Friday, September 2, 2011

The troubling topic of "girls' books"

It is a long established belief in the book industry that girls will read books with boys as main characters, but not the reverse. While not entirely true, in my experience both as a reader and as a bookseller of more than a decade, it's pretty much accurate. Girls, for reasons which can only be guessed at, do not mind boys as the heroes; boys on the other hand often actively avoid books with female protagonists, even if they're the sort that do "boy" things, like fighting and adventuring. All of which leads to the idea that while there is only a small set of "boys' books", there is a very large set of "girls books". 

"Boys' books" are such things as sports based fiction, which don't have much crossover appeal. Other than that rather small ghetto of literature, there isn't much that girls don't get to. On the other hand, there is a vast sea of "girls' books", including a great number of quite famous and perennially popular books that few boys ever read. I speak of such titles as Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret; the entire Ramona Quimby series; the Little House books in all their numbers and varieties; the extraordinarily plentiful American Girl series; and perhaps the largest and most famous of the them all, The Diary of Anne Frank.

Anne Frank's book is a peculiar case. It is not a novel, as the rest are. It is a work that examines an interesting and critical period in history from a crucial perspective. It is (as are many of the books listed above) a classic work, assigned in schools across the country. And yet, other than those school assignments, you will seldom if ever find a boy reading the book.

Recently, the employees at the Kids' Desk in my store made up lists of the their top ten books for kids. Everyone at the desk made one up, as did a good number of other employees. Almost all the people at the kids' desk are women, one of those things that just happens, and every one of them, I believe, put The Diary of Anne Frank on their list. Most often in the top five, even. Of the men who participated, not a one of us did. Not anywhere on the list at all. And most of us had never even read the book. Yet I can't deny that it would be a worthy book to read (I was among those who hadn't read it). It would inform us of things. It would reveal a part of the world. But I haven't, and the other men hadn't. And why?

Boys don't read that, was my answer. I could give no more reason than that. I didn't need to give more of a reason; it was like saying rain fell down from the clouds, or gravity pulls things toward each other. It is something that can be observed, and is generally speaking true, and thus does not need to be investigated. All the women were shocked at my statement, but it wasn't incorrect. Boys don't read that. We just don't. We don't read Little House, we don't read the Click, we don't read (much) even so big a thing as Twilight. We just don't. They are stories, we recognize, for girls, for women, but not for us boys. We know this without thought.

It's a shame that we know this. It limits us as readers. Not that I think we should read Pretty Little Liars (I don't really think anyone should read that), but that we should, more of us at least, read Laura Ingalls Wilder. We should more of us read the Brontes. We should, perhaps, even try to find out what makes Twilight tick for so many women of all ages. And we should certainly read The Diary of Anne Frank.

 But we don't. And we won't. And there is something problematic and troubling about that. I don't have a solution. I only know there is a problem.


  1. Well, one solution would be for teachers and librarians and booksellers to stop thinking of them as boys books and girls books.

    My kids teachers in December book giving time ask parents to send their child to school with a girl book or a boy book.

    While I understand what they and you are talking about books have no gender.

    I drove this point home to my own boys and the teachers at the school and other teachers I know while that school still asks for gendered books at winter gifting time the class of a few of my teacher friends don't anymore. My boys read and loved the Little House books, they love Pipi Longstocking and I hope will have no problems reading Anne Frank when they are ready for it.

  2. What about the books of Roald Dahl, I just realized as I was thinking about this that when I was in the 4th grade or so his books were beloved by many male students:)

  3. The whole point of my talk about the Kids Desk lists was that none of the people working there thought Anne Frank was a girls' book. They were shocked when they realized its not something boys read. I think that's the case with all the "quality" girls' books. The bad ones, like the bad boys' books, can stay with their genders for what little it matters. But the good ones, boys don't really read, and not because they're told they're not supposed to.

  4. But they are told, subtlety, every day that they shouldn't read them.

  5. It's true, they are. And I don't think the Kids Desk people at my store, as shocked as they were by the lack of boys enjoying DoAF, are steering many boys to the book. Or to Little House. Or Anne of Green Gables. Because I think boys are taught, all the time, the ways boys should act, and what boys should do. Not by anyone even saying it outright (although some people do) but by what they see out in the world. Boys who like "girls'" things don't fare well in too much of the country. They must be boys, or their fathers will fear for their future; or other boys will mock them, torment them, beat them up. So yes, it is made clear what is and is not on the "approved" list for boys.