.)  And simultaneously, why wouldn't you expect all kinds of kids to enjoy reading about the heroism of people unlike themselves? (Hence the much-needed recent rise in books about characters of all different ethnicities and backgrounds…)
        I think we aren't giving children the credit they deserve.  Girls don't need their stereotypical girly traits catered to in order to get them to enjoy a book.  They don't need pink covers, shopping, and crushes on Prince Charming to appreciate a story.  And boys don't need their stereotypically boyish traits catered to in order to get them to enjoy a book.  They can happily read about girls as well as boys.  They can enjoy characters with thoughts and feelings.  They can appreciate more than just fart jokes.  I'm afraid we do all our children a serious disservice when we (that is, the publishing industry, teachers, librarians, parents… all of us) teach them that some books are only okay for boys and others are only okay for girls.  Do we steer boys away from Tuesdays at the Castle because it features a girl in a dress on the cover? or girls away from The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer because "it's a boy book?"  Well, quit it, okay?
        The good news is that I think fantasy books are much more likely than most other genres to be accepted as appealing to both girls and boys.  (Yes, see, once again, How Juvenile Fantasy will Save the Earth.)  Sure, each child has his or her own taste.  Each child will love some books and not others.  But let's strive to write, market, and read books based on personal enjoyment, not stereotypes.

[Pictures: Story Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003;
photo of T and P, by AEGN, 2011.]


Ben Woodard said...

One of the best analysis of the boy/girl reading problem that I have read. Thanks

I wish the publishers would quit putting a girl on the cover of a book with a girl protagonist. It's marketing I know, but boys will rarely pick up such a book. And, as you indicated, there are many they would like.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Hello, Ben. Thanks for stopping by!
As for the girls on the covers, I think you're probably right in the short term. But in the long term what I'd really like is for society to stop teaching our sons that real boys don't read books with a girl on the cover!

Charlotte said...

Great post! I shall try to be wary of using "cross-over appeal" myself....