Log in

No account? Create an account
19 July 2009 @ 08:40 am
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.
akamarykate: herbsakamarykate on July 19th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
And it's only going to hurt them when (or if) they grow up.

My head's about to fall off, I'm nodding so hard. All this crystallizes a lot of what I've been thinking for years, ever since that bit of "wisdom" about boys not reading books about girls was handed off to me by other teachers.

I'd add The True Meaning of Smekday to that list with The Hunger Games and Graceling, too. But I've just fallen in love with Gratuity Tucci and I'm completely smitten. *g*
Janni Lee Simner: Susan Pevensiejanni on July 19th, 2009 05:14 pm (UTC)
Yes--her point that this attitude actually hurts boys is huge--and one that maybe has the potential to get through to those who wouldn't hear otherwise.

And I love Tip and Smekday. Isn't it a wonderful book? (I also rank it as the most funniest post-apocalyptic story I've ever read!)
(no subject) - akamarykate on July 19th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rj_anderson on July 19th, 2009 11:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on July 20th, 2009 12:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rj_anderson on July 20th, 2009 01:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on July 20th, 2009 01:53 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - green_knight on July 20th, 2009 11:39 am (UTC) (Expand)
Patrick Samphirepsamphire on July 19th, 2009 06:42 pm (UTC)
I don't think that, in general, boys do have a problem reading about girls. I do think, though, that boys often like a different emphasis in their stories (at least when they're older) and I do think that the marketing of books (in particular the covers) can put boys off. I can think of several books offhand that feature girls and which boys would like if it weren't for the covers they are given.
Janni Lee Simner: secret of the three treasures coverjanni on July 19th, 2009 06:53 pm (UTC)
I think it's more their parents who have a problem with them reading about girls, honestly. I think the reason I get asked "is it for boys?" so much with Secret of the Three Treasures (and less for my other books) is that it has a cover that's closer to gender neutral. Which ought to be the end of the discussion, but instead of just saying, "Cool, an adventure story with a cover my son won't mind carrying around," parents seem to feel they have to make sure first it not only doesn't look too much like a "girl book" but also doesn't actually feature a girl protagonist.

And the kids then pick this up from their parents ... where maybe otherwise, they wouldn't even have thought about it much.
(no subject) - branna on July 19th, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on July 19th, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - stephanieburgis on July 19th, 2009 07:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on July 19th, 2009 08:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on July 19th, 2009 08:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - stephanieburgis on July 20th, 2009 08:04 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - wyld_dandelyon on July 19th, 2009 10:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - stephanieburgis on July 20th, 2009 09:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - wyld_dandelyon on July 20th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - green_knight on July 20th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC) (Expand)
The Green Knight: Spitting Cobragreen_knight on July 19th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
The 'more boy books' comment left me spitting mad. So it's ok if girls are always the ones who tag along, but not ok if the boy is the younger for a change? And it is, 'for a change' because we did not get seven volumes about Harriet Potter, girl wizard.

Reading, for me, means the ability to try on somebody else's life, to understand why people are what they are, what options you have in life, how else you can respond. The last - shaking up your assumptions - is incredibly valuable. I don't think that boys need to be mollycoddled, protected from the great big evil world that has - gasp - girls in it. Girls who do stuff. Girls who give boys orders. Girls who are right about things. Girls who argue back.

No, a boy could not possibly cope with that. What will they think when they find out that women write about male characters and men write about female characters? It would destroy their little brains, that's what.

Is it just me, or do the people who support the 'boy books' stance have a rather poor opinion of boys-as-human-beings?

Janni Lee Simnerjanni on July 19th, 2009 09:18 pm (UTC)
I think it's okay to read both about people who look like you and those who don't--the idea of excluding either out of hand is problematic, for sure.

Regardless of how people choose read, though, when someone suggests something like taking the protagonist of Siberia--a book I adored--and making her male, I get spitting mad, too--because that feels like you're wishing you could actively take books away from me and the other real readers who've enjoyed them, in order to make some theoretical boys who may or may not like them regardless happy.
(no subject) - green_knight on July 20th, 2009 05:33 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on July 19th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
I agree about where the bias comes from--my experience interacting with young readers has been that while they're not unconcerned with whether they're reading about girls or boys, they're not half as concerned as their parents and other adults seem to be--it's adults I've seen dismiss things out of hand based on gender, far more often. (Though as others have said, boys will dismiss things that sparkle--but since I have something of a glitter aversion myself, I tend to think of that as a different issue. :-))

Though in film ... I admittedly don't watch all that much visual media, but every time I see a movie, I cringe at the gender assumptions all over again, and it seems worst in kids' films. Maybe it's better on TV than in the theater, though?
(Anonymous) on July 19th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
As the mother of a tweener boy I have to say that I don't think the kids care about this stuff nearly as much as adults do. My son never rejects reading material just because it has a female protagonist, although he definitely does not like anything pink and spakly.

That said, I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to read books about people like yourself. In adult literature, there is no outrage over the fact that, say, the readership for the Stephanie Plum books is mostly female. The way I see it, the "rule" that boys won't read books aboit girls is unfair and untrue, there are preferences and these are valid. It is also true that young boys are figuring out who they are and legitimately meed male role models, just as girls need female role models.
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on July 19th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC)
Since I tend to back away from too much pink sparkliness myself, I have some sympathy for your son. :-)

I think it's okay to enjoy reading about people like yourself, absolutely, at least as part of our reading ... but when I look around, I see plenty of books with boys in them. It's the idea that boys should only be given that (or whites only books about whites, or so on and on) that makes me uncomfortable--and that seems most strongly out there with regards to boys' reading.
asakiyume: warrior princessasakiyume on July 19th, 2009 10:50 pm (UTC)
I agree with the remarks upstream about covers. My 11-year-old son wanted to read an adventure story with a female protagonist, but the cover was so dreadful that he had the librarian give it to him after class (it was the school library, during the school year).

But yeah, he doesn't have any problem reading about female protagonists so long as the adventure is good.
(Anonymous) on July 19th, 2009 11:32 pm (UTC)
Boy books, girl books, kid books
I appreciate any efforts to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it.

That's because I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

My blog, Books for Boys http://booksandboys.blogspot.com recently reached # 1 on Google.

Keep up your good work concerning reading.

Max Elliot Anderson
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on July 20th, 2009 12:52 am (UTC)
Re: Boy books, girl books, kid books
Err, are you responding to my post, or using it as a place to advertise your books?

Because I'm totally cool with the former, even if you're disagreeing with me. (It's hard to tell from your comment one way or the other.) The latter, not so much.

Edited at 2009-07-20 12:53 am (UTC)
Re: Boy books, girl books, kid books - shishi on July 20th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
~twilight~_twilight_ on July 20th, 2009 03:30 am (UTC)
I wonder if there's a study about pink sparkly covers with sales and readership stats sorted by sex...

I'm female, and tend to avoid books with overly frilly covers, unless they've been recommended or I already know the author is good. It's not that I'm afraid that someone will point and laugh at some lacy cover with a bunch of hearts on it (like a teen/pre-teen boy might), but that I assume it's going to be a bunch of boringness.
Loup Noirloupnoir on July 20th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC)
I was trying to learn how to knit socks a few months ago. The woman teaching the class also works in the local bookstore. A snippet she related went like this:
A boy shows his father a book. Father looks at book, reads the blurb, and hands the book back, asking the boy if he's sure he wants to read a girl's book.

The three of us in the class thought that little boy showed lots of promise. I just hope his dad learns from his son's open mind. It floors me to think that any parent would discourage reading.
ljcbluemuse.blogspot.com on July 24th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
maybe we're in the minority. . .
but my teenage boys (13 and nearly 16) *love* nearly everything by Tamora Pierce. And those books have primarily girls as the main protags. They do not consider these books to be 'girl' or 'boy' books, just really good stories.
Janni Lee Simner: Susan Pevensiejanni on July 24th, 2009 11:47 pm (UTC)
Re: maybe we're in the minority. . .
I think that's because they are, first and foremost, good stories. :-)

And that, without adults getting in the way, kids often can actually figure this out. (I'm glad your boys have. I love nearly everything by Tamora Pierce, too!)
(Anonymous) on July 24th, 2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
It seems to me in middle grade category most all action adventure are boy protagonists, no girls.
But YA is dominanted by girl protagonists, who are all worried about romance. I worry what we are telling young girls - that they read material way beyond them and that getting a boyfriend is all life is about????
Janni Lee Simner: Susan Pevensiejanni on July 24th, 2009 11:56 pm (UTC)
I see lots of romance out there too on YA shelves, but I don't see all romance. Maybe it's because I seek out the books I want, but when I think of recent YA, I think first of books like Graceling and the The Hunger Games and the Beka Cooper books, all of which have romantic elements, but aren't romance. But I've never done any sort of systematic survey as to where the balance falls ...
(Anonymous) on July 24th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)
Why blame the authors?
I know plenty of stories boys would love as well as girls, but they don't get published. Publishers want to make money. If they don't believe the boy readership will read a book with a girl hero, then they're not going to publish it.

Conversely, just try and get a YA Science Fiction novel with a girl hero in it published these days. Girls are bad at science and math, you know, and, therefore, also hate science fiction.

The odds of change during this recession are not good. Publishers are not going to take chances.
Janni Lee Simner: Susan Pevensiejanni on July 25th, 2009 12:06 am (UTC)
Re: Why blame the authors?
just try and get a YA Science Fiction novel with a girl hero in it published these days

Actually ...

- Uglies and sequels by Scott Westerfeld
- Siberia by Ann Halam
- Taylor Five by Ann Halam
- The City of Ember and sequels (technically middle grade) by Jeanne DuPrau
- The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
- The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (also middle grade)
- Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

And so on ... female protagonists in YA SF are actually doing pretty well right now. :-)
Re: Why blame the authors? - lnhammer on July 25th, 2009 12:43 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Why blame the authors? - joeicarus.blogspot.com on July 25th, 2009 12:53 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Why blame the authors? - janni on July 25th, 2009 01:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on July 24th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC)
A stick in the river
I'm gonna go against the trend here -- while I think it's unfortunate that many reading boys tend to shy away from female MC driven books, I don't think it has as much to do w/ parents (or even culture) as it does w/ genetic disposition. Numerous studies (never mind history) have shown that boys at an early age tend to develop, for lack of a better term on my part, superiority complexes. Also, in general, boys tend to be more left-brained than girls, so it's harder for boys to suspend disbelief (e.g., accepting a female Navy SEAL as a believable character).

And, perhaps a more salient point, I think most readers want to be able to relate to the MC and it's much easier for boys to relate to boy MCs.

Sad as it may be, girls have always been more understanding, more empathetic, and more accepting than boys. We're good for heavy lifting, though ;)

Janni Lee Simner: Susan Pevensiejanni on July 25th, 2009 12:14 am (UTC)
Re: A stick in the river
Not convinced. I think there's no way, right now, to separate out genetic disposition from socialization, given that we treat infants differently based on gender from birth.

Sad as it may be, girls have always been more understanding, more empathetic, and more accepting than boys. We're good for heavy lifting, though ;)

To which I say, bull. Not only because I've seen a remarkable amount of casual cruelty among girls on the playground, but also because I've know far too many understanding, empathic, accepting men to buy this for a moment.

Men and women both have to learn empathy. Whatever the reality is of the mix of genetics and socialization that goes into making us, claiming one gender or the other is less capable of same is excuse-making, plain and simple.

And given the wonderful men and boys both whom I've watched accept--and enjoy--the things you're talking about with no trouble at all, I think you're doing men a pretty grave disservice here, actually.
Re: A stick in the river - lnhammer on July 25th, 2009 12:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
joeicarus.blogspot.comjoeicarus.blogspot.com on July 24th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
Great post. Our gender assumptions is a hot-button topic of mine, and I think you hit the nail on the head.

Anon@5:41, you might want to have a look at Zoë's Tale by John Scalzi. You'll find it on the bestseller rack. In a couple weeks, it might even have the words "Hugo Award Winner" stamped on it.

Anon@5:57, I disagree. I think boys are that way because that's how we bring them up to be. Even if we as parents try not to, our culture jams traditional gender behavior down their throats, as any parent who has ever fought a losing battle against Barbie could tell you.

Boys can hold their disbelief far enough to believe in wizards and hidden train stations and battle school in space, but the idea of a female Navy Seal is too far out there for them? Hogwash.

I don't believe that girls are inherently "more understanding, more empathetic, and more accepting than boys." If they are these things, it's an indictment of the way we bring up boys. And if girls are not as empowered as boys, it's an indictment of the way we bring up girls--for instance, having books about active, empowered kids primarily feature boys.
Janni Lee Simner: Susan Pevensiejanni on July 25th, 2009 12:16 am (UTC)
Zoe's Tale is another one for female-protagonist YA SF, yes. (And I still need to read it, actually!) There's a lot of YA SF with female protagonists out there -- definitely more than when I was growing up!

Completely agreement with everything else here too, yes.
cindachimacindachima on July 24th, 2009 11:53 pm (UTC)
Janni, I love-love-love this post and the comments. With my first series, I was advised to use my initials, a la JK Rowling, to hide the fact that I am a female writer. I declined. Then there was a big discussion over whether to put roses on the Warrior Heir cover around the big sword in the center. My publisher decided to leave them off. When I talk about that in school presentations, I have had boys tell me they wouldn't buy a book with roses on the front.
Because the Heir series was popular with boys, my publisher was concerned about my new fantasy series focusing on a female protagonist. It's actually alternating point of view, a male and female MC. So I opened the book in the boy character's POV, and my publisher was ok with it. I am bound and determined that teen readers need to read good stories about both genders.
As someone else said, Tamora Pierce is a good example of an author who features female MCs with stories so action-oriented that she attracts a large boy audience.
I'm a little uncomfortable with the revulsion expressed about pink and sparkly covers. I react the same way, because it's usually a promise about the kind of book it is, which is not the kind of book I like. But, again, it's an illustration of the aversion to "girly" feminine things. For instance, I don't go "euwww" about blue covers with racecars on them.
Janni Lee Simner: Susan Pevensiejanni on July 25th, 2009 12:24 am (UTC)
I'm so glad you kept your real name. (Especially because I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision.)

I think of your HEIR books (okay, having only read the first--but I'm planning to get to the others soon!) as the sort that are clearly both boy and girl accessible, because they have a male protagonist but treat the women in them as real characters, not as accessories. I think we can always use books in which boys and girls alike in them are real, whoever's the protagonist.

Which is what it comes down to, really. I can enjoy reading male protagonists fine. I have more and more trouble reading male protagonists in books that pretend women don't exist though, or that they only exist to help the boys out.
(no subject) - cindachima on July 25th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - janni on July 25th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)