Boy books, girl books, kid books

So I already had Up on the brain when Mitali Perkins linked to Martha Brockenbrough’s excellent article on (among other things) the problems of raising our boys to only read about boys.

There’s this thing going on in children’s lit. Even as we expect girls to of course watch movies and read books that are entirely about boys, we also accept quite cheerfully that boys won’t read anything about girls. At most of the signings I’ve done–and especially at signings for Secret of the Three Treasures, which is explicitly an adventure story–I get asked repeatedly if my books are “for boys.” As I talk to the well-meaning parents who ask this (because it’s always the parents who ask), it always comes out that they really mean is not, “is this book for boys?” or “is this book action driven?” or even “is this book romance-free because my son really hates romance?” but, “Is this a book that has a boy as the main character?”

At the same time, there’s this huge wave of concern right now that boys aren’t getting the books they need–the books they’ll read. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson lead two of the bestselling series out there, and my unscientific scanning of the bookshelves tells me they’re not alone, but the accepted wisdom is that there’s a severe shortage of books boys will read–meaning books where boys are the main characters. It doesn’t help that children’s book conferences are very strongly skewed toward female writers. I’ve seen entire rooms of children’s book conference attendees get all impressed because someone shows up who is, like, a real guy, writing for other real guys. It’s part of a rising perception that those writing children’s books for boys are precious and wonderful (which is fine), while women–well, we women are just doing the work we’ve always done, and can be safely taken for granted (which is not at all fine).

I want there to be good books all kids will read–but judging by our reaction to boy-dominated children’s movies, we wouldn’t be half so indignant if the perception were that it was girl books that were lacking. As it is, there are still far more boys in children’s lit than there are girls in children’s movies.

Anyway, recently on School Library Journal a librarian took this all further, suggesting explicitly that if only writers made some of the girls in fiction–especially the girls who spend their time actually thinking about things other than being female–into boys, then she could get boys the books they need. There are many problems with this notion: that it reinforces the idea that if all other things are equal and nothing explicitly “girly” is going on, being male should be the default; that it falsely turns “boy” and “girl” books into a zero sum game, where we can only give boys what they need by taking something away from the girls.

In response, Brockenbrough said many of the things I’ve been thinking as I’ve watched this whole discussion go on the past few years:

… the problem isn’t the books, it’s the way we’re raising our boys. If they aren’t willing to read about girls, and if we’re indulging that sort of nonsense, then we are raising boys who will have a hard time functioning in a world where girls play serious roles. In other words, the real world.

And, more pointedly:

To understand how problematic the idea is, swap in “white characters” for “male characters” … My guess is that most people would be embarrassed to admit they wouldn’t buy a book because the main character wasn’t white. Why we’re more comfortable denigrating books with female characters is a mystery. Whenever we cross a book off the list because it isn’t about people like us, though, we should be ashamed. And we shouldn’t let our kids get away with this.

And finally:

If boys aren’t reading, perhaps it’s because we’re not helping them understand what a great story is, and we’re not insisting they respect girls as their equals. It doesn’t mean they have to start reading pink romance. But come on! Books like “The Hunger Games” and “Graceling” are none the weaker for their girl protagonists. Ultimately, it’s nothing to be proud of to let boys get away with the cooties game. And it’s only going to hurt them when (or if) they grow up.

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