‘Boy’ Books & ‘Girl’ Books: Get Gender Roles Out Of My Media
Recently in young adult and children’s literature there has been a debate about the branding of books; this stems from the eternal debate about “chick lit,” but it’s much more insidious, because it affects youth in their formative years. The books that we’re exposed to from elementary to high school are almost entirely written by male authors: The Great Gatsby, the works of Shakespeare, Huckleberry Finn, etc. While I am by no means saying that these books don’t deserve to be in the curriculum, they do seem to foster a certain unspoken idea among the literary community that books by male authors are for everyone, and books by female authors, especially those with female protagonists, are for females. This is a lot more destructive to both young girls and young boys than some might think.
I recently attended a panel on this subject at LeakyCon, a fan convention in Chicago. The panel covered gender in young adult books and whether this dichotomy actually exists. When asked if the panelists believed in the idea that boys and girls need different books, only Lev Grossman, New York Times bestselling author of the Magicians series, agreed. He said, “In order to justify one’s position, one has to start making generalizations about what girls are and what boys are, and that’s not good… but boys and girls do tend to be different, though I won’t say in what ways, so why wouldn’t they have different books?” The room became viscerally tense, as rooms of educated people tend to get when the idea of inherent differences in gender is brought up. We seem to want to reject the gender binary so much that we reject gender in its entirety, which is wrong as well. Gender is important, and it is a defining factor in many people, but whether a child is a cisgender male or a cisgender female or trans* or questioning, their reading should not take a toll.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with children, regardless of gender, preferring certain books over others. The problem emerges when publishing, mainstream media, or adults in their lives start telling them what is and is not appropriate for them to like. Publishing has created the idea that there are “boy books,” which usually feature sports, history, or science, in response to what are seen as “girl books.” There has been a huge influx in worry about the state of reading habits in children. There’s a myth that boys don’t enjoy reading or that they’ll only read certain things, when in actuality they’re just being cut off from books they’d probably enjoy and left without much to read. This trend then carries into adulthood and men become less likely to read throughout their lives. Ian McEwan, author of the popular novel Atonement, once made the controversial statement that “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” All due respect to McEwan, but I simply don’t think that’s true, and if it is, then we’re all at fault for teaching boys and men that they don’t belong in the same literary sphere as women. Boys weren’t reading things with pink covers because we told them not to, so now we’ve created books with blue covers to close the gender gap, and– not so shockingly– they don’t necessarily like those. Because girls are expected to read stereotypically boy books, they’re branded as being broader readers, and the boys are once again left behind.
Shannon Hale, Newbery Honor award winning author of The Princess Academy and the Bayern series, recently wrote an article about this topic as well. She says:
When I go on tour and do school visits, sometimes the school will take the girls out of class for my assembly and not invite the boys. I talk about reading and how to fall in love with reading. I talk about storytelling and how to start your own story. I talk about things that aren’t gender-exclusive. But because I’m a girl and there are girls on my covers, often I’m deemed a girl-only author..I want to question this practice. Even if no boy ever really would like one of my books, by not inviting them, we’re reinforcing the wrong and often-damaging notion that there’s girls-only stuff and you aren’t allowed to like it.
This kind of mindset is damaging to all genders and to the authors themselves, who just want to write their stories and have them read by people who appreciate them. Usually authors get very little say in the marketing of their books. Joanne Rowling, for example, chose to write under the pen name JK Rowling, because her editors were afraid that if readers saw a book about a boy wizard written by a woman that they would ignore it. In the LeakyCon panel, Stephanie Perkins, author of Anna And The French Kiss, told a story from her time as a librarian in which a father reconsidered buying the Harry Potter series once he found out that JK Rowling is a woman.
Note that it was not the target audience who rejected it, but instead the adult who bought the books. If we want boys to read more, we have to show a greater acceptance of all kinds of books, and if we want so-called “chick lit” to stop being a genre that’s simply defined as “women writing about women,” then we have to thoughtfully read more of it. The future of reading and gender perception is in our hands; I hope we take care of it.
Do you think “boy books” and “girl books” exist? What do you think these categories should be defined as? Do you have any solutions for the gender divide in reading? Let us know in the comments!