Snips and Snails and Sugar and Spice

This round of discussion touches on two similar questions:

  • If there is such a thing as a boy’s book, what does it look like?
  • If there is such a thing as a girl’s book what does it look like?

I’m posting panelist’s answers in alphabetical order today.

If there is such a thing, what does a boy’s book look like?

Jerene Battisti: To me, some of the “boy” books are Hole in My Life, Son of the Mob, Hoot, Flush, and Peter and the Starcatchers, but that is not to say that girls do not read these titles as well.

Erin Blakemore: Wow, I am having a really hard time answering this one! My gut says “it looks like it is not a girl book.” Wow.

Tyler Larson: Instinct would tell me it’s either fantasy/sci fi or sports related and has a strong male protagonist.

Dave Patneaude: I’m generalizing here, but I’d say a boys’ book needs to have characters a reader cares about, but it also needs to have something for them to do. And that something has to start early and continue. The conflict has to be significant and consequential. Girls may be happy with relationship conflicts, but boys (even if the relationship conflicts involve vampires), not so much. That said, there are boys with the patience for a quieter well-written story. I’m definitely not a boy anymore, but I really appreciate a well-designed character-driven story, whether it involves a boy or girl.

Nancy Pearl: I think a “boys book” is probably more action oriented, less interior, focused more on exterior attributes. That being said, I think about Al Capone Does My Shirts and how much boys love that as much as girls do (or more), and that’s very interior, very feeling focused. But this division into “books for boys” and “books for girls” continues through adulthood. I know male readers who wouldn’t touch a Barbara Kingsolver or an Anne Tyler novel with a ten-foot pole. And that’s sad.

Rodman Philbrick: It’s called Captain Underpants and I wish I’d thought of it.

Jon Scieszka: Some of the very rare real research that has been done about gender and reading is in a great book called Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys. The authors found that boys, in general, prefer action/adventure, humor, non-fiction, visual storytelling, and mysteries. But they also found that boys are social readers. They want to read for a reason — to gain knowledge, to read what friends are reading. They will read a wide variety of books.

Joni Sensel: My first novel has been described as a boys’ book, though that wasn’t intentional on my part. It has a lot of silly humor and a mystery, so I supposed I’d start with descriptions such as funny, unexpected or mysterious, and perhaps with a strong villain or physical conflict. But I’m not sure I’m qualified to really answer this question.

Terry Trueman: A book with a teenaged, male protagonist.

Ben Watson: Stereotypically it would look like Greg Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, though it was my girl cousin who introduced me to it. And I love it. I think if a story is mostly just about angst, relationships, and miscommunication, well, you’re not gonna get the largest readership of boys in the world. I’d get restless reading books where I didn’t feel like there was much action. I remember reading a book of short stories called Sinister Spies by Alfred Hitchcock (doubt it was actually by him). I was riveted. That sums up a typical boys book to me. Great Brain books, The Outsiders. What do bb’s look like? Sometimes a boy on the cover or a gothic font like on Artemis Fowl. Linda Zuckerman’s A Taste For Rabbit cover looks like a boy book, with an archer bunny silhouette in the background and a rabbit getting mauled by a fox in the foreground with bloody paw prints. Something suggesting danger, adventure, or something funny. Hardy Boys. (ehh)

If there is such a thing, what does a girl’s book look like?

Jerene Battisti: The “girl” books that come to mind immediately are titles like Princess Mia, Princess Academy, President’s Daughter, Beka Cooper, Terrier and many others. Obviously the Clique and the Gossip Girl series are designed to appeal to tween and teen readers.

Erin Blakemore: In my heart I feel like there are no such things, but the reality is that there are plenty of series books still marketed as “girl books” that feature pink or pastel covers, art that features girls looking gorgeous and poised, and the promise of many, many more books in the series.

Tyler Larson: Probably historical or contemporary fiction with a strong female protagonist.

Dave Patneaude: A girls’ book? Another generalization, because girls tend to cross all kinds of boundaries to read what they want to read. I write mostly mystery/suspense stuff with mostly boy characters, but I’d be willing to bet that most of my readers are girls. So my generalization is that girl books tend to be quieter and less tied to plot. But there are all kinds of exceptions to that. Girls may not be much into sci-fi or sports, but pretty much everything else is fair game.

Nancy Pearl
: The general consensus, I suppose, of a “girls book” is that it focuses on domestic issues, be they doll houses, love and marriage, or child rearing. They’re less page-turners. Again, I think that boys can enjoy a book that includes these things, but it takes a good teacher/librarian to help boy readers overcome their initial reluctance.

Rodman Philbrick: The American Girl book series? Seems very calculated to me, as to marketing, etc., but I assume zillions of young readers love them, and the vast majority are girls – or am I mistaken about that? Or, at a much higher level (the highest, in fact) any book by Judy Blume.

Jon Scieszka: The publishers would have you believe it is pink and covered with sparkles. We need to fight this bad trend too. Girls deserve more.

As writers, we need to keep pushing publishers. They are naturally conservative, and will just keep printing pink books and chick-lit novels as long as they sell.

Joni Sensel: I guess I believe, although without much to support it except observation, that girls are more likely to be interested in stories about relationships and communication (or lack thereof), and the resultant feelings and complications.

Terry Trueman: Twilight ☺☺

Ben Watson: Stereotypically, I’d say Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but that’s just by the cover, I’ve never read it. Dare I say it? Twilight. Haven’t read it either. Sappy vampires? That being said, it’s on my list of books to read, but I’m going in with some skepticism. Harriet the Spy. What do they look like? Traveling Pants cover. Or with a girl on the cover, leaning back on a swing looking melancholy. That seems pretty popular. Or a shopping bag. Or pretty flip flops, maybe with or without plastic flowers adorning them. To me, that’s what the stereotypical girl cover looks like. Nancy Drew books (which I’d trade my Hardy Boy books to my sister for and usually liked Nancy Drew better! But I wouldn’t be caught dead with them anywhere).

Tomorrow, I torture our panelists even further by asking them to give some examples of children’s and young adult books that seem to appeal to readers, regardless of gender.

No Responses to “Snips and Snails and Sugar and Spice”

  1. storyqueen

    This is really fascinating! I think covers matter a lot in how we perceive what is “boy book” or “girl book”. (Or even, what books are marketed towards men vs. women.)

    Hmm….Ironically, I think covers that go for the stereotype on the whole boy/girl issue will end up finding the smallest audiences.


    Very thought provoking!


  2. Anna

    Very interesting. Putting books into boy/girl categories always makes me a little nuts, but it’s fascinating to see how different people define these categories. I found Jon Scieszka’s answers particularly thought-provoking.

  3. Kirby Larson

    Shelley, you’re the first commenter! Be sure to email me your snail mail address for your autographed copy of Hattie Big Sky!

  4. Tricia J. O'Brien

    Interestingly, TWILIGHT didn’t feature the usual girly stuff of the cover. It was a red apple held cupped in someone’s hands. While I’m not a fan of the writing or message in that series, I think the covers were awesome in simplicity and could have appealed to anyone.
    I’m an adult who reads a lot of YA, particularly fantasy. I prefer books with dark, enigmatic covers. SKIN HUNGER and SACRED SCARS, for example. I am repelled by the chick-lit covers, which seem shallow.
    But a simple truth is boys will probably avoid covers that look too girly. Not only do they think it would not be interesting, we still have societal prejudice of boys being tainted by girl stuff.

  5. lurban

    When you said “looks like” I immediately thought of cover art. I think my novel looks like a girl book, though I do have boy readers.

    Interestingly enough, at two of my signings, boys brought me their hardcovers to sign and they had removed the dustjacket!

  6. Kirby Larson

    Linda, I’ve had the same thing happen with Hattie Big Sky.

    Since I’m not very visual, I wasn’t thinking covers when I asked what boy/girl books look like, but am so glad covers ended up being part of the conversation.

  7. Natalie

    I think it’s wrong to assume boys don’t care about “feelings.” They do—they just don’t care about the same ones as girls. I think there is plenty of room in a boy book for feelings when done authentically. John Green, for example, rocks that.

  8. BJW

    Linda, you could consider me one of your boy readers. And Kirby too. Big fat grown-up boy.

    And Linda you think two multi-colored toe socks looks girly? Come on.


  9. Sarah Campbell

    My 14-year-old son picked up www:wake this summer at the ALA convention. It has a cover with pink on it and it is about a girl. He picked it up and loved it.
    I’ve also successfully read the two Penderwicks books to my houseful of boys — three between 11 and 14.
    On the other hand, I didn’t like science fiction/fantasy until I had to read it to my sons.

  10. lurban

    Ben — if I found a pair of toe socks in your size would you wear them just to prove me wrong?

  11. BJW

    You’d need to find ones with big toes. Otherwise I’d feel claustrophobic. But of course, it would be a joy to prove you wrong. (like I’m clever enough for that)