Reading, Boys and Girls

I know I posted recently about writing characters of different genders, and this is related, but I found some things that made me want to post again about “boys’ books” and “girls’ books.”

This makes some great points, though some of them are taken directly from (and fairly credited to) this other article. Basically, both are reacting to a librarian’s article in School Library Journal that boys could be encouraged to read if publishers changed female protagonists – those that “aren’t really about being female” – to male ones.

This pretty much makes me bang my head against the wall. Most of the good points to be made here have been made already by one or both of the pieces above, but in case you’re not feeling love for the links, I’ll sum them up here.

1. It’s a terrible idea to purposely make “male” the default. It would be equally terrible to make “female” the default. Implementing this suggestion would mean that all characters who aren’t “girly” or totally focused on their female identities would be boys, thus presenting a literary world wherein all women are overtly feminine and/or dealing with specifically female issues, whereas men come in a full range of personalities and encounter all kinds of issues. What kind of message is that?

2. Are we seriously, as a culture, okay with the fact that so many boys apparently won’t read books that follow girls? One of the posts I mentioned has an effective metaphor for this: race. Try to picture a parent saying the following aloud in public: “Gosh, this book is a genre my kid likes, an appropriate reading level, and is highly recommended, but the protagonist isn’t white, so I don’t think my kid would read it.” Yeah, didn’t think so. Then why do so many parents shrug and say, “My son won’t read a book about a girl”?

3. One of the posts I cited discusses the importance of letting kids learn through books what life is like for people different from themselves. I agree that this is important, but would say it is perhaps more important to show kids how similar other kinds of people really are to themselves. This is why I didn’t like that, in middle and high school, we had to read a bunch of books where black protagonists faced mostly race-related issues. (I especially remember disliking the book Black Boy, but then, there’s also the fact that that protagonist kills a kitten. Seriously.) If it weren’t for the fact that my school was sixty percent black, and I could just look around and know that black kids cared about friends and family and grades and clothes and what they were doing this weekend and a whole lot of other things besides being black, some of those books might have given me the impression that they literally didn’t think about anything except race.

(That is the other problem with the librarian’s suggestion: Girls would get sick of reading about girls who all cared intensely about being female all the time.)

It’s vital to understand the unique experiences of people from different backgrounds, but I think that’s mostly because this helps you see the why for some of the ways that they are different from you. Religion is a good example here. If you understand the underlying beliefs, you can look at an unfamiliar religious practice and think, “Given those beliefs, I or people I know might do that.” If you don’t understand a group’s beliefs and experiences that are different from yours, it’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticizing or even, in extreme cases, dehumanizing, that group. Keep in mind that all people are different from each other to greater or lesser degrees. Knowing the history of a group is like knowing the history of a person. It can make the difference between, “That’s crazy,” and, “That’s not me, but I see why it is that way.”

4. Maybe I don’t entirely have the right to feel this way, given how many female protagonists are out there now, but I resent that for so long most children’s books followed male protagonists. Girls were expected to read them or nothing. True, that was mostly before I was born, but as a result, many of the classic children’s books follow boys. That never stopped me from reading them. Indeed, I’ve always preferred, say, an adventurous fantasy with a male protagonist to a story where girls go to school and make friends.* But then, I’d also rather read an adventurous fantasy with a female protagonist than a story where boys go to school and make friends.

Basically, what I’m getting to is that when girls had to read books that followed boys, it seems like, overall, they dealt with it. Now, at least according to this librarian, boys – what? Can’t find books with male protagonists? Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson and Octavian Nothing not good enough for you? Anyway, they’re having trouble finding current books with male protagonists, and so they’re not reading. If this is actually the case, then caving to these kids would be like responding to a finicky toddler with, “Okay, don’t finish your supper! Have some cake, instead! At least you’re eating!”


Naturally, this does not apply to all guys. Nor are they the only ones behind the boy book/girl book division. For every boy who reads only sports books (notice how I don’t even know the names of any series . . .), there’s a girl who only reads Babysitters Club. In my work at the library, I sometimes want to tell kids of both genders, “You know, if you were equally willing to read Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, you’d have twice the selection to choose from!” And when I was at William & Mary, the president of the Harry Potter club said that when she’d gotten the early books as presents, she’d refused to read them for months “because there was a boy on the cover!”

These aren’t the only options, anyway. Some books don’t exclusively follow any one character. As a kid, I loved The Boxcar Children and its sequels, the Redwall books, and – when very young – the Bailey School Kids books. All of these mostly follow groups of characters that include both genders. My brother read all of these series, too, and some are mentioned as appealing to guys on the Guys Read website.

Obviously, tastes differ between kids at least as much as between genders. Still, whether because of nature or nurture, some books tend to have more appeal to one gender than the other. Yes, in a perfect world, boys could read A Little Princess on the playground without getting teased. Also, there would be elves and centaurs, and David Bowie would perform the song “Magic Dance” at all gatherings except for maybe funerals. Sadly, we do not live in that world. Still, some books have tremendously broad appeal and, I think, do a great job illustrating that people shouldn’t let their reading be limited for stupid reasons. For example:

1. Harry Potter, obviously.

2. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. If you’re a guy who happens to be Catholic, you might not love this trilogy, but it won’t be because of a protagonist’s gender.

3. Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary. He’s male. He’s also a mouse. It’s an easy call which one makes a bigger difference to the story.

4. Matilda by Roald Dahl. She’s a girl. She’s also telekinetic. See above re: importance to the story.

5. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. The main two characters are male, and Calvin’s pretty anti-girl, but his schemes are often foiled by by Susie Derkins, the girl next door, making the books actually pretty girl-friendly (as well as hilarious and well-drawn).

There are tons more that I could list, but they mostly follow the pattern in 3 and 4 above: the character has, as you’d probably expect, a gender, but that’s not what the story is about. The book may be “about a girl,” but it isn’t “about girls” – it’s about a girl who time-travels and gets stuck in Ancient Egypt or runs away to live in a museum or learns to turn herself invisible. Similarly, a book with a male protagonist that is widely read by both genders is not usually “about boys,” but about a boy who solves mysteries or discovers a living dinosaur or is raised in the jungle by wolves. This, incidentally, is why I’ve referred to “books that follow girls” or “books with male protagonists” rather than “books about girls/boys.”

What books do you think defy gender categorization? Which ones do you see unfairly and unfortunately pigeonholed as “girl books” or “boy books”?


*Once, as a kid, I picked up a book called Silver Blades: Ice Princess in the library, read the back cover, and put it down in disgust. “It’s about skating!” I told Mom. “Who would possibly have gotten that from that cool-sounding title?” Mom assured me that it was, in fact, possible.

4 thoughts on “Reading, Boys and Girls

  • I was JUST rewriting a scene from my second novel a few days ago and ended up having Joshua talk about reading A Little Princess on the playground and getting teased for it.


    Anyway, thinking back to my favorite children’s books, I’ll admit that a lot of them had female protagonists. I think little kids are typically not terribly creative and so they are drawn to main characters they can easily identify with. I loved Matilda and Anne Shirley and Sarah Crewe because I could pretend to be them, and I’m not really sure I could have pretended wholeheartedly to be a boy. Of course I can’t speak for anyone else, but it was important for me to read about strong, smart female protagonists.

    So I am going to posit the theory that kids in our culture – or at least kids who are anything like I was – are going to tend to have a special relationship with books about the same gender as themselves. I can’t decide whether or not the books has to be *about* being male/female. Certainly there doesn’t have to be lots of agonizing and stereotypes, and certainly we need more books with characters who do not fall into the usual range of male and female protagonists – even the shy nerdy boys I’ve read about in literature tend to have a lot of aggression, schoolboy wildness, Oedipal tension, and other typical boy book characteristics. But I think all great literature is going to be a little bit about gender because, unless it’s set in a completely different culture, gender is a major component of childhood.

    At any rate, children should definitely be able to enjoy books about the opposite gender, just in a slightly different way – and it should be an identical to the way they read books about the same gender whose protagonists they don’t identify with strongly. I never quite felt compelled to read the Hardy Boys, because my interest in mysteries did not outweigh my disinterest in “boy books,” but if Harry Potter had been around when I was little I would have devoured it. I did read The Lord of the Rings, The Little Prince, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Horse and His Boy, and Winnie the Pooh, to name a few titles, and loved them all. Strong identification is one appeal of childhood reading, but it’s not the only appeal.

  • Yeah, I remember reading about this issue. My thoughts were similar, though not nearly so eloquently expressed.

    I really like your use of Matilda as an example. My brother was never much of a fiction-reader at the best of times, and when he did read it was usually Star Wars novelizations and very male-oriented sci-fi. He owned a copy of Matilda, though, and it’s the only thing I remember him reading that featured a female protagonist. (Well, some of the Star Wars novelizations may or may not have female protagonists; I wouldn’t know. But I’m going to venture he read those books more for Luke and Han. And Chewbacca.) As a matter of fact I read Matilda because of him. I remember staring at the copy on his shelf with great envy, wishing he’d let me borrow it.

  • I always feel like I should come up with something profound to respond to your posts… but yeah, good points. I never cared what gender I was reading about–loved The Babysitters’ Club but also The Boxcar Children, and my favorite character was Benny–but I knew plenty of kids who did think about that kind of thing. Unfortunately, I doubt that handing a boy a book with a female protagonist and saying “no, really, it’s just as good as those books that you liked with boy characters” is going to get us anywhere. Kids are stubborn that way. You need to tackle the problem in other areas first in order to coax their reading habits to change.

    Heh, at least you didn’t have to read Richard Wright’s other book, Native Son. That MC killed two women. I’m not sure WHAT the racial message was supposed to be there…

    • I wonder whether part of the answer is to really push gender equality when kids are still in the reading-aloud stage. After all, there are lots of good picture books centered on kids (or animals, whatever) of both genders. Good reading role models probably help a lot, too. Haha, now I can just see parents bribing their teenage sons to lounge around conspicuously reading Matilda and Harriet the Spy in front of their younger sons.

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