Wow, there are a lot of ways this could go.
But we’re still talking about books here, people. Promise.
I got an interesting assignment at work the other day. We had a school contact us needing books for an in-school book fair, ranging PreK through 12, and with their discount, the books needed to average about five dollars a piece. Then came the really interesting part: every book had to be for boys AND girls.
And suddenly the project got a LOT harder.
It’s one of the first questions I ask people when they’re looking for recommendations for kids. What’s the gender, and what’s the age? It makes more of a difference than people realize, and if you track through, it starts a pattern that continues with us well into adulthood.
At the youngest age group, books are gender-neutral. Board books are, almost without exception, good for both boys and girls. At that age, there aren’t really preferences yet. They’re more interested in the colors and the patterns, in the visual stimulus.
It’s during preschool that this starts changing, and I think it’s safe to say Disney is to blame for a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney, I grew up on Disney, but it’s certainly a huge contributor to gender distinctions. One word: Princesses. Movies like Cars, Invincibles, Toy Story are geared a little bit more towards boys, but girls love them as well. The princesses are less boy-friendly. It’s hard at any age for a boy to be concerned with girls in big poofy dresses, especially when they’re prancing around with animals and singing. If you look at the Disney preschool section, about three quarters of it is Princess; the other quarter is a mixture of Pixar movies and Clubhouse Mickey. We start telling kids at a very young age that boys and girls don’t like the same things. We give them different toys, different books, different movies and stories, so even at so young an age, boys are being told that fairy tales aren’t really okay, and girls are being told that G.I. Joes are boy toys.
This actually levels out a little during kindergarten, specifically during the process of learning to read. You can thank teachers for this one. Because they have to administer to a mixed classroom, they look for the neutral titles, like Biscuit and Little Critter and Berenstain Bears, etc. It’s about recognizing the words and the characters, not the story. You still have the princesses and fairy tales, and girls are typically steered away from dinosaurs or soldiers, but within the classroom, they’re all reading the same things.
When we get to beginning chapter books, it’s amazing how even things are. Junie B Jones and Magic Tree House are pretty much staples, whether boy or girl. Same with My Weird School, or the A to Z mysteries. Even things that feature girls- like the Franny K Stein- are still weird enough that the boys love them. However, this is where things start getting a bit interesting. There are girls’ books like the Disney Fairies and the Ivy and Bean books, but it’s harder to find boys’ books that girls don’t also read. When it comes to reading, girls are omnivores. Boys are more picky. Girls will read books that feature boys but the opposite rarely holds true, especially as we get older.
Look at two of the biggest selling kids’ series: Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Main character? Boys. But girls devour them just as much. It’s not like it’s at all subtle, either. The boys are on the covers and in the titles but the girls just don’t care. They love the characters and the stories and it just doesn’t matter to them that it isn’t a girl in the main role. You hand a girl the first Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or Bobby Pendragon book, the boy on the cover isn’t going to turn them away. Then pick up Dragon Slippers or Ella Enchanted or Julie Edwards’ Mandy. If they’ve been raised to be polite, they may read the back or study the cover, but as soon as your back is turned, they’re putting it down. Sometimes you can convince them- tell them it’s about dragons who save a country, or someone who fights a curse of obedience, or an orphan who wants a home. If you can sell them on the story, they might be willing to overlook the fact that it’s female. Once they start reading, if they get sufficiently hooked, they’ll forget the girl and focus on the story. You have to get them past that.
Then we hit the teenage years. There are a number of male YA authors out there, but let’s be honest: if you look at the shelves in a bookstore, they seem like a distinct minority. There are a lot of female authors out there and most of them write more-or-less female-centric books. A notable exception is Hannah Moskowitz, who writes males protagonists, along with Heather Brewer’s Chronicles of Vladimir Tod. By this age, though, boys are generally being discouraged to read. They’re told to go out and play sports, or that reading is sissy or a waste of time. The ones that still read have generally skipped over most of the teen wall and gone straight into the general genres (usually the Star Wars/Halo/D&D novels, or the hardcore fantasy sagas of Jordan, Goodkind, or now Sanderson). They go into the Tom Clancy or the David Baldacci, but they don’t tend to go through the teen wall very often. There are exceptions (always, always exceptions).
So we get back to the original problem. How do I pick a stack of books designed to appeal equally to boys and girls? This is where it’s possible that I read too much: I know SO many amazing books that boys would probably love if they could just get past the girl on the cover. But- I’m not the one handing them the book. The books will be spread out on tables and they’ll be told to wander through and pick without anyone who knows the books well enough to sway them past the fact that the main character may be a girl.
I found a healthy number of books that I think fit the bill, and I’m pretty satisfied with the choices, but it really is such a strange thing: why do we tell boys and girls from suhc a young age that they should read different things? Why do we set them into this pattern that leads straight through adulthood?
Any thoughts? Ideas?
Until next time~