By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning
There are no such things as “girl books” and “boy books.” There is just a universe of books, waiting to be matched up with a universe of readers and listeners.
I firmly believe that statement, and probably would have agreed with it 15 years ago when I was a new librarian had anyone stated the case. But no one did, and like many of my colleagues (and many teachers and parents), I fell into a well-intentioned rut of using gender stereotypes as a shortcut for identifying books children might like. This was especially true when trying to connect reluctant readers with books—and even more so when the readers were boys.
Where’s the Harm?
I have thought about this a great deal over the last several years, and then I read a wonderful article by Shannon Hale: “What Are We Teaching Boys When We Discourage Them from Reading Books About Girls?” Published last fall in the Washington Post, Hale’s article helped clarify my thoughts on why these shortcuts are harmful to children, and ultimately to all of us.
Hale is best known for writing the Princess Academy series and the more recent Princess in Black books, which have generally been marketed and perceived as “girl books.” After visiting hundreds of schools and speaking with thousands of young readers, including boys who are fans, she wrote that she “got better at noticing the myriad ways adults teach boys that they should feel ashamed for taking an interest in a story about a girl, from outright (‘Put that down, that’s a girl book’) to subtle (‘I think you’ll like this book even though it’s about a girl’). There is peer shaming as well, but it starts with and is supported by adults.”
Hale is right, and I recognized myself in her description. I never would have discouraged a boy from picking up a book about a girl, but I certainly pitched books about girls to boy readers as if the books were a long shot. Indeed, the phrase “even though it’s about a girl” is dispiritingly familiar.
The harm is in the underlying assumptions that lead us to segregate “boy books” from “girl books.” They are pretty ugly assumptions, even when they spring from good intentions. I would describe them this way:
- Boys are all the same. They do not like to read. They will never be interested in reading books about girls, which are “girly.”
- Girls are all the same. They like to read. They especially like “girly” books, but will also enjoy books about boys.
- It follows that reading itself is vaguely “girly” (and that “girly” is not good).
Elizabeth Mulvahill summed this up neatly in a September 2018 article at We Are Teachers: “When we buy into gendered reading, ‘boy’ books tend to be for everyone while ‘girl’ books are only for, well . . . girls.”
That is belittling to girls, of course, but also does a disservice to boys. And in making these assumptions, we teach a whole new generation of readers and listeners to do the same.
Let Kids Take the Lead
According to the latest edition of Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report, more than 90 percent of children ages 5 to 17 report that their favorite books are the ones they choose themselves. A similar number report that they are more likely to finish a book if they have chosen it themselves.
Of course adults—teachers, parents, librarians, and others—still have a role to play in connecting kids with books. But Scholastic’s report is a sharp reminder that every child is an individual, and our role is to provide kids with a range of choices that widen their horizons rather than constrict them.
The idea that boys will only read “boy books” has become so entrenched over the years that you will find booklists, boys-only book clubs, and whole series of books dedicated to that premise. In a 2005 interview, children’s author and Guys Read founder Jon Scieszka explained, “What we haven’t done with boys is we haven’t really given them a broad range of reading. In schools, what’s seen as reading is so narrow: it’s literary, realistic fiction.”
If you take gender out of the equation, I entirely agree. We should be presenting all kids with all kinds of books: fiction, nonfiction, comics, poetry. Books about kids who look like them and kids who don’t. Books that are funny, sad, and scary. And books about boys and girls.
What About the Gender Gap?
For decades, testing data has indicated that boys lag behind girls in reading skills and enjoyment of reading (see “The Gender Gap in Reading”). But looking at the long-term trends, it is clear that gender gaps have been narrowing, not widening, since the first National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1971. As Sarah D. Sparks noted in Education Week in 2015, other factors, including socioeconomic status, seem to play a significant role in the gender gap. That implies that a closer look at the research and a more nuanced approach to helping struggling readers will be required to help all children succeed.
The good news is that moving away from gendered reading is fairly simple. Whether you are a parent selecting books for your child, a public or school librarian helping kids choose books, or a teacher choosing books to read aloud, the initial steps are the same:
- Listen to kids. Ask about their interests and base your reading suggestions on what they say they like, not on what you assume they like.
- Mix it up. If a child asks for books about princesses or rockets or jokes, great. But try to add some variety to the mix with unexpected picks. For instance, Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony stars a princess but also includes a surprising number of fart jokes. Throw in a couple of nonfiction titles and a comic or two, and you are likely to tempt even the most reluctant of readers, regardless of sex.
- Listen to yourself. Pay attention to the language you use when talking with kids (and other adults) about books and reading. If you catch yourself saying things like “even though it’s about a girl,” step back and try again. If you are a teacher choosing a book to read aloud, be mindful about the “boy books are for everyone” trap.
- Start a conversation. When the idea of “boy books” or “girl books” comes up, take the opportunity to talk about the subject in a friendly and age-appropriate way.
Making this change may not always be easy or comfortable. But if it helps us treat all children with respect, the whole universe of readers will be better for it.
Amadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.
Amadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.
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Hale, Shannon. “What Are We Teaching Boys When We Discourage Them from Reading Books About Girls?” Washington Post, October 10, 2018.
Jensen, Kelly. “Books for Boys and Books for Girls: Problems with Gendered Reading.” Book Riot, September 13, 2013.
Larbalestier, Justine. “The Problem with ‘Boy Books.’” Justine Larbalestier, February 15, 2017.
Loveless, Tom. “The Gender Gap in Reading.” Brookings Institution, Brown Center Chalkboard Series Archive, March 26, 2015.
McAlpin, Gordon. “Interview with Jon Scieszka.” Bookslut, June 2005.
Mulvahill, Elizabeth. “Why We Need to Stop Talking About ‘Girl’ Books and ‘Boy’ Books.” WeAreTeachers, September 10, 2018.
Sparks, Sarah D. “What You Might Not Know About the Gender Gap in Reading.” Education Week, March 26, 2015.
What Kids Want in Books: Kids and Family Reading Report. Scholastic Inc., 2017.