Books and Gender

I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of upper elementary-age boys at a local public school last week. Their wonderful librarian had set up the “guys group” to be a focus group that would help her decide which books to order for their school library. In preparing the presentation and book talk I gave, I began thinking even more about a subject that has been on my mind and in the news lately. Are there “boy books” and “girl books”? Should authors, publishers, and those in marketing be writing and promoting books specifically for a particular gender?

While I have written about “boy books” on this very blog, my thinking has changed on this. Books are a wonderful tool that should open children’s minds, not limit them by telling them what they should or shouldn’t like. Think about the stereotypes about boys and girls that play out in society, and in books. Who are books with insects or robots or construction vehicles meant for? How about books on fashion design, cooking, or crafts? This gender bias is ingrained in us, but I can easily think of examples of a girl that thinks bugs are interesting, not icky, or a boy who loves to cook and make things. How many dreams of a future entomologist or fashion designer are we squelching by telling them at an early age via books that certain things aren’t for them to like?

My message to the group of boys was, “Read what you like!” This is perhaps oversimplified, but maybe those boys needed to hear from a guy that it is OK to pick up a cookbook or craft book, even if it has a flowery apron or sparkly beads on the cover! We are in a time where it is commonplace to see a female construction worker or a male nurse, so why are we narrowing the scope of what children should be encouraged to read?

Here are some books that I have found that, on first look, may seem like they are “girl books”, but as I encouraged the group of boys I talked with to read what they like, I hope I convinced them to take a chance on a book that they would not normally have picked up.

Cats of Tanglewood ForestCats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles De Lint. 9780316053570. 2013. Gr. 4-6.

The cover features a forest scene, where a girl stands with a fox curled around her feet. They are surrounded on all sides by curious-looking cats. Hopefully, boys don’t dismiss this title as a “girl book”, as this is truly a modern folktale that will appeal to many. The main character, Lillian, runs into Tanglewood Forest, where she is bitten by a snake. The cats that reside there save her life, but do so at a cost…Lillian is reanimated as a kitten, not a human. As she tries to regain her human form, she embarks on a journey that will make readers think about fate and destiny.

Doll BonesDoll Bones by Holly Black. 9781416963981. 2013. Gr. 5-8.

Looking at this book through a boy’s eyes, you would first see the word “doll” in the title, then notice a doll on the cover. You then may dismiss it as a “girl book”. That would be your mistake, as this is really a creepy book about friendship and adventure, which readers of any gender would love. Poppy, Zach, and Alice are good friends who like playing imaginary, role-playing games where the creepy porcelain doll is an imaginary queen of the kingdom. When that doll begins communicating with Poppy in her dreams, they learn that the doll is made from the bones of a dead girl, and if she is to rest in peace, she needs to be returned to her proper burial place.

Song for BijouSong for Bijou by Josh Farrar. 9780802733948. 2013. Gr. 5-7.

Mindy blogged about this book here, and the first thing that I noticed was how it looked like just another middle grade romance book. But, there is a lot more going on in this book, including the cultural aspects of the main characters’ lives. Also, it is refreshing to see a romance that isn’t centered wholly on the girl’s perspective, which acknowledges that yes, boys often are interested in girls at this age!

I would love to hear if you agree or disagree with my thinking on this topic. There is a growing movement, primarily in Europe at this point, to place pressure on publishers to moderate the influence of gender bias in books. You can learn more about it at Let Books Be Books, and please leave me a comment below to tell me your thoughts!