May 25, 2017

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When Boys Can’t Like ‘Girl Books’

Illustration by Jesussanz/Thinkstock.

Illustration by Jesussanz/Thinkstock.

Shannon Hale, author of the “Princess Academy” series (Bloomsbury), recently returned from a book tour for her latest title, Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters (2015). Speaking at a K–8 school, she discovered that boys and girls were in the audience from the younger grades—but boys from upper grades were not invited, she says.

This is the fourth time Hale remembers facing a situation where boys were excluded from her readings. She wrote about the latest experience on her blog and described it on Twitter (@HaleShannon), where she lit up the social network.

Shannon Hale Photo by Jenn Florence

Shannon Hale
Photo by Jenn Florence.

“My books are gendered as being for girls,” she says. “This is what happens to female writers [of books] with girls on the cover, especially princesses. It’s so normal for me.”

Hale is not alone. Other female authors have reported similar incidents of looking upon their audience to see girls—but not boys—staring back. While few educators would consider gender-dividing an audience for a reading by J.K. Rowling, Hale and author Linda Urban are at least two who have lived this experience personally.

No stranger to book tours, Urban recalls one for her novel A Crooked Kind of Perfect (Harcourt, 2007) that was a bit different than the rest. There were 30 middle school girls in the audience at one school venue—and not one boy.

Although the event went “fine,” Urban says, she learned that the Illinois school librarian hosting her visit had decided not to invite the boys. The librarian “proudly told me that mine was not the first book that he knew wouldn’t be for boys, and he had done a similar small-group thing the year before for another female author,” Urban says by email. The novel’s protagonist is a 10-year-old girl, an aspiring pianist who plays an old organ her father buys instead.

The librarian also told Urban about an upcoming visit by a male author who would “appeal to everyone.”

“Admittedly, this male author is dynamite—a great presenter and terrific writer and very popular with young readers,” Urban says. “I’d have been excited to attend his event, too. But the assumption that his book, with its male protagonist, would be for everyone”—while hers wasn’t—“made me crazy.”

A representative from the school where Hale spoke confirmed that middle school boys were not included in the reading. The spokesperson added that the reading organizers had requested that only third and fourth graders attend. But student attendance was low on the day of the reading due to bad weather, so school officials invited middle school girls to fill seats.

The school made the decision  not to include middle school boys because boys had previously shown a lack of interest in the title, says the rep, who added there was a concern that they might disrupt the reading.

Hale’s thoughts on concerns like these?

I’ve done perhaps 200 assemblies,” she recently tweeted. “The boys ALWAYS listen to me. It’s the administration beforehand that assumes that they won’t.”

Author Kate Messner believes that segregating boys from so-called girl books does more than just keep them from titles they may enjoy. It teaches boys that women speakers and female characters have nothing to offer them, she says.

Messner, who recently returning from a 22-school tour for her book All The Answers (Bloomsbury, 2015), adds that she has never had a gender-segregated audience. But she believes the issue needs to be discussed and addressed. “There is sexism in our industry. More people are talking about it, and I hope this is a catalyst for talking about it [further],” she says. “If we’re teaching young boys that women’s voices don’t matter, than what do we expect when men get older and have to coexist with women in the workplace?”

YA female authors Libba Bray, E. Lockhart, and Gayle Forman addressed the issue publicly when they appeared together at a panel at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York on February 27. All three wore fake mustaches, telling the audience that they were protesting how boys were kept from titles that are considered “girl books.”

“Every female author I know has a notebook full of sexism stories about life as a woman who writes,” Bray had tweeted earlier, (@LibbaBray) just after Hale shared her story on social media.

Others weighed in using the hashtag #boysreadgirls to name their favorite books about girls.

Urban herself asks why people believe they should prevent boys from making decisions about what they read. She says that her high school visits to co-ed creative writing classes have all been “fine.”

She also wonders why some educators choose to make decisions for boys and girls based on gender—and nothing else.

“I’ve met boys who connect with [A Crooked Kind of Perfect] because they are musicians or because they have parents who seem to care more about their office work than their kids,” she says by email. “Why suggest that the only point of entry for a kid reader is sharing the same chromosomes as the protagonist?”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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Comments

  1. Wonderful post about a subject that needs so much discussion! We send many, many messages to kids when we segregate like this. And while not every title will hit with every child, I think kids are open to all types of stories, and it’s only through moments like this when they are TOLD a book isn’t for them that they might turn it away. So frustrating.

  2. Cassie Fox says:

    Very important topic. I hope we can start seeing more stories like this in the future.

  3. It’s interesting to hear an author’s perspective on this. I teach high school and can verify that PLENTY of boys read stuff like Twilight , and other “girl” books. Some do it openly , others furtively. For the record, I’ve seen boys reading all kinds of things marketed towards women. Who cares? The opportunity should have been open to anyone who was interested and wanted to attend. It’s that simple.

    Adults can be so stupid about this kind of stuff. It’s a book, and if it’s any good at all, it will be appealing to any kind of reader. Period.

  4. Jane Jergensen says:

    Please tell the publishers this! What they put on the cover is usually what turns the boys off from the book. I couldn’t get my boys at my school to read Umbrella Summer because of the cover.

  5. Lynne Green says:

    Not only is this trend harmful to boys, it has a rebound effect on the girls, who think boy books must be ‘better’ than girl books. Literature for girls isn’t second rate! And I really loathe books being branded in this manner to start with, but human nature being what it is and all…

  6. Linda Pannuto says:

    As a librarian I have pressed the Ellie McDoodle books by Ruth McNally Barshaw into the hands of more than one boy/girl fan of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. One day a boy was sitting at a table with his mom and had started to read Ellie. He was not far into it when he couldn’t wait to share with his mom this very funny story. I have also had other boys and girls come back for more of Ellie after having tried the first book.
    Sadly the publisher decided to reprint them with a pink cover arrgh!
    On a personal note, my youngest son loved Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff and made sure I brought home the sequels as they came out.
    Books are stories, stories are life, life is female and male.

  7. I write children’s science books, and I’m relatively new to school visits, so haven’t experienced this directly yet. But several of my author friends have asked me if I publish under my initials instead of my first name in order to hide the fact that I’m a woman. I was shocked when I first got that question, as it had never occurred to me, but one of the reasons I use my initials is because I’m used to it – my first publications were in scientific journals, where initials are standard. I always assumed that was the case because it saved space, especially on papers with many co-authors, but on further reflection, I’ve begun to wonder if that standard stems from exactly this issue…

  8. “While few educators would consider gender-dividing an audience for a reading by J.K. Rowling…”
    And why does she go by J.K. instead of Joanne ? Since her publishers originally thought the target audience of young boys wouldn’t read the books if they thought they were written by a woman, so they had her use two initials to make them think the author was a man. :(

  9. Debbie Vilardi says:

    I believe this segregation also makes a statement about education. It’s okay for girls to miss class time to see this female author, but boys should stay in class. It makes me wonder what is happening in the classrooms while the girls are out.

  10. Mary Clare O'Grady says:

    I was faced with this issue several years ago when I had the opportunity to host Meg Cabot at our middle school. Since the arrangement was to have an assembly for a maximum of 200 students, I decided to “skirt” the gender issue by allotting 10 spaces to each language arts class in the building (we have about 200 students). Each teacher could devise a method of selecting the 10 students from the class– and we did end up with a few boys. This was an interesting column, and I’ll be thinking more about this when booking author visits in the future.