I am publishing the graphic novel “Real Friends”, an autobiographical story of my friendships in elementary school. Book bloggers and online reviewers are beginning to recommend it, but advise against giving it to boys because most of the characters are girls.
A school librarian introduces me before I give an assembly. “Girls, you are going to enjoy it. You will love Shannon Hale’s books. Boys, I expect you to behave anyway.
During a book signing, a mother looks sadly at my books. “I wish I could buy some for my kids, but I only have boys.”
A little boy points to one of my books and exclaims, “I want that one!” His father takes him away. “No, it’s a girl’s book.”
I’ve published 30 books over the past 15 years, and heard all of this and more in each of the 40+ states I’ve visited.
It is clear that our culture assumes:
1. Boys won’t like a book that features a girl.
2. Men’s stories are universal, while women’s stories are only for girls.
After all, books about boys (“Harry Potter,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Holes”) are for everyone, but books about girls (Judy Blume’s novels, “Anne of Green Gables », « Twilight ») are just for girls.
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I wasn’t always sure that assumption was incorrect. Early in my career, I was advertised as “the author of Princess Academy”, my best-known book, and as you might expect, only daughters and their mothers attended my book signings, with only a few brothers hidden behind or occasionally in front. thinking homeschooled guy.
But after my book won a major award, teachers started reading it to their classes. Dozens of teachers told me the same thing: “When I told the class that we were going to read a book called ‘Princess Academy’, the girls said ‘Yay!’ and the boys went ‘Boo!’ But after reading it, the boys liked it as much or even more than the girls.
For the first time, I had evidence that contradicted everything I had been taught about boys and reading. I started to pay more attention and discovered that I actually had a lot of boy readers – probably hundreds of thousands of them at this point, but they were reading in secret because they were embarrassed . I’ve noted the myriad ways adults teach boys that they should be ashamed of caring about a girl’s story, from the most direct (“Write it down, it’s a girl’s book “) to the more subtle (“I think you will like this book although it’s a girl”). There is also peer shaming, but it starts and is supported by adults.
I have now asked thousands of children the same question: “What kind of books do you like?” They answer: fantastic, funny, comic, mystery, non-fiction, etc. No kid ever said, “I like books about boys.” However, booksellers tell me that parents buy for their sons as if books had a gender: “I need a boy’s book. He won’t read anything about a girl.
Not only does this type of thinking prevent boys from gaining empathy for girls, but it also prescribes narrow gender definitions: there is only one type of boy, and any boy who doesn’t fit to this mold is Wrong.
Stories make us human. We form bonds by exchanging personal stories with others, and reading fiction is a deeply immersive exercise in empathy.
So what happens to a culture that encourages girls to read books about boys but pushes boys away from reading books about girls?
What happens to a boy who is taught that he should be ashamed to read a book about a girl? To feel empathy for a girl? To try to understand how she feels? To care about her? What kind of man is this boy becoming?
The bias against boys reading about girls runs so deep that it can seem daunting to try to change it. But change can start with a simple exchange of prepositions: when we talk to young readers, we can communicate that a book is in regards to girls without prescribing it is for girls.
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The goal is to encourage lifelong readers, and the more we try to tell children what books are for them, the more children are reluctant to read. I have four children and I have a hard time predicting which books they will like. The best I can do is fill our house with lots of different genres and styles of books – and then make sure we have a mix of books written by male and female writers and non-binary writers of color and other countries and backgrounds, writers of different abilities and beliefs. When I offer these books without shame or judgment and let my children choose for themselves, they read widely and voraciously – and we have great conversations.
At a recent school assembly, I asked students in kindergarten through fifth grade, “If a book is about robots, does that mean only robots can read it?”
“Is a cat book just for cats?”
“So if a book is about a boy, does that mean only boys can read it? How about a book about a girl?
Children understand. They just want a good story. They have the potential to be lifelong readers of all kinds of books, to learn empathy for all kinds of people, and to gain all kinds of experiences different from their own. They will be fine. If we adults would get out of their way.
Shannon Hale is the bestselling author of more than 30 novels for children and young adults, including “Real Friends” and the “Ever After High”, “Goose Girl” and “Princess Academy” series.
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