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.
“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.”
I’ve done perhaps 200 assemblies. The boys ALWAYS listen to me. It’s the administration beforehand that assumes that they won’t.
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) March 2, 2015
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.
Every female author I know has a notebook full of sexism stories about life as a woman who writes. Every. Single. One. — Libba Bray (@libbabray) February 26, 2015
Others weighed in using the hashtag #boysreadgirls to name their favorite books about girls.
— Jarrett J. Krosoczka (@StudioJJK) March 2, 2015
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?”