I have seen it happen in bookstores and libraries, time and again. A mom or dad looks down at a book and sees a girl on the cover, then shakes their head and says something like, “No, not that one. I have a son. I need a boy book.”
I know what they mean. It’s conventional wisdom. Boys read: fart jokes, battle scenes, and cartoons. Girls read fairies, princesses, and anything pink. There are lots of things in the middle (notably animal stories, everyone likes dogs), but the big rule of thumb tends to be that if there’s a girl on the cover, a boy won’t read it, despite the fact that if there’s a boy on the cover, a girl will.
(Of course, given the success of The Hunger Games, we can assume that if you introduce enough battle scenes, boys will read a book about a girl, but probably only then.)
Recently, I was talking to someone who sits on a state book award committee, and this person told me that they look for books that have an equal amount of “girl appeal” and “boy appeal.” The statement made sense, but something about it bothered me. I wasn’t sure what at first.
Now I know. And looking down the list of state award-winning books, I feel fairly confident that my friend isn’t the only person who evaluates gender this way. Most of them seem to be about boys.
When we assume that boys won’t read books with girls on the cover, and then institutionalize that assumption by leaving the “girlie” books out of award nominations (as well as school wide reads, story times, etc.), we insult them. By suggesting that on the whole our boys have a limited capacity for empathy, an inability to imagine a world beyond their own most obvious understanding, and an unwillingness to stretch.
In the same stroke, we neglect our girls. Not because they can’t read “boy books” (they do and will). But because when they see those awards, they also learn something —to accept a world in which they are rarely the central players. They learn, at a formative age, that the “best” books are the ones about boys. (Or dogs, as previously mentioned. Dogs are good.)
It’s a problem. And when we play into it, when we accept it as THE TRUTH, we’re reaching for the simplest solution, not the best one. Because the best solution would require us to push against the gender bias in the world, and in ourselves. It’s easier to say, “Boys naturally gravitate to these things, and we want them to read, don’t we?”
But when a kid likes candy and French fries, we do not feed them candy and French fries in an attempt to be certain they eat. We accept that they like what they like, then we fill their plate with a broad range of foods, a variety of flavors, in hopes they’ll find new favorites.
Look, I’m a mother of sons. I have two little boys at home who love fart jokes, battle scenes, and cartoons. I remember the holy glow in my older son’s eyes when he saw his first Transformer, and the first time my younger son turned a stick into a gun. But last year we also read our way through the Little House books, and those same boys clamored for more each night. We read Pippi Longstocking, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Charlotte’s Web and Ramona.
When we go to the bookstore my boys gravitate to Bone, Amulet, Wimpy Kid, and Percy Jackson, and that’s fine. We read those books too. But if I never even suggested that they might want to reach beyond that initial attraction, I’d be cheating them out of a broader understanding of literature and the world. More than that, I’d be giving them an expectation that life should meet their needs. That life should accommodate their preferences.
Which, to be honest, isn’t a message I think little boys need at all. Given that most of them plan to grow into men.