One Size Fits All?

I decided to give my panelists a little breather today and ask them something easy, like to name some examples of children’s and young adult books that seem to appeal to readers, regardless of gender. Oh, I did ask them to explain why they thought those titles had such universal appeal.

Reverse alphabetical order today!

Ben Watson: Harry Potter! Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiller, Charlotte’s Web, Holes, Narnia, Wrinkle In Time trilogy, The Golden Compass, Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona and the gang, Hunger Games (haven’t read it yet but heard all about it and sounds great) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Mostly they are excellent stories with adventure or humor. Just great characters, engaging plots, and damned good stories. I think some subject matter appeals more universally than others. Spies? Hello. I loved Harriet the Spy because she went and spied on everybody. I went through a spy phase. I didn’t care if the character was a boy or girl, she was a spy! One of the sequels with the boy protagonist, Sport, wasn’t as good in my opinion. And the Mixed Up Files, who wouldn’t want to run away and live in a museum for a bit? Take money out of the fountain, be in charge. Awesome. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Do I need to explain the universal appeal of a CHOCOLATE FACTORY?

I think the best universal books don’t exclude readers like an insider’s club. The authors just write excellent characters that we want to spend time with. And the more interesting/funny/dangerous subject, the better. But I don’t think all books need to be universal either. There’s some unique stuff about being a girl, or a boy, that is pretty dang cool. Not all of that appeals to a majority of the other sex. That’s okay. There’s always going to be some girls that love kick-ass ninjas, that doesn’t mean most do (unless it became really popular and trendy, like the Kill Bill movies).

Terry Trueman: not exactly a modest moment here, but I think my books, especially Stuck in Neutral, appeal to both boys and girls—again, intense plot line with a sympathetic and interesting character.

Joni Sensel: I’ll let the librarians and those with more experience observing boys’ choices answer this one!

Jon Scieszka: Most of Roald Dahl’s books seem to fall in this category. And I think the appeal is great storytelling. Boys will read about main character Matilda because the story is so good.

The recent Hunger Games books – with a girl protagonist and kid characters who get killed by other kids – are a great example of storytelling that breaks all kinds of mis-conceived “rules”. They are great books because they are great stories.

Rodman Philbrick: Harry Potter, obviously, as well as the Redwall series. Both series have great narrative drive, and characters that spring fully to life. The ability to create a world entire is bound to appeal across gender lines.

Nancy Pearl: I think humor can unify the boy/girl division – all the Beverly Cleary books, for example, or The Great Brain titles.

Dave Patneaude: The obvious ones are those books about the boy wizard written by that Englishwoman. Just based on my drive-by research while I’ve stood in Harry Potter lines before midnight on release date, I’d say the readership is close to fifty-fifty. No matter your gender, there’s a tremendous amount of appeal built into those books. Nancy Farmer’s books also have wide appeal for both boys and girls. I love her stories, her characters, and her use of humor. Want a lesson on voice and action on the page, forget about gender and all that stuff? Read The Ear, The Eye and The Arm. Another book that comes to mind that I enjoyed immensely is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Girl main character, but there’s an ominous feeling of conflict from the first page on. Some other books that I see as having a broader audience are Because of Winn-Dixie, The Graveyard Book, Feed, and The Book Thief.

I think most of the time the “why” of it has to do with superlative writing or storytelling ability and most often both. And it doesn’t hurt to get the right amount of buzz, some good publicity, strong reviews, and that elusive thing that gets one into the inner circle. But I was thinking of titles like The Outsiders and the other S.E. Hinton books, The Bridge to Terabithia, Holes, The Giver, Number the Stars, Stargirl, The Golden Compass series, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Life as We Knew It, The City of Ember, A Northern Light, A Long Way from Chicago and other Richard Peck books, The Uglies/Pretties, etc, The Tale of Despereaux, Out of the Dust, Love That Dog and Skellig. Lots of these are written by or about females, or they at least have females in prominent roles, but they’ve managed to find a wider audience. I don’t think most people would call any of them “girl” books.

Tyler Larson: The most obvious example of late is Harry Potter, and the Twilight series, which I know you love [ed.note: this panelist is directing this comment to Kirby]. I haven’t really read any of either series, but I think that with both having to do with kids in school, it gives the young adult reader an obvious point of empathy. I also believe that like anything else, it’s hard to predict what’s going to get popular with kids because their rubric for decision-making is very malleable. In other words, I don’t think there’s anything unique about those two series in particular (other than neither is particularly challenging to the reader) that would account for their success and popularity.

Erin Blakemore: Man, this is insane! The examples I’m coming up with are mostly sci-fi or fantasy based. Harry Potter, the Brian Jacques books, Ender’s Game. I think these books have a relational element, but they also feature adventure and action, which appeals across genders.

Jerene Battisti: Books that have universal appeal regardless of gender are those that have an enduring story to tell, that stand the test of time and are well-craft
ed. Titles that come to mind are: Bridge to Terabithia, The Giver, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, The Book Thief, Speak, How I Live Now. . .I could go on and on!

Tomorrow, I badger my poor panelists into addressing whether or not they consider gender in selecting a main character (for the writers) or in reading/recommending a book (to the readers).

No Responses to “One Size Fits All?”

  1. Emilie

    I thought for sure someone would mention “Holes,” which I loved but which a lot of kids, both boys and girls, have also loved. The girl I’ve tutored for two years says its one of her favorites, and she’s about the most reluctant reader I know. Several boys in the same program love it too.

    To “Harry Potter,” I have to say that my brother and I, six years apart in age with vitually nothing else in common, used to fight over the books when they first came out. Our parents had to set time limits on our reading and force us to trade:)

  2. Kirby Larson


    You win a copy of Hattie! Email me a snail mail address and how you’d like it signed.

    Dave did mention Holes, but it was in a long list of titles he thought of. . .the fact that there was a long list is a good thing, I think!

  3. Emilie

    You’re right, I see it now. I must have been too caught up in the other good titles mentioned in his list. And I agree, long lists of good books are a good thing!

  4. Dawn VanderMeer

    I’m enjoying your discussion–interesting questions and answers (today and the other days). Very thought provoking. I try and think how I’d answer before I read the panelists’ responses. HUNGER GAMES was what came to mind first, though I just read it. The Harry Potter books–they will forever wow me at so many levels. What about Jon Scieszka’s TIME WARP TRIO?! Sooo fun for boys and girls! My daughter introduced me to them when she was younger.

  5. BJW

    Who’s Jon Scieszka? Sounds like an interesting bloke. Did you say he writes books Dawn? 😉 Thank you Tricia.

  6. storyqueen

    I think the panelists are right about a good story having the ability to transcend genders…(somehow I am not sure if that sentence makes sense).

    I would add Sid Fleischman to the list. Even though his characters are predominantly boys, I LOVED his books when I was little. And, back in those days (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I don’t remember seeing any books that just catered to girls unless you count Nancy Drew or the romance titles targeted at women. We kind of graduated from really great literature introduced to us by teachers (I still remember my fifth grade teacher reading James and the Giant Peach) to Harlequin in junior high because there just wasn’t the vast array of YA books that we have now.

    Usually, by ninth grade, we read grown-up books because it looked cool.