Girl books and boy books

Rachel Neumeier has a really interesting post on the subject, from a perspective I don’t think I’ve quite seen before. I also left her a heinously long comment over there. Here it is, copied, because I think it’s interesting and this is the best I’ve been able to articulate my thoughts. With a warning that at the same time, it’s a bunch of word-spew and I may regret the whole thing later. (So feel free to disagree, but be gentle, please.)

“Okay, warning, this kind of touched a nerve with me, so long comment ahead! Also, I’m not sure how directly it relates to your original post.

As a library worker, if a 10 year old boy comes up and asks me for a book, I’m not necessarily going to suggest something that’s pink. I might try suggesting a book that’s typically seen as a girl book, but if he says no, I won’t push it. It’s not my place to make reading decisions for kids, to tell them what they ought to read, whatever my personal views. And so a lot of times I do see boys reading boy books and girls reading girl books and I see it both as a natural thing (as you’re discussing above) and as something which is constantly reinforced. But I have had boys say, “I’m not going to read that; it’s a girl book.” I don’t remember ever having a girl say, “I’m not going to read that; it’s a boy book,” though pink books–Disney Fairies, Fancy Nancy, Disney Princesses, Dora–are extremely popular.

And to be honest, with young kids I don’t see that as so much of an issue. But then I do hear and see reactions from adults, usually males, who react to female books as if they are inferior because they are female. Read what you want; that’s not my issue. It’s when there’s a sense of gendered books (on either side, but I see it usually as male looking down on female) as wrong or inferior that I get het up. And I do see that kind of comment, in a variety of ways, not the least of which being the recent complaints about the number of women on the Nebula/Norton shortlist.

I want boys to read, absolutely, but I also to encourage their reading not at the expense of girls’ reading. And so I worry about people who say, ‘We need more male protagonists!’ (Again, something I have actually seen.) If women have historically struggled to make their voices heard, the fact that people start swooning as soon as there’s the appearance of a larger female voice in a body of literature, that’s troublesome to me.

And I remember growing up, my sister and I were allowed and encouraged to read EVERYTHING. Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, Patrick O’Brian. My brother, on the other hand, was actively discouraged from reading anything written by a woman because those were ‘girl books’.

So I know that when I have a boy who comes into the library and will only consider ‘boy books’, there are probably both inherent and huge cultural reasons for that. I’m not going to change that, or force him to read something he doesn’t want to. That’s not my place. But I know if I have boys, I will encourage them to read whatever they want. If they want to read about dinosaurs and outer space, that’s just fine. But they’ll be free to read either.

As far as specific suggestions, The Thief springs to mind, especially for the boy who wants boy books but is also a bit introspective. Rosemary Sutcliff, if they’re willing to go a bit old-fashioned. *I* think anyone ought to love The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, though there is some romance there. I certainly mourn the rise of cookie cutter paranormal/dystopian/steampunks, but that’s less from a gendered viewpoint and more from wanting interesting and unique stories.

And so much of it is marketing–put better/less feminized covers on a lot of books and I bet male readership would shoot up. Put a girl in a prom dress on the front cover and what teenage boy is going to be willing to check it out.

I don’t know. I guess my summation is that this is such a complicated issue and at the intersection of a lot of things I think a lot of people care about but don’t necessarily have really good answers for.”

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4 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, thoughts

4 responses to “Girl books and boy books

  1. That was an interesting article. I left a comment too but it’s awaiting moderation. 🙂

  2. My two cents (since I mostly want to talk about it with you and not with loads of other people on the Internet):

    Good reader’s advisory isn’t prescriptive; it’s responsive. A kid comes in needing a book to read for school. The library worker asks questions: what’s the last really good book you read? do you prefer fast-paced stories? do you like fantasy stories or realistic stories? fiction or nonfiction? mysteries? history? animals? And then, based on what the kid says, the library worker helps him pick out a book that matches his interests. A savvy library worker can certainly match boys with non-overtly-boy books that still fit the kid’s stated criteria. But suggesting books that don’t fit a kid’s preferences is doing him a HUGE disservice. Interest in reading material is one of the most significant factors in reading motivation. If you make kids read books they don’t like, they eventually start to dislike reading.

    Book displays, group booktalks, book lists…those are all places where you can (and should!) present a wide variety of both girl- and boy-friendly books. Balance and diversity are key when presenting to a general audience, but individual recommendations should be personalized. Every kid is different in ways that are shaped by but also unrelated to gender. (And let’s not forget transgender children, who have complicated relationships with gender, too!)

    Also, the evolutionary bio bit made me feel ALL THE FEELINGS. When someone says, “three month old babies demonstrate these preferences!” my response is, “I do not see data that definitively prove causation! Do the boy babies sleep in rooms with car wallpaper and play with stuffed cars, while the girl babies sleep in pink rooms with cuddly dolls? Unless your study has controlled for environmental factors, you can’t rule out the influence of culture completely!” Also, I suspect that primates in captivity might be influenced by the social behaviors of the human researchers.

    • Maureen E

      I am certainly not formally trained in how to do reader’s advisory and have mostly had to make it up as I go along (so it’s possible I’m Doing it Wrong). In my experience, a vast majority of times a kid has a specific subject in mind and once I narrow it down to fiction or non-fiction, I’ll suggest several books, either based on the catalog, or personal knowledge. If one of those works, wonderful! If not, I’ll ask more questions to narrow down, or make sure I’m not missing a key piece of information. So I wouldn’t suggest any child read something I knew he wasn’t going to be interested in, but if I don’t know exactly what he’d be interested in I might suggest something that’s a bit more ‘girly,’ just in case. And often times I don’t bother, either because I can tell it’s not going to fly, or because I’m feeling grumpy/rushed/etc. Even if I do suggest a book that is a bit more girly, if a boy doesn’t pick it (usually the case), I’m not bothered by that. I want the patron to find the book he or she wants; my suggestions are only meant as options and my attempts to suggest girl books are mostly meant to widen options a bit so that if a boy IS interested, I’m not limiting him myself. Again, I think it may come down to a difference in reference strategies–ie, we’re not actually as far apart as it seems in terms of philosophy.

      I thought about transgender but didn’t bring it up because I am SO ignorant in that area and don’t like talking out of ignorance.

      It’s worth pointing out that in my thinking there’s a whole paradigm shift between how librarians ought to act and how parents ought to act. I think librarians ought to respond to the needs and desires of the patron in front of them, without a lot of reference to their own personal desires and beliefs (of course we’re always going to have bias, but not letting that shade our suggestions too much, etc). I think parents ought to make sure that their children feel comfortable reading whatever they want and to avoid reinforcing the idea that, most especially, boys can only read books about boys.

      Your criticisms of the study are definitely sensible ones. I would be fascinated the see the results of one that took them into account. Simply personally speaking, I’m not terribly bothered by the idea of inherent gender differences, partly because to me whether there’s an inherent difference or whether it’s purely social construct, the current practical effects really exist and that’s what we’re dealing with on a daily basis. I have huge problems with privileging one expression of gender over another, but I think (?) that’s a different, though obviously related, issue. And I know that other people, yourself included, do have huge problems with the idea of inherent gender differences, so I try to be sensitive to that.

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