There’s been a lot of buzz about gender-divided reading lately. Last month Shannon Hale, author of Princess Academy, blogged about her frustrations with gender-divided school visits. Because some of her books have the word “princess” in the title (and perhaps because she’s a female author), some schools have excused their girls to attend Hale’s assemblies, but not their boys, assuming–or forcing–boys’ disinterest. Yet Hale reports the story of a boy who asked to buy her princess book by whispering in her ear, too ashamed to admit it in front of either classmates or teachers.
Then last week, The Independent announced that it would no longer review books marketed to exclude either sex. For example, Buster Books markets books with titles like “The Beautiful Girls’ Coloring Book” and “The Brilliant Boys’ Coloring Book,” limiting the former to topics like fashion and the latter to sports, and using cover colors like pink and blue as cues. The Independent pointed out that such marketing is demeaning to kids, who are people of complex and diverse personalities. Some girls like to play and read about sports; some boys grow up to be fashion writers. The Independent further argued that the best books have universal appeal. Instead of spending energy marketing “boy books” or “girl books,” the publication urged putting out good books and letting people pick their own. Both girls and boys, for example, devour Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, undeterred by the sex of the protagonist and unaided by a pink or blue cover. It makes sense from my own experience: as a kid, I read and loved both Anne of Green Gables and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, simply because both were great books.
As an author and educator, I feel drawn to this debate. Reading fiction is all about identification with a character: learning to see the world through another pair of eyes. If you want to live many lives in the space of one, read books. When kids first start reading, they tend to choose protagonists who are similar to them in age, personality, and life circumstances. This is also true of gender: when they are beginning readers, my girl students tend to choose books about girls, and boys about boys. But the power of reading doesn’t leave us where we are. As we grow and mature as readers, we learn to see the world through eyes other than our own. It’s called empathy, and fiction has been proven to increase this skill. As adults (especially those in the roles of parents and teachers), it’s our job to expose kids to books about people who are not like them. It’s part of raising kind, thoughtful, and compassionate human beings.
As a writer of children’s literature, I feel especially strongly about this. The Illuminator’s Gift features a female protagonist. True, many of my readers are girls who identify with Ellie, a 12-year-old girl. But some of my readers are boys who identify with Ellie too. They’ve told me she’s their favorite character in the book because she’s kind and finds the courage to be brave when she needs to. The fact that she’s a girl doesn’t change that. That’s why I have never advertised my books as being only “for girls,” despite my female protagonist. I applaud these boys who are learning to see through the eyes of someone who is different from them.
Ultimately, it seems to me unjust that a child should be discouraged from reading a book because of their sex. Whether by gender-based marketing or discriminatory school policies, to keep a boy out of a female author’s school visit or label a book on rocketships and backhoes as being only for “Brilliant Boys” seems like a form of soft censorship. How can one person predetermine what another may read, on the basis of sex of all things? Why not filter their reading based on class, ethnicity, or shoe size? Sound like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or The Giver? (It’s no wonder reading speculative fiction is connected with having better ethics.) Kids (and adults) should never be shamed or pressured out of reading a book on the basis of gender expectations. To do so limits the ideas they’re exposed to, and thereby the amount of imagination, compassion, and empathy they can develop. It’s cutting off our own nose by handicapping our society’s future.
My caveat to this is as an educator. Some of my students are reluctant readers who struggle with comprehension, let alone finding enjoyment in reading. For these students, I place the love of reading as the first and highest priority. I give these students books that are as easy as possible for them to identify with. For my beginner boy students, I choose books with male protagonists and subject matter I know the students will enjoy. It’s most important to me that my students learn to associate reading with pleasure. If that connection isn’t there, they will never reach for the ideas and empathy that harder books can teach them. Only once that reading-for-fun habit is established do I challenge them to read about characters who are different from themselves. Only then can they begin to appreciate the Anne Shirleys, the Jo Marches, the Karanas of literature.
Have you tuned in to the debates on gender-divided reading? Share your thoughts in the comments!