The Crux of the Matter

One of the catalysts for my exploring this topic of gender factors in children’s literature was an essay by librarian Diantha McBride, which appeared in School Library Journal a few weeks back, and included this comment: “. . .some of our boys have never read a complete book in their lives. It’s important to offer them good, appealing stories, and sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters.” True confessions: I wanted my panelists to prove Ms McBride wrong. In my heart of hearts, I don’t want there to be real differences between boys’ books and girls’ books. I want all kids to love books, regardless of the main character, cover or packaging. And I wondered (and worried) if Martha Brockenbrough was spot on with her points in “Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?” Does such an attitude as expressed by Ms. McBride send a message to boys that books about girl characters are not as interesting or worthy of their attention as those about boy characters? As happens with truly thoughtful discourse, these good folks have given me new insights and even more to ponder.

Jerene Battisti: The SLJ piece was to me a bit of a conceit and I do not agree with her comments about the publishing world. Again, a strong compelling story will always win readers. I find the attitude that boys will only read about boys not to be true and is stereotyping at its worst. I do think that attitude does encourage a certain degree of bigotry about female characters. What about the character Max in the Maximum Ride series? She is a strong female who just happens to be able to fly, but that is a series that attracts boy readers as well.

Erin Blakemore: I agree that it’s important to offer boys great books, but it’s not as if there isn’t a huge canon of writing that has focused on the exploits, adventures, and lives of BOYS. It’s just a matter of access and publicity. In fact, I wonder why there aren’t more books that include adventurous, appealing, kick-ass girls who are not in a romantic or high school or relational setting.

[Regarding “Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?’] Yes and no. Let’s face it: we live in a culture that for at least 90% of its existence has placed more power and attention to the lives of boys. It is important that boys and girls both feel important in the context of any conversation, but just because “girl narratives” are being recovered/celebrated/developed doesn’t mean that books that feature great male characters should be neglected or forgotten.

I think marketing and packaging has a HUGE impact on whether boys want to read books. Who is going to want to be caught dead reading a pink sparkly book, even if its contents are more gender neutral? I’m a woman and I can barely stomach going out in public with uber-girly book covers…they’re just hard to take seriously.

Tyler Larson: I think that by and large it’s [McBride’s comment] true. But I think girls like to read books with girls as the main characters as well. It just may be a stronger drive for boys because of the pressure to appear “masculine”, which I think also serves as an obstacle for boys to read. For the most part, intellectualism is not seen as a positive trait for a boy in our culture.

[Regarding “Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?”] First off, I think she does herself an enormous disservice by equating race and gender. They are two completely different issues with different sets of pressures, which is why people feel, well, differently about them (“My guess is that most people would be embarrassed to admit they wouldn’t buy a book because the main character wasn’t white. Why we’re more comfortable denigrating books with female characters is a mystery.”) Uh, it’s not a mystery at all. Two separate issues. For example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man versus Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I have picked up both of these books in my life, hefted them, read the book jackets. But I’ve only read one of them. I’ll let you guess whether it was the story of eight women sitting around eating and playing Mah Jong and reflecting on life, or the story of a young African American man’s struggle with identity in 1950’s New York City.

I don’t say this to denigrate Amy Tan’s work, I’m sure it’s fine its own right, and she’s certainly been successful. It’s just that the themes of The Joy Luck Club aren’t things that I’m interested in. Yes, if authors want to reach any audience, they should write to that audience’s interests. At HBO we frequently produce “male sell” and “female sell” versions of promotional material because we know that men and women are interested in different things. The “male sell” will be more action-focused, while the “female sell” will be more relationship-focused, for example. I do understand, though, that that doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate those stereotypes in what our children read. I just think there are larger issues.

I mean, really, it’s hard enough to get kids to read anyway. Why should anyone be forced to read something they don’t want to outside of a classroom setting? Reading is at its base a leisure activity. Leisure means fun. Should I feel bad because I read Iain M Banks’ sweeping space operas instead of Salman Rushdie? I’m not sure how Brockenbrough can take this stance of “forced literary integration” on one hand (calling out parents for not exposing their kids to books about people who are “different”), and then later in her essay sing the praises of Jon Scieszka who says to “let guys read what they want to read.”

So, in a nutshell: yes, it does make boys (and girls!) book bigots to a certain degree, but if it gets them reading, who cares.

Dave Patneaude: It’s sad to say, but Diantha is probably right. I couldn’t begin to explain why. Genetics? Socialization? Peer pressure? Unimpressive experiences with “girl” books? We’ve come a long way in some regards on the social frontiers, but this is one area that hasn’t changed much.

[Regarding the essay, “Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?”] I don’t know that we’re “letting” boys be anything. This would assume that the whole thing is socialized, and I don’t know that that’s true. You can lead a horse to water, but what if he doesn’t like the taste of water? Or even the look of it? There are a lot of factors going on–boy non-readers, reluctant boy readers, choosy boy readers, open-minded girl readers, the nature of the stories themselves, the sex of the main character, the cover illustration. Maybe a girl main character signals to boys that the story won’t be as interesting (not better or worse) to them, based on what they’ve read in the past. Maybe they read the synopsis on the back and decide it’s not for them. Maybe it’s partially innate. Who can say why a girl will pick up a stick and carve letters in the dirt, while a boy will pretend the stick is a gun?

Nancy Pearl: In general, I agree with Martha’s essay. But you need talented “middlemen” to make those books sound interesting. And it’s important to recognize that this is an issue that continues through adulthood.

Rodman Philbrick: Diantha makes many good points. Boys, like girls, seek role models. Like all readers o
f any gender, they like to see themselves reflected in at least one character. On some level, boys are looking for clues about how to be themselves in a complicated world. What’s cool, what’s not. What’s appropriate, what’s not. What’s expected of them. How to relate to other kids their age. And, more deeply and more importantly, how to be a man. Generations of girls have modeled themselves on characters in Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, and been the better for it. Are there similarly regarded classics for boys? Must be dozens, if not scores. Educate me, please.

[Regarding “Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?”] I’ll side with Ms. McBride on this one. I’m much more concerned about the misogyny potentially caused by exposure to all the rancid, women-denigrating pornography so easily available on the web. Parents who think their kids aren’t looking at this stuff are kidding themselves.

Jon Scieszka: I think Ms. McBride’s comments were right on the money, and grounded in years of practical experience. In this comment, I think she was referring more to books that didn’t have any prominent male characters. And I’ve found this to be a real turn-off for boys.

In high school, my son Jake was assigned a steady diet of Toni Morrison books with male characters ranging from miserable to despicable. He didn’t feel like there was any way into those stories for him.

[Regarding “Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?”] I think this is exactly what we want to be very careful to avoid — to not let readers segregate themselves into sealed categories of boy, girl, black, white, Asian, whatever; and then not read outside of that world. Reading is all about experiencing realities other than our own.

But for boys, we need to first get them started reading. Let them start with Captain Underpants and Alex Rider and Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. They will read fiction. But let’s also honor their preferences for adventure, heroes, humor, and information. Let’s give boys a reason to want to be readers.

Joni Sensel: I think we need books with heroes of both genders, and I feel VERY strongly that any bias toward making them male simply in an attempt to engage more male readers, rather than because that’s the character who best serves the story, is not only the wrong solution to this problem, but an approach that would make the problem worse, and here’s why: My personal experience with teaching male teens a high-contact martial art has been that once I proved to them that, as a female instructor, I could kick their backsides just as handily as the male instructors could, the boys were more than happy to learn from me and be led by me in team activities. (In fact, for boys with any insecurities, I became the preferred instructor, because I demonstrated that even someone without obvious size or strength could gain power through the art.) But I had to prove myself worthy of their respect first.

There are still many, many media influences that tell boys (in particular) that girls are mostly good for being the love interest, the caretaker, or the person who needs to be rescued. None of these roles generates much male respect. I really believe that when we as a society and as writers demonstrate to boys that girls can also be brave, clever, independent, and heroic — and not merely adjuncts to or prizes for the male lead — the boys will be more willing to identify with female heroes, too.

Terry Trueman: I don’t think it encourages anything that isn’t already happening and going to go on happening. I wish we could make the world the way we want it, but literature, as Russell Banks wrote in his essay about Twain, changes things from the edges in, not the other way around. Boys will read what we tell them to read until a certain age, about the age where they are trying to figure out how to be men and what kind of men they want to be, at which point, I don’t think the Princess Diaries are gonna help much.

Ben Watson: I think she’s [McBride’s] over-simplifying things. And being slightly ridiculous. She even admits to being silly. I think this may have fallen into a rant category rather than a deeply held belief, but I could be wrong. No writer is going to change their character’s sex at a suggestion of a need or trend. You start with a character and put them in a situation. Then you discover all kinds of things about them through your drafts.

There is a story spinner I’ve seen in a writing book. Insane. Need a character? No problem. Spin the character wheel. It is a, zzzzzz, male. Who likes to, zzzzzz, paint by number, who works at a, zzzzzz, brassiere factory and, zzzzzz, loves it, zz, sorry, hates it and, zzzzzz, hates his, zzzz, wife and he’s carrying a, zzzz, briefcase. Actually this isn’t turning out so bad maybe I should rethink this story spinner.

Sorry, stories don’t work this way for me. I’m not playing Mr. or Mrs. Potato Head. I’m writing a story. Show some respect for the process, will ya? And I hope she’d change this sentence if she had the chance, “It’s important to offer them good, appealing stories, and, sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters.” OBVIOUSLY, not all good, appealing stories, sad to say or not, have prominent male characters. That wipes out all Literature back to the cave paintings that featured women.

[Regarding “Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?”] Well, I have the utmost regard for Martha Bee. I’ll admit right here that she is wittier and sharper than me. I agree that you don’t need a male character to make a book appealing to a boy. But, it doesn’t always hurt either and she acknowledged that with this quote, “The best stories for kids should serve as mirrors for some kids and windows for many kids.” But no author should change their character drastically for anyone’s target audience. Blah!

(Off topic, I personally disagree with Martha that the Hardy Boys are great male characters. Flat and cheesy if you ask me. ; )

Where I think Martha misfired though, slightly, is where she said, “If boys aren’t reading, perhaps it’s because we’re not helping them understand what a great story is, and we’re not insisting they respect girls as their equals.” A big reason boys aren’t reading is not because they don’t respect girls, it’s because they’re playing The Godfather on Xbox 360. Or watching Lost. Insisting boys respect girls as equals doesn’t motivate them, but handing them a cool book like Harry Potter with great male and female characters sure does. Hermione is as good as any boy character in the book. Bravo. That did more good to boy’s respecting girls than any messages we tell them.

“Ultimately, it’s nothing to be proud of to let boys get away with the cooties game. And it’s only going to hurt them when (or if) they grow up.” Ouch. To defend all boys everywhere, I will retort with our timeless, “we’re rubber and you’re glue so whatever you say bounces off of us and sticks to you. “And by that, I will lob the ball back across the net and mentio
n that girls seem to get away with the cooties game, too. Walking into any B&N and going to the teen section as a never-grown-up boy, it does get a little intimidating wading through the oceans of “pink romance” to find a book that appeals to me. I think that some of the things that make boys tick are not exactly respected either. Running, wrestling, throwing stuff, not sitting still, growling, making body noises. Not exactly honored in classrooms or elsewhere. Maybe both sides of the gender issue should have some renewed respect for the other side and some of the challenges they deal with. Graduation rates, grading, who gets in the most trouble. Maybe education and contemporary kid’s literature hasn’t exactly respected boys either.

But I wholeheartedly agree with Martha’s premise that great stories with strong girl protagonists aren’t the worse because of it. Amen, hallelujah.

I have truly appreciated this lively and gutsy discussion. Tomorrow, I’ll give those panelists who so choose the chance for one last word.

No Responses to “The Crux of the Matter”

  1. Sarah Miller

    This blog series is rocking my socks.

    I’m stuck by how much of this conversation is still revolving around stories and characters, when the more I read on this issue, the more evidence I’m seeing that the majority of males (young and old) aren’t fiction-oriented. As Jon says, many males gravitate more toward non-fiction, magazines, newspapers, humor, graphic novels, etc. — stuff that a lot of us story-loving women don’t consider ‘real’ reading.

    So I’m wondering if it’s realistic to claim that boys don’t read. Seems to me the problem may be one of perception. After all, this whole industry, from writers to editors to booksellers and librarians, is notoriously loaded with females.

  2. jeannineatkins

    Thank you for hosting this interesting conversation about a such an important subject. When I started teaching high school English, I remember the dept head telling me that boys won’t read about girls, though girls would read about boys, and that statement felt tired and horrible back those twenty years ago. I felt determined to prove that wrong, and as Nancy Pearl points out, thus the importance of those who put the books into hands. And of course as many a teacher of freshman English, I bowed down to the greatness of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout, and Harper Lee.

    But this subject, after having written books about girls and women and mostly read by girls, can still make me bristle. As I did when Jon Scieska writes that his son found the men in Toni Morrison’s novels deplorable, so there was “no way in.” The women aren’t exactly role models, nor are they supposed to be; maybe the style or subject matter made him feel he wasn’t the best reader of those novels, but I don’t buy that as a gender issue.

  3. Tricia J. O'Brien

    Woo-hoo, I won a Hattie! I shall email you, Kirby, and thanks for this great series.
    A thought on Sarah’s comment: Maybe the ‘majority’ of males aren’t fiction oriented, but in bookstores I see young men browsing sci-fi/fantasy, graphic novels and thrillers, clearly drawn to a specific type of fiction. There are also plenty of young men enrolled in MFA programs and at literary-writing blogs I frequent. Perhaps, boys don’t stake a claim to fiction as early as girls, although plenty of them read Harry Potter. On a personal level–my father, ex-husband and father-in-law all read a good deal of fiction. So,there’s evidence that some boys and men read fiction, does that mean they were simply introduced in a manner that made it interesting and compelling?