Stories for All: Girl Books for Boys?
Twitter tells me this is “Stories for All” week, so I thought it appropriate to share something that I’ve been thinking about since last December.
For the holidays, I always buy the kids in my life books. I go to my local independent book store (usually Children’s Book World or Book Soup – both have a fantastic staff and great selection) and pick my favorites selections. I have a running list so I don’t buy anyone the same book twice, and I have read every single book I gift. It is one of my favorite parts of the season.
Last December, I was standing in the YA section wondering what to get an eighteen year old boy. I was stumped. In the past year I had read lots of books that girls would enjoy, but not many that I knew a heterosexual eighteen year old male might find interesting. There was one novel he’d probably love. Historical fiction involving spies and pilots during World War II, full of narrative tension and action. But, I sighed, both main characters were females, so he probably wouldn’t like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
I was standing in the book store about to make a mistake. I was going to walk away from an excellent selection based on the gender of the main characters. I thought about my own book, Learning Not to Drown. I wondered if someone was in a bookstore, glancing at the flap, reading the first page and thinking “too bad it’s about a girl. I think my son would have loved it.”
I didn’t write Learning Not to Drown only for girls. In fact, when editing it, I remember asking my husband if there was anything he’d suggest I do to make it more universal. I didn’t want boys to avoid my book because it was “too girly.” (Side note… what does that mean, really? Too girly? When you think about it, girly is undefinable because what one girl likes another one could hate. I took a step further and looked it up in the dictionary: ‘a derogatory term to describe like, characteristic of, or appropriate to a girl or young woman.’) What I didn’t realize before my book was published was that no matter what I wrote, some boys would avoid it because 1. there was a female on the cover, 2. it was written by a woman, 3. there was a female main character and 4. somehow it has become more acceptable for women to read books with a male main character written by a man, but it is still not as common for men to read books with a female main character written by a female.
It makes me sad.
Not for me. I mean, I’d love for my book to reach a larger audience because I feel that the topic – how incarceration profoundly affects family members- is important. But I’m sad for the boys and men. I’ve read all kinds of books and have loved reading stories from all points of view. I have never felt a book is off limits to me. Just like I’ve never felt like wearing pants is off limits.
I’m sad for the boys in the library class I volunteer at that won’t touch Gooney Bird Greene because a girl is on the cover. They are missing out. I’m sad that as they get older, they’ll never read Anne of Green Gables or Princess Academy. That they’ll walk right past Wintergirls and Under a Painted Sky and Forever. That they will read Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility because they have to, but in the back of their minds they will be thinking it is a girl story for girls, and maybe that thought will keep them from allowing themselves to really experience and relate to the female main character. And when those boys read love poems, somehow Keats will have more weight than Dickinson, although they are equally sappy and beautiful. I’m sad that boys are missing out on all of these great stories.
I’m sad boys might think some books aren’t written for them.
Certainly there will be exceptions. Some boys won’t care. They will read what they want to read. They may get made fun of for it. Hopefully they won’t loose their curiosity and desire to read all stories.
I’m sad for the girls, too, that are shying away from the books they want to read because they feel they might be boy books. I personally think it is less taboo than a boy who wants to read something that is classified for girls, but it still happens.
I’m sad that there is this lurking hidden message that books with a female protagonist and/or written by a female are somehow lesser, somehow not as worthwhile as those with males. Every story is important. Whether life imitates art or art imitates life, we need diversity in stories. We need stories for all.
I can say with absolute certainty that when most writers create, they are letting the story be told in the best way – whether it follows a main character that is male or female. We write for all.
Back to the bookstore and holiday shopping. I bought Code Name Verity for the eighteen year old boy. It wasn’t something he’d normally have picked up. He loved it.
The boy/girl spilt happens early – in pre-k – and it does so quickly and seemingly naturally and yes, some boys aren’t going to like princess stories because they don’t like them and some girls aren’t going to like action stories with male main characters because they just don’t. But it is worthwhile to be having this conversation as adults and to lead children to question this. Kids are obsessed with what is fair and unfair. So the next time a boy says princesses are just for girls, try blowing some minds and casually drop, “isn’t it so unfair that girls are allowed to like everything?”*
For more on this topic, look up the hashtag #StoriesForAll, or check out this tumblr post and other thoughts by Shannon Hale, who has been a champion for gender equal reading and is also the author of The Princess Academy and a load of other thoughtful, imaginative and well-written stories that highlight female protagonists.
*as a side note, I realize that there are plenty of places where girls aren’t allowed to like “boy” things. However, in many cultures, women are free to wear pants, read books written by men, and like all the Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, fill in your “boy thing” blank here… but in many places boys still can’t read a book about princess or play with them without ridicule.