Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Monday, April 13, 2015

Fifty Shades of Pink and Blue, or Boy Books and Girl Books

For the past few weeks I've enjoyed Ramona De Felice Long's Forty Days of Praise blog. In response to the Fifty Shades kerfuffle, Ramona wanted to highlight books about strong women by female authors.

Reading her blog made me think about one of the trials of children’s librarians: Getting boys to read a Girl Book.

Is there such a thing as a Boy Book or a Girl Book?

What makes a Girl Book? To start, is a Girl Book simply a book written by a woman?

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton would argue against that. Though maybe that’s not the best example – since Hinton was hiding behind those initials, and the book has male protagonists. Is a Girl Book a book written by a woman with a female protagonist? Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games disproves that view, since boys are eager to read this dystopian thriller.

Island of the Blue Dolphins
What about the Nancy Drew books? Or The Cupcake Diaries? Ah, we’re getting closer. In my experience, once a boy reaches third or fourth grade he does not want to be seen with a book with a pink cover.

But that doesn’t explain older boys who moan about school assignments like Island of the Blue Dolphins and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, two exciting reads without a trace of pink on the cover. Some boys simply refuse to read a book about a girl. Girls, on the other hand, take Johnny Tremain or Bud, Not Buddy without fuss.

Now, if you are a psychologist who is going to write me
Stinky Cheese Man
about the formation of the male psyche, please don’t bother. I don’t see that reading one whole whopping book about a girl is going to do any boy harm, because I’ve seen some girls’ psyches form just fine on a diet of Big Nate and The Stinky Cheese Man.

For the past decade I've worked in a public library. As the years have passed, boys and their parents have become increasingly vocal in refusing to read books about girls. "He won't read girl books," one exasperated mother said as I pressed The Diary of a Young Girl into her teen son’s ungrateful hands. Sorry, bud, but the story of a human being your own age who maintains her humanity in the face of unspeakable evil is worth reading.

Does anyone else see the shining path from this kid not wanting to read about a girl to Jennifer Weiner’s campaign to have more books by women authors reviewed in The New York Times?

Reading is a way to inhabit the world of another person, to truly walk in their shoes. Studies show that reading creates empathy, a quality that is ever harder to find in our day of internet tribes.

My wise children’s literature professor, Dr. Pat Feehan would say, “Children need mirrors and children need windows.” Books are those mirrors and windows. Yes, children need to see themselves and their world in books, so they feel part of the wider world. Children not only visit other worlds through the window of books, they can be another person in a story by empathizing with the characters.

Sure there are books that revel in their girly-ness - the Disney princess books, any book with pink, glitter, and ponies with hair bows. And anyone who spends time with kids knows that there are always a few kids who are reading outside of their pink or blue boxes, girls who howl over Captain Underpants and boys who read every volume of Nancy Drew.

But what explains this growing itchiness about Girl Books?

I think it's marketing. Our every move is parsed to its most granular level by marketers who want to figure out how to make us buy their stuff. Which is why girl books are getting girlier and boy books are getting....a female sidekick. Wise authors and publishers put girls and boys together – usually in a stale but acceptable-to-boys older brother/spunky younger sister configuration – to sell books. It works.

There’s gold in those Boy Books. At every conference, agents beg for the middle grade boy book that will blow up the bestseller lists like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Lightning Thief. Books for boys sell a lot, because both boys and girls will read them.

But some boys simply won't read a book about a girl, boys who in my opinion, are not only being immature and inflexible, but also missing out. Because guys? Guys? Pay attention. The answer to the eternal question “What do women want?” is answered in so many of those Girl Books you won't read. You would better understand the other half of the world if you would just walk a mile in her pink sneakers.


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Boys won't read girl books, and in grades 4-8, teachers won't assign books with a female protagonist as a class assignment. When asked, they explained that it was more important to keep boys reading than to worry about girls reading an endless succession of boy and dog books. My son discovered Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar books, and never stopped reading after that.

Warren Bull said...

Boys refusing to read girl's books never made sense to me. I loved the "little house" books and I would read books by women and about girls when I was a child.

Jim Jackson said...

When it comes to literature in schools I believe in a combination of required reading and choice reading.

Required reading's purpose is to expand the world of the child -- which includes learning about other cultures, times and (yes) other sexes.

In their optional reading kids can select mirror books if they wish, but the curriculum should be filled with great books with great diversity.

I agree it would help to have neutral covers, but hey, does anyone remember book covers you made from (gasp) brown paper bags we used to make to protect the books we used in school?

Guess I'm feeling curmudgeon-y this morning.

Kait said...

What a fun post, Shari. Well do I remember the clearly delineated dividing lines between "boy" books and "girl" books. I mean, I've read all of the Hardy Boy mysteries that were written up to the date I stopped reading that grade level book - but I don't know any boys who read Nancy Drew - all of which I read up until... Isn't it funny, and isn't it great that the Harry Potter books encouraged reading by both genders!

Shari Randall said...

Margaret, teachers do deal with this, too, but I think that making a book a class assignment would help.
And I am a fan of the Myron Bolitar books too, especially the Young Adult ones.

Shari Randall said...

Warren, you warm my heart! Those Little House books were my kids favorites. When we read them together as a family, it was my husband who was totally hooked!

Shari Randall said...

Jim, I am with you in the curmudgeon club.
And I do remember those brown paper bag covers ;)

Shari Randall said...

Hi Kait,
Yes, the Harry Potter books are gold - complex characters of both sexes and all ages. It just strikes me as so strange that boys are so adamant about reading about girls, but girls so easily read about boys. I also read the Hardy Boys, but did find they didn't rise to the Nancy Drew level for me.

Sarah Henning said...

Interesting. My son actually LOVES the "Pinkalicious" books, which you'd think he wouldn't want to read. Go figure?

E. B. Davis said...

I was bound and determined not to raise my kids in a sexist manner. Then they foiled me by being stereotypical of their sex. I was flummoxed, and I still don't know how to combat that problem except to fight fire with fire. I'm reading a murder mystery now that has as its theme, "He said/She said," who are married PIs. If not for "her" chapters, I probably would have put the book down. Oh well, the beat goes on.

Kara Cerise said...

I think it's wonderful that both boys and girls enjoy reading Harry Potter. Unfortunately, I don't think the books would be as popular if the main character was named Harriet Potter. I wonder what would happen if teachers added a few Girl Books to their required reading lists...

KM Rockwood said...

The way things are going in education these days, I don't think we have to worry about girls vs. boys fiction. The vast majority of what the incoming curricula emphasize is non-fiction. Spending much time on fiction & literature is seen as waste of instructional opportunity. And the concept of optional books--how can they prepare for standardized tests if they spend school time on non-essential material?

I think I got out of education at the right time. For me, at least.

Kids from homes that don't read may not get much exposure to fiction.

One interesting side note--when I worked in a medium security male prison, we got a fair number of donations of magazines, including women's magazines (and we were very careful to make sure the address labels were removed!) A lot of the young men were eager to read the women's magazines, because they wanted to see what women were interested in and try to understand how they thought.

Shari Randall said...

Sarah, I love that your son is a rebel!

Shari Randall said...

EB, I tried to give my oldest trucks and dollies. She'd just paint the trucks pink! You were aware and you tried, and I think that's what makes the difference. I heard a woman in the grocery store telling her daughter to put down a baseball because "that's for boys." That's what worries me.

Shari Randall said...

Kara and KM, you both make good points about education. Kara, I simply cannot believe that teachers can't change this. They do have the power to assign diverse books. I hope more take it.
Though as KM points out, fiction is disappearing from our schools as the boneheaded Common Core sweeps the nation. Oops, did I say that?