Final Thoughts. . .For Now

I cannot tell you how much I have appreciated the thoughtful, honest, frank and respectful contributions of each of the panelists who have participated in the past few days’ “discussion.” This is a huge topic so I asked if I had forgotten anything or if there was something the contributors would like to add. Those comments are posted here today.

Joni Sensel: I’m all for encouraging boys to read. But I also don’t think girls should essentially be punished or marginalized simply because they are the larger demographic among readers, and one that’s willing to read across gender lines. It’s a basic marketing tenet that it’s smarter to keep your current customers happy than to neglect them for prospects who may or may not ever become good customers. To my mind, intentionally filtering out female heroes to give more prominence to male ones, as the librarian suggested in SLJ – and perhaps even ensuring that there’s always a strong boy in the book, even if the main character is a girl — would have three negative impacts: First, it sanctions and reinforces the sexist notion that girls have to be willing to identify with and empathize with everyone, but boys don’t; second, it gives girls even fewer strong role models than they might have otherwise had; and third, it reinforces the not-so-subtle historical and contemporary cultural messages that girls can’t accomplish anything without a strong boy somewhere in the picture.

Terry Trueman: I think the topic is interesting, but I think that as artists, our best bet is to try and do our best work and let the chips fall; I’ve tried to write from a girls’ POV with no success.

Ben Watson: I just want to emphasize that universal appeal is great. Whether female or male, we have more traits in common as humans than are different. But there is value in each sex’s unique traits too. And we should honor that as well. We are humans first, but there are wonderful (and sometimes horrible) things about each of our cultures. I have nieces and nephews (yes I’m Uncle Ben). They are wired a little different, and I love it. I love playing ballerina with my nieces and dinosaur with my nephews. The other day my nephew came up with a pretty tiara on and said he was a princess. And, I’ll add, a very good-looking princess at that. And I’m also the uncle who gives his nieces big bulldozers and trucks. But they’re mostly interested in Fancy Nancy. It’s all good; ballerinas are cool too.

If you want boys to read books with girl characters, they just have to be kick-ass characters that appeal to them. They don’t have to be boys. Or they can be. We need plenty of both.

One more thought about writers, girls, boys, librarians, teachers, testing, etc. All that has merit in poor literacy for kids but there’s an elephant in the room and it kinda stinks. PARENTS! Where you at? There’s more competition for a parent’s time than ever before. Reality TV, Facebook, eHarmony and everything else under the sun, jobs, etc. Quit blaming everyone else when you’re too busy to read to your kids. If they don’t like a book, read a comic with them. Graphic novel. You name it. Many parents read a lot to their kids; many more don’t. Or they read picture books when they’re little but stop after that. Read aloud over their heads. Read exciting books. Often.

Jerene Battisti: This is a fascinating topic and I am a firm believer that there is a right book for the right reader whether the reader is male or female. I have been in this field since 1970 and yes, I have seen children and teens who do not like to read, but I have always been able to engage them in some way with books. I also think that for those “reluctant readers” there is often an underlying cause for that hesitancy. I can vividly recall being in 2nd grade and having one of my fellow students being forced to read aloud and it was such a frightening experience for that child that he threw up. An experience like that can scar a reader for life. I tutored middle school students who had reading difficulties and yet when I read aloud to them they absorbed the material immediately, and this was for a science class!

Jon Scieszka: One of the big villains in this whole complicated boy/reading question is our national mania for testing. We are pushing kids (particularly boys) to develop skills (particularly reading) that they are not developmentally ready for. A kindergartner should not be filling out bubbles on an SAT style answer sheet, or trying to master the abstract system of turning marks on the page into a story. They should be playing.

Erin Blakemore: I think there’s always been a stigma around reading “girl books,” even those that have strong cross-gender appeal. I always use the Little House on the Prairie books as an example. If and when boys are exposed to them, they usually end up enjoying them, but there’s a sort of expectation that the only people who will enjoy them are girls.

As someone who creates and writes about “girl books,” I struggle a lot with this topic. I would be thrilled if men embrace and enjoy The Heroine’s Bookshelf, but at the same time I want to acknowledge the women who have long found works that matter to them marginalized. Great authors like Margaret Mitchell and Betty Smith have gone out of vogue because their work has been dubbed sentimental “women’s fiction,” as if that means they’re any less full of craft and power, and over time books that could have universal appeal (I so remember reading a boyfriend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn out loud and him being RIVETED) are relegated to “the girl shelf.”

Ultimately, it’s the job of authors to write stories that are powerful and true, whether they have male and female characters or not. I like to think that story can trump gender, and though I’m not sure that will ever really happen, it’s something for librarians and authors to strive for.

In gratitude for this generous sharing of valuable time and good thinking, I am making a donation in honor of these ten panelists to Page Ahead, a Washington state non-profit literacy organization. If you valued the conversation, feel free to make a contribution either to Page Ahead or to a literacy organization in your own community.

I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about this conversation, if you haven’t shared already. Here’s what I’ve taken away: the best thing as a parent I did was to have lots of books around the house for my kids (many of our panelists said they read from their home libraries growing up); the best thing I can do as a community member is make sure the kids in my neighborhood have the largest assortment of books possible so each one can find “the” book that will turn them into a lifelong reader; and the best thing I can do as a writer is give my utmost to the page.

Thanks for joining the conversation. Now go read a good book!

No Responses to “Final Thoughts. . .For Now”

  1. Kjersten

    Just reading this great series now, after being out of town helping my cousin settle into college. Thanks for doing this Kirby!

    I wanted to take Ben’s cue and jump in as a parent.

    But I realized I wrote the world’s longest comment — I posted it over on my own blog instead of clogging up your comments:

    Mostly what I have to say is that I think boys are missing out — from a very very early age.

    Kids who read a ton of awesome picture books when they are small are on their way towards being readers. It’s ingrained in them to love story.

    And kids who read a ton of awesome picture books with characters who aren’t just like them are on their way towards being readers who read about people who aren’t just like them. It’s ingrained in them.

    I would also argue that they are on their way to understanding that people who aren’t just like them have amazing stories to tell.

    It all starts very early. And it starts at home.

  2. Kirby Larson


    You not only win the prize for the longest comment, you win for having the first!!!

    Email me your snail mail address and a copy of Hattie will be on its way to you.

  3. Vivian

    Thanks for hosting this discussion. The panelists offered great insight and lots of Aha! moments.

    As a parent with one struggling reader, I’ve often wondered why there weren’t more books geared for older children, but with more exciting topics. And the testing! I won’t even get into the stress my child goes through in the annual reading/writing tests that started in 3rd grade.

    Chapter books and lower-level MG books are geared toward the lower grades. When the child is older, and they still have to read these books, there is a disconnect. I think that’s one reason why some children, boys or girls, never get the love for reading– they’re ashamed they can’t read books perfect for their age (ie. the teacher tells them they need to read a certain book, but the protagonist is in 2nd grade, and the reader is in 3rd or 4th OR wanting to read a good adventure/fantasy series–like their friends–but overwhelmed because of the 300 plus pages of small print and difficult words).

    It wasn’t until I introduced my daughter to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, she finally found something she wanted to read. I had the opportunity to take her to a couple of Rick Riordan’s book signings and am still in awe at how many kids (especially boys) were at the signing. Over 700! They waited, they cheered, and a couple kids even camped outside the school before the signing.

    I sat near a group of 5th grade boys and it was incredible how animated they were talking about the books, wondering what kinds of questions to ask, thinking what will happen in the next series. They even engaged me in conversation, trying to get my opinion in characters. It was fantastic!

  4. storyqueen

    I have thought about this since I read the posts yesterday……and I don’t have the answer. But I do think that all people, kids included, should be able to like the kinds of books that they like, whatever they may be. And I think lots and lots of books get published….but only so many make it into the bookstores. It would be great to see more variety in what gets selected by bookstore buyers to showcase in their stores. (Because most of the books aimed at kids that grace the shelves often perpetuate the book stereotypes we talked about: Pink, sparkly, junior chick-lit covers vs super-duper action packed almost comic book dark covers.)

    Interesting discussion, Kirby! Thanks for hosting.


  5. Martha Brockenbrough

    I was really glad for all of this discussion and it was great to hear so many smart perspectives. I hope my original counterargument to the SLJ story didn’t come across as too strident (I can get that way on deadline). I’d never force a boy to read a book he didn’t want to read. And I can see why most boys aren’t going to be interested in, say, SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. Unless, of course, the reason the pants travel is that they were shot off with an uzi. I wish I’d included SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT in my list of universally appealing books with girl protagonists. Stephanie Edgely is a great heroine–brave, eager to act and full of questions. I can’t imagine a child not loving that book. Making her Stephen just to attract a male audience? That would be criminal.

    Anyway, this has been great. Thanks for doing it, Kirby. Can’t wait to read your new book!

  6. BJW

    I am a very big fan of Martha. Boys or Girls, all will love Martha’s books for a long time. And I’ll defend her to the heavens if she needed it, but of course she can take care of herself. Sort of a grammar ninja. And I deeply respect her passion and knowledge of children’s books and writing.