The Gender Divide In Children’s Books Is Hurting Our Kids
Picture books are pretty much universally acknowledged to be awesome. There’s a handful I can recite by heart, full of love and emotion, even when it makes my kids sigh. But then, children move into early and middle grade books. This is where the problem lies. I knew, kind of, that the books my sons and their friends read are very gender specific. Then I worked one afternoon at the book fair with my third grader and kindergartener in tow, and my feminist heart almost broke.
There seem to be two choices if you want to read a chapter book: fairies, princesses, and small animals, with an early touch of relationship drama thrown in; or superheroes, secret agents, and adventures. Even if you can’t read a word, the color story on the shelves is clear enough: here’s the girl section, here’s the boy section. There are no shelves or cases without the total delineation—no safe orange zone where everyone can come together and find a book about the circus.
I was an early devotee of Sweet Valley High (long before I was actually in high school) and The Babysitters Club. I can admit that when I won a free book, I chose something like How to Be a Teen Model. But I also loved a wide variety of other books that were far less gender specific. The Indian in the Cupboard? Fabulous, even with a male narrator. I read widely, still do, about exploring the West, danger in Hungary during WW2 bombings, with plenty of fluff mixed in.
Authors already know this sad fact, just as annoying and ridiculous as the prevalence of white male writers on ‘best of’ lists. Girls will read books with male or female protagonists, while boys are not so egalitarian. This depresses me. There are so many fantastic, interesting, well written books of interest to all kids that yes, feature a girl. I’m thinking of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, full of science and interesting relationships and history and more.
One series packaged for boys with a strong female character, not the lead but one of the featured group, is Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan (you may know this as the Percy Jackson books). Riordan is a prolific author, featuring series from all mythological traditions. The books are full of crazy adventure, identity issues, friendship—and even learning without kids realizing it. The whole package. Boys and girls love them, though the packaging skews masculine.
Other “everybody books” for strong elementary readers include The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle or The Genius Files series, with boy and girl heroes named Coke and Pepsi. Any librarian or book store clerk can point you towards more stand-out texts that cross the gender divide. I hear Shannon Hale has a new book out called The Princess in Black; stuffy princess by day, ninja by night. Fun idea; girls will love it. Not sure I can picture my son walking around with the word ‘princess’ visible on the cover of a book, though.
I understand the gender divide in books for middle school, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, chronicling the challenges of growing up. Attraction and the different pace of maturation are legitimate concerns of this age, and it makes sense for books to take one side or the other. Junior high focused books are the most heterogeneous along gender lines—just think of your own age 13 turmoil and it should make sense.
But before the early teen years, interests and relationships between boys and girls totally overlap. So why don’t books reflect that? Before Harry Potter and after The Magic Treehouse, can’t we all get on board and get obsessed with a book? Boys and girls in the early grades love nature and the things that live there; can’t we have a series where a team saves dolphins or something?
What do I want, as a mother of sons who love to read? Let’s take a page from the world of picture books. Let’s write engaging texts for all kids. Authors are doing better are showcasing a wider range of kids along culture and disability lines, so why not books with boys and girls in them? There’s plenty of time to separate in other aspects of life and as kids age. Let’s keep them finding common ground as long as possible, and acknowledge that kids are just that – children, much more than they are male or female. Write a book that doesn’t feel heavy handed and moralizing; write a book so full of true kid-ness that every reader will see him or herself in it. I can guarantee you’ll make some money on it.