“Is this a book for girls?” asks a young man, one day when I’m volunteering at the school library. It’s Raina Telgemeier’s excellent graphic novel, Drama. The party line, of course, is that there’s no such thing as boy books and girl books. I have a feeling, though, if I say that, he’ll think I’m a fool.
The publishing industry has certain conventional wisdoms about what boys and girls will and will not read. Boys will not read books by women, although girls will read books by men, and that’s why Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling. Similarly, conventional wisdom says boys will only read about boys, while girls will read about boys or girls. Some series neatly split the audiences – think The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, or for non-fiction, The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls. Kids can suss out these intentions in varying degrees, but instead of helping them find books they like, what if certain covers cause kids to feel as though some books are off-limits? Or worse, cause adults like me to steer kids away from books we fear will cause alienation from peers.
My first instinct, I’m embarrassed to say, is to protect the boy from being teased. The book has a purple cover and a girl with a heart drawn over her head. But then I gin up enough presence of mind to put it back on him. I tell him, “It’s about a girl who likes a boy. What do you think?” The boy shrugs and checks out the book. I wonder if I’ve done right by him or not with my answer.
When I related this story to the class teacher, she fumed. “I hate it when the kids say there are boy books and girl books,” she said. “Last year, I saw the boys peeking at Dork Diaries, but refuse to check them out, so one day, I just started reading it to the class. Then they started checking the books out.”
She then revealed that my own daughter had a similar reaction to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book we were reading together as part of the series. That this book might be considered a boy book never occurred to me, in spite of, duh, the title and the picture on the cover. “I thought it was just going to be about boys and the stuff they do,” my daughter told me. “But now I know that it’s a book for everybody.” Indeed, it’s a favorite part of our day, to snuggle under the covers and discover Almanzo’s next adventure.
In the United Kingdom, a campaign called Let Books Be Books has sprung up, urging publishers to stop saying books are “for boys” or “for girls” on the cover. That campaign argues that such labels restrict children and even make them targets for bullying. It’s certainly a valid point, but children are certainly wise to even more subtle cues.
While some argue that the industry is/should bemoving toward more gender-neutral books – as seen in this Today show clip – it seems to me that part of our efforts to allow children to freely select any book they desire should include models for enjoying all books. We can read books together as a group, showing that all are expected to enjoy. We can introduce books of all stripes during book talks, trying to maintain an awareness of any unintentional bias we might have (Did I just bypass Ella Enchanted because it seems like a girl book?) We can talk openly about what makes us think a book might be for a boy or a girl, and to think more deeply beyond first impressions.
By the end of library time, the young man had something to tell me. “Everyone’s making such a big deal out of me checking out this book,. I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said, with just a tiny bit of pride.
What is your answer to the question, “Is this a girl (or boy) book?”
Wendy Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu and the upcoming book, The Way Home Looks Now. She reads books for all kinds of people.