Thursday, July 24, 2008

Boy Books, Girl Books

After reading all the "there are no books for boys with strong boy characters" and "there are no books for girls with strong girl characters" type of stuff, I just want to sit those people down and have them exchange reading lists.

In all honesty. like Carlie and others, I don't believe in "boy books" or "girl books." I'm sure to let out a groan when the main descriptor of a book is based on the gender of the intended reader.

Readers are complex people; and it's about fitting the book to the reader. Now, I'm not naive; and that's why I read books and articles by people like Michael Sullivan and Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm. I am open to adding to the "tricks" up my sleeve to connect books with kids. I believe we have to recognize the value in all reading choices, including newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc. And I believe we have to realize that in connecting a book to a reader, different things will work for different kids. So typically (but not always!) the long booktalk will work for girls; while typically (but not always!) the short one is better for boys.

But to turn all the research and good ideas by people like Sullivan, Smith and Wilhelm into "boys don't read books about girls" mindset is both simplistic and disrespectful to male and female readers.

Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky is a great example of this; when I met with the author and we talked about audience, she mentioned that young men were reading it as a western and loving it.
When I booktalk Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging, boys laugh as hard as the girls. And want the book just as much.

Again, I'm not being naive. And I am not trying to force books on kids that aren't a right fit. I sure as heck am not saying that if we just describe the girliest girl book ever that all boys will want to read it, or that we can force someone who wants a pageturner to love a slow read. I am saying that "boy books" or "girl books" is too narrow. Really, do we think all boys are alike? Or all girls? No.

I love that we have websites like Guys Lit Wire and Guys Read. Part of the reason I like both sites is that too often, the adult does only think of the books they like when recommending books.... and we need reminders there are other books out there, and just because they aren't your taste, doesn't mean it isn't a good book. You, there! Yes, you! Stop making that face every time someone asks for fantasy. That -- the bias against certain types of books -- is as big a problem as anything else.

I also have to point out that those sites aren't locked into narrow definitions of boy books; Guys Read includes Marsden's Tomorrow, When the War Began (an amazing book) which...wait for it... has a FEMALE main character. One of the guys interviewed at Guys Lit Wire named The Awakening as a book he "really enjoyed" reading in high school.

Here, Dear Readers, is where I see the potential harm for too much labeling of girl/boy books. If a reader such as the one interviewed at Guys Lit Wire approached our desk, would we ever have recommended The Awakening? (Actually, would we ever recommend it, regardless of gender of the asker?) In talking about boy/girl books too much with readers who are at a point in their lives where peers mean everything, do we risk keeping a boy away from a book he would really love because we just called it a girl book?


Brian Farrey said...

May I ask a counter question? Do you feel that boy characters and girl characters should be written a certain way?

Case in point: I recently took a class called "The Coming of Age Novel." Everyone in the class was working on a piece with a teen (or younger) protagonist. When writers shared their work, they were allowed to ask questions of the class ("Does the pacing work on this? Is what's happening clear?"). The number one question that got asked was, "Does this character sound like a boy/girl?"

Invariably, this came from women writers with boy protagonists or male writers with girl protagonists. And, invariably, I would roll my eyes (actually, one day I actually piped up and said, "And, pray, what does a 'boy' sound like?").

Isn't asserting that a boy sounds a certain way or a girl sounds a certain way simply perpetuating gender stereotypes? Doesn't the preclude the possibility of a sensitive guy who cries who when his girlfriend says she loves him or a girl who takes charge of triage following a bus accident?

I tend to bristle when I hear "Author X writes girls well" when X is male. Shouldn't writers be aiming for true characters, regardless of whether or not they have a hammer? (C'mon, Liz, you gotta love the Dr. Horrible reference.) Is it a waste of time, for writers or readers, to speculate that a character didn't come across as particularly male or female?

When I worked in a bookstore and someone asked me for a book for a boy, I always prompted for more info. "Does he like sports? Does he like magic?" Or sometimes I'd just say, "What types of movies does he like?" or "What else is he into?" Granted, most times the profile was the same: doesn't like to read but might read something if there were sports involved. (And off we go to the 'C' shelf for Crutcher.)

What I found is that the people who would come in looking for these "boy books" were only going to be satisfied by something THEY perceived to be a boy book so once I understood what they expected, I knew what to recommend. It's really awful that people pigeonhole their own kids that way (I saw a boy recently in a bookstore who picked up an adaptation of the movie ENCHANTED and his mother yanked it from his hands, declaring it a "girl's book.") But I gave up trying to educate these people. In the end, I hope the kid will read so I'd give the parents what they want and keep quiet.

Liz B said...

Brian, I am so, so with you! And totally agree! Despite the typos and grammar issues, this post was heavily revised in that I found I kept going into the following areas, which deserve their own posts:

1st, and you say it much better than any of my deleted words, the perpetuating of stereotypes in the writing of characters. Men cry. Or faint at the sight of blood. Etc. And, on the flip, girls don't cry. Etc.

2nd, and this is an entirely different issue, the unspoken assumption that when we say boy/girl book we are talking heterosexual boys and girl books. I need to doublecheck both the guysread/guyslit websites mentioned above to see whether or not GLBTQ books are included.

3rd, that the boy/girl book issue stems more from adults demanding a quick way to put a book into their child's hands than from the reader. Having thought about it, more so from your comments, I think my new answer to an adult asking how to get their kid to read is "next time, bring your child/teen to the library or have them call me or email me directly, here is my number." And you have no idea how much its going to haunt me, the boy who had a strong enough sense of himself to pick up Enchanted, only to have his parent take it away.

Anonymous said...

I have an 8-year-old cousin who just happens to be a boy, and he LOVES the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley. The heroines in that story are in fact, female. I think if someone loves reading enough, they don't care about gender roles and whether or not the hero of the book is male or female - it's just a good book! That's my opinion anyway :-)

Anonymous said...

Following point 3 of your comment, Liz, as I was reading your post I was thinking that the main time I run into the boy/girl issue at my library is when a parent is involved. Not that I don't have my own biases to fight when doing reader's advisory, but I find myself shying away from cross-gender recommendations when talking to parents because it so often becomes an issue. ("Oh, he won't want to read anything about a girl. Oh, let's have something about a girl for her, please.") And it doesn't seem to matter to them if I say, "Actually, this book is very popular with both boys and girls"; they've already made up their minds. When I can, I leave the main character's gender out of the discussion entirely. The kids, fortunately, don't seem to care as long as the book's genre, style, and length are on target.

Anonymous said...

I blogged about this recently:

great conversation!

tanita✿davis said...

I, too, am haunted by the image of the mother taking a book from a child's hands.


Brian, the ONLY thing I might say from a writer's perspective is that sometimes sentence length might differ for boys ... but then, I can't even make that hold water. SOME kinds of people are terse and use fewer descriptions. SOME kinds of people are adjective and exclamation friendly, and talk with their hands. It really is NOT something that can be defined by gender, no matter what we were taught during critique classes during the MFA process.

-- fight the power!

Franki said...

HI--I agree completely with your post. The boy/girl thing makes me crazy. But, as a person who recommends books to kids, I like to know if boys tend to like it, etc. It is info for me to know a bit more about the book. I don't think we should ever talk boy book/girl book to kids but it does help me to know a bit about the audience--the boy piece for me is often about boys who I have trouble hooking to a book or boys who feel the need to carry around a book that is considered "cool". As a reading teacher who works with lots of struggling boys and girls, the more info I can get on how a book is received is important. But I think you are totally right about the risk we run when we limit or classify books as girl or boy books. We have to know our readers as individuals. Great post.

Colleen said...

I thought about all of this when I decided to start Guys Lit Wire, Liz. I don't want to limit anyone's reading. The problem I saw was in the statistics - guys and girls read basically the same amount when they are young (under 12) and then a gap forms that widens dramatically with girls continuing to read as they get older and boys not. There are tons of reasons people throw out for this - dating, work, sports, etc. but girls do all of those things as well. There is simply no quantifiable reason for why teenage boys read less than girls; there is only the fact that they do and that's where I came from for the site.

The other thing is that in the monthly reviewing I do for Bookslut I am constantly coming up short with titles for boys. There are many more books published targetting girls as their primary audience. I was really surprised when I saw the new covers for John Green's books that show girls - and only girls - front and center. Why do that when their appeal is for boys as well? Why make them look like books written for girls? (And I test drove the catalog page with those covers on a dozen men and all of them - every single one - said "girl books" when they saw them.)

I know covers shouldn't matter and protagonists shouldn't matter and everything else. I also know that in a lot of cases though it just does. My hope with Guys Lit Wire was that among so many contributors we would be recommending and discussing tons of different books that would cross gender lines and be just that most important qualifier: good books. I honestly do think that readers should be viewed as individuals but right now, the boys need some help finding books they will love. The jury is out on whether we will have any kind of positive impact or not but we're trying something new and I hope that we can make a difference.

Liz B said...

Marc Aronson at Nonfiction Matters (SLJ) touches on this issue today; as he puts it, the assumption that girls read novels, not NF, and the impact that has.

As always, what amuses me about the math part is my mom is a high school math teacher; I was a math minor in college. With that ... I totally agree that there is still anti math bias amongst too many women (and that bias includes "i'm not good at that because i'm a women" statement.)

Eva M said...

This is a great discussion and I'll be blogging a bit on it myself.
Perhaps if we can get away from the gender of the main character (as an omnivorous reader, I couldn't care less whether the moody detective is male or female) and focus on the story, we could cross-sell more books.
Talking about the plucky female character in Avi's True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle might not sell the book to a boy (or his parents) but emphasizing the dangerous sea voyage and the crew's rebellion against the captain might do the trick.

Unknown said...

I'm SO in agreement on this. I hate hate hate the genderizing of books. But then, I hate any stereotyping. As a teen/preteen, I read mostly science fiction, and most of what I read had male protagonists, because that was what was out there in sf. It never even occurred to me that I should want to read books with female protagonists.

I had a similar experience as Brian. When my son was younger, we were in a toy store. I heard a father and daughter in the next aisle over and the girl was asking for a toy (I couldn't see what it was because I wasn't in their aisle). The father said, "No, honey, you can't have that. It's a boy's toy." I wanted to go over and smack that father! Way to put your daughter in a box that she'll have to deal with for the rest of her life.

I agree that we should try to match the child with the books, not pigeonhole them by gender. That's why I'm glad there are people like librarians in the world, who can help kids find the right books for them.