I practically memorized Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s Growing Up Free when I was pregnant, and I firmly believe in “all books for all children.” My daughters wore primary colors and played in the dirt with trucks. My son had a doll named Bob. They all learned to sew and mow the yard. They read every book I handed to them without hesitation.
The boys in my school, however, proved less than enthusiastic. When they asked for a spy story and I handed them Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls, or when they requested a sports book and I recommended a book about girls’ soccer, they balked. Their reactions worsened when a language arts teacher, who assigned a particular genre every month, chose romance as the required genre in February of 2010.
I realized subterfuge was necessary to erase the derision that greeted books by, about, or prominently featuring girls and women. I recruited several popular members of the eighth grade football team and told them in a huddle that I had a “super secret evil plan.” Would they check out books with girls on the cover? There were snickers at first, but middle school students are usually willing to embrace evil plans. And thus, Boys Read Pink month was born.
The boys were strongly encouraged (although never forced) to read books about girls, and they took to it with gusto. A few shy souls requested book covers, but the more adventurous boys asked girls for recommendations and proudly carried around titles like Lauren Myracle’s Eleven. If a boy normally read fantasy books, he might be handed Tamora Pierce’s Alanna or Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Outdoor adventure fans got Terry Lynn Johnson’s Ice Dogs.
I knew that some progress had been made when a boy commented, “That was just like the books I normally read. It just had a girl in it.”
After Tommy Greenwald’s protagonist Charlie Joe Jackson opined that reading books about girls helped him understand them, I decided that it would be fun to have a celebrity spokesman for the month-long celebration, and writers like Greenwald, Sneed B. Collard, and Alexander Vance have all visited my blog and encouraged boys to read books that might otherwise be outside their comfort zone.
When I told my sixth graders about the fact that Shannon Hale wasn’t invited to speak to boys during a school visit because her books were about princesses, they shared my outrage. We ordered a copy of Princess in Black, had boys read the book, and mailed the circulation card to Hale as proof that boys DO read her titles. The book was passed around gleefully. Seeing other boys reading it made it much easier for their peers to admit that they enjoyed the story.
It took a while, but my boys don’t flinch very much when I hand them books that look “girly.” I try to offer them choices, and make sure that they have both “windows” and “mirrors” offered on a regular basis. Boys who haven’t experienced our yearly celebration often look at me quizzically when I offer them Belle Payton’s “It Takes Two” series when they ask for a football book, but my more experienced readers just shrug and give it a try!
It’s one thing to claim that there is no difference in what middle school boys and girls should read, but that doesn’t get readers to change their habits or challenge their preconceived notions about gender. By middle school, even my daughters would no longer wear boys’ jeans. They didn’t fit, and they didn’t reflect the person they wanted to show to the world. Our readers come to us from a variety of backgrounds, with a host of cultural expectations. Try handing Ursula Vernon’s Hamster Princess to a sixth grade boy. Observe the reaction. At first, I saw some boys physically recoil from the book, which has a glittery pink and white cover. I had to explain that it was about a hamster who decides to use her invincibility to fight dragons and practice cliff jumping. That’s an exciting read for anyone! Boys read the book and often return it in the company of a friend who wants to check it out immediately. It is worth it to make the point, even in a silly a way, about judging books by their covers. Hopefully, readers can extend that thought to people as well as books.
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