This is a post I started a while back but never finished. I’ve rewritten portions to post it today.
One Tuesday afternoon in February, I read Anne Ursu’s post on the Nerdy Book Club blog about her new book, The Lost Girl. There were a lot of interesting ideas in there, but what really caught my attention were the fifth and sixth paragraphs where she criticizes the idea that boys won’t read books about girl protagonists, that books about girls are somehow a threat to boy readers. A couple weeks earlier I had read the exchange on Twitter that likely prompted those comments, where another author blamed books like this one for all the boys who don’t read. In my class, there are some books that are more popular with one gender than the other, but overall this idea didn’t seem to line up with what I see each day. So, I asked my students. I pushed back the reading roundtable discussion topic I had planned for the week and instead introduced one inspired by this post.
The next day, we read Ursu’s post together in class, and I introduced our discussion question: Does the gender of the protagonist ever matter when it comes to choosing a book? Is there such a thing as a “girl” or “boy” book.
At the end of the week we had our discussion. About ⅔ of students said the protagonist’s gender never plays a role, a few said it almost never does, and about ¼ said it might sometimes play a role. Students were almost unanimous that the idea of “girl” and “boy” books wasn’t really a thing.
A number of interesting ideas came out during our discussions. First, our conversation was a good opportunity to break down gender stereotypes that some students were holding onto. A few girls mentioned books with love stories as ones they didn’t think boys would want to read. At first, a boy agreed with them until he was reminded that he had read Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped earlier this year and really liked it. He changed his mind. Over the course of our discussion, students talked about the idea that not all girls and boys are alike. They realized that while it was true that some boys didn’t like love stories, it was equally true that some girls didn’t like them either. It wasn’t so much about gender, just about personal preference. They realized this was true of other types of stories too.
Another interesting comment came from a girl named Kennedy who said she loved the opportunity to see things from a different perspective, to read books about characters who are different than she is; gender is one of the ways a character might be different. Kennedy’s comments echoed a portion of Ursu’s blog post where she writes:
And we are limiting boys’ opportunities for empathy when we exclude girls’ stories from them, not to mention conscribing boyhood in a toxic way. Not to mention that, as we’ve seen again and again in our country, we are complicit in all kinds of terrible things when we tell boys they should not be interested in girls’ stories.
Something else that prompted an interesting discussion in each class was the idea of relating to the main character. Most students decided that while gender might play a role, a character’s gender is only a small part of him or her, and ultimately, there were many other factors that were more important in whether or not we can relate to the main character. One boy even mentioned how he found it much easier to relate to Tris’s way to thinking in Divergent than Gregor’s way of thinking in Gregor the Overlander and the other books in that series.
A final comment that I continued to think about came from a boy in my second block. He talked about one of the first times, a couple years earlier, when he had read a book with a female protagonist. At the time, he said he was a bit hesitant to try it because he wasn’t sure he’d like it. However, he has since realized it wasn’t a big deal. This year, he’s read a number of books with female leads.
As I thought about his comment, I think I realized something. The big problem we have with boy readers is not the books being written; it’s that too many schools have failed them. When students come up in a system that denies them choice in what they read, when they aren’t in classrooms that provide access to a wide range of books, when they aren’t introduced to lots of different titles by their teachers and classmates, when they aren’t provided with time to read, and when they aren’t encouraged to take risks in their book selections, it’s easy for them to assume they won’t like something, that a book about a girl won’t be interesting. However, when they’re in classrooms that provide all of those things, they will try books about all kinds of different characters, and they will realize that they can enjoy and find value in all kinds of stories.
Among my seventh graders, there’s virtually no difference in terms of how much the boys read compared to the girls. And this year, boys have read and loved books like Breakout by Kate Messner, Sweep by Jonathan Auxier, Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder, Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, the Keeper of the Lost Cities series by Shannon Messenger, and way more titles than I could ever list here. The same is true of girls reading books about boys. If we make sure they have access to these books, time to read them, and the encouragement to try new things, the stereotypes about boy readers will disappear.