Be the change, being a student, being a teacher, books, Literacy, Reading Identity

On Boy Books and Girl Books

Image result for pernille ripp boy books

I get asked for a lot of book recommendations, I think it comes with the territory when you share the love of books.  And while I love pairing books with potential readers, I have also noticed a pattern that causes me to pause, that should cause all of us to pause.

I get asked for a lot of books featuring male lead characters for male readers.

When I ask why the need for a male lead, I am often told that “they” just don’t think a boy will read a “girl book.”  That a boy will not like a book about feelings.  That a boy only wants books that have action.  That have other boys in it.  That feature characters that look just like them or at the very least think like them.

As if every single boy thinks alike.

When written like this it is easy to see the problem; when we assume that there is such a thing as books for girls and books for boys, we are continuing a tired and sexist narrative that has only furthered the power inequity that already exists within our society.  We are creating a new generation of mansplaining, of groupthink, of toxic masculinity.  Of girls only liking one thing, and boys liking another.  Of men and women being from different planets.  Of readers being shaped more by their assigned gender than their actual interests.

We are furthering the stereotype that boys don’t like to read about girls because they see little value in what girls do.

We are furthering the stereotype that boys don’t like to read about feelings because they are somehow above all of that.

We are furthering the stereotype of what it means to be a boy which translates into what it means to be a man and not seeing the incredible harm in that.

Because what about the boys that love a good tearjerker?  What about the boys that don’t like sports?  What about the boys that love to experience the emotional development of a character?  What about the boys that love a great female lead character?  What about the girls who don’t fit into the opposite boxes?  Do they not deserve to have books suggested to them, no matter the gender of the protagonist?

And I think of my own children, my three girls and one boy, whose reading interests are as varied as their personalities.  Sure there are Minecraft books being read by Oskar, but not until Thea reads them first.  Sure there are unicorn books with pink sparkly covers being read by Augustine but not until Oskar sees if the unicorn gets rescued first.  I would hate for anyone to assume that they knew who they were as readers based only on their gender.

So when we claim that a read-aloud featuring a female protagonist will likely not catch the attention of our boy readers, we have whittled the male reading identity down to practically nothing.  Males – good.  Sports – good.  Action – good. We have diminished what it means to be a reader who develops with the books they read.  We have diminished what it means to identify as male.  We have diminished their chance to learn from a perspective that may at first seem foreign but in the end may just be more similar than they ever thought.  We have effectively boxed our boys in only to then wonder why they may act a certain way.

How often does this thinking then translate into the very books we recommend to the boys we teach?  To the girls?  How often do our assumptions about their needs as a reader surpass what they actually need?  How often does this translate into the read alouds we choose?  The texts we bless by spending our time on them as a community?

And I realize that I don’t get asked the opposite very often.  That often when I am asked for a recommendation for a female reader, the gender of the protagonist is hardly ever brought up.  That instead the most common descriptor is a strong story development, a story that will hold their attention.  Why do our boys not deserve the same?

So I am wondering if we for once and for all, can we all agree that there is no such thing as a girl or a boy book?  That kids need to be exposed to characters that inspire them, no matter their gender.  That kids need to be exposed to characters that will expand their worldviews and invite them into new worlds that they knew little of before, no matter their gender.  That kids need to be exposed to great books, without us adults thinking that they will only read a certain type of book based on what we see in front of us.

We must give them a chance to experience more than what they are.  Books allow us to do just that, but not if they never read them.  Not if we never recommend them.  That’s on us, which means we can change it, so let’s do that starting now.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

129 thoughts on “On Boy Books and Girl Books”

  1. I completely agree! I wish the publishing companies would stop marketing such aggressively gendered books as well! Why does the book about a unicorn being rescued need a sparkly pink cover anyway? Do we not trust that readers can engage with the content without being bombarded with pink and glitter?

  2. Brilliant post.
    So many schools, primary especially, need to change their libraries to represent what you are saying and teachers need to be more open. Many are .. but sadly some still say to the year 4 boys “you’ll find the boy books” over there!

    1. As a passionate book reader myself, I strongly agree with you’re view and am still noticing the sad event that you mentioned and, too, think it should change.

  3. There are SO many expectations for what a boy should do or what a girl should do. It’s 2018. Isn’t it time that we stop caring about all of that and let everybody do what they want? It’s RIDICULOUS

  4. Great piece. This is so true. I think a lot of this “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” is just how we were all socialized. I think nowadays, society is definitely leaning more towards acceptance of non-conformity, and I think it’s great because the next generation won’t have to be afraid of being ridiculed for liking something they “shouldn’t”.

  5. I absolutely agree! I grew up as the middle child, one girl in between two boys. I loved everything my big brother loved, as he was obviously super cool. I grew up reading both ‘girl’ books and ‘boy’ books and an grateful for my mum giving me the opportunity and freedom to do so 🙂

  6. All these “girl stuff” and “boy stuff” aren’t necessary in the long run. As long as everyone is learning, there’s nothing to raise an eyebrow about.

    Having said that, I have to admit that this is my personal unprofessional opinion. This implies that it may be wrong.

    I love your style of writing.

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  8. Thank you for sharing.
    We must experience that the kids are more, than the chance we give them to be.

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
    (Galatians 3:28)

  9. There is no such thing as boy books or girl books.As long as everyone is learning there is nothing to raise an eyebrow about. If there are things such as books for a specific gender then there should also be boy classrooms and girl classrooms

  10. Amazing article, I don’t think this issue could have been broken down any better. The gendered marketing of books to children annoys me no end, and it just strikes me as utterly pointless.

  11. This is such an irritatingly relevant subject because I teach middle school students who struggle with all of these stereotypes while still finding themselves forced to live them out. I agree with you and, at the same time, when I look at required reading books I have to consider whether or not the majority of students will even consider reading it. All too often, gender comes into play.

  12. I read all kinds of books with both male and female protagonists, growing up(thirty years ago). If it was the kind of book I liked, it didn’t even occur to me that some people might view it as being “for girls” because of a female lead character. Obviously some books are targeted at specific genres, but say, “Harry Potter except it’s Sherry Potter.” Wouldn’t make one bit of difference in who the book is trying to reach. You could fairly easily re-edit the Harry Potter books and make him a girl, wouldn’t have much of an effect on the book, that’s how irrelevant the character’s sex is.

  13. Very well said 👍& you are right. I absolutely feel reading just expands ones soul and fill it with so much more that it can turn anyone into more rational and compassionate. I too feel girl book boy book thing is just lame. Maybe deep down people are all sexist.

    Even I’ve finally started following my passion of reading into a hobby of blogging. You can give me a peak too at😊

  14. Yes! I agree. I think we need to stop stereotyping boys and girls, and let them read what they want! If a boy wants to read the princess and the pea then let him! If a girl likes superheroes then let her read books about them!

  15. What if not all requests for “boy stories” are about conditioning a boy’s mind to what are perceived as masculine qualities/aspects? What if the pursuit of “boy books” is no different than people seeking superheroes of different ethnicities? Not everything regarding gender has to be a means to start a riot and don hats that look like knitted underpants. Don’t storm City Hall because someone asked for a book about a boy who doesn’t get emotional.

    It is entirely different if a publisher refuses to print a book about a boy with “feminine feelings” …Yet, if that’s just how they FEEL, then it’s their choice. I mean, whoever runs the printing presses has a choice about what they want to publish, right? Or, is there some binding contract that says: We will publish whatever you hand us because we’re a publisher? A store sells what the owners want to sell there and does not sell anything that they would consider a liability…though, in some cases, they don’t learn the liability of what they sell until it’s too late.

    Has there ever been a book recall?

    Being a boy/man doesn’t have to be about sports or violence. Male stories can deal with male body parts and masculine responses to experiences. There has been some recent talk of authors of one gender being unable to write the parts of characters of the other gender accurately. And, this could also have an impact on perception and relating to stories.

    Shall we compare the sheer volume of male authors to female authors? And, how many male authors get to publish stories about female leads? Do we really want to have this gender pillow fight? We could go on for decades.

    I vaguely remember being a kid at the school library and having the librarian direct us to different aisles for boy and girl books. But, I don’t recall it ever being enforced that we had to read one or the other. I suppose, there were certain subjects designated boy and girl interests. There were not many if any books for girls about baseball. And, I don’t recall any book for boys about loving horses…unless there was some old Western story I missed.

    In regards to your children, perhaps, in a family where there are more females than males, it is a desperate cry to ensure the boy receives some kind of “male role models” rather than drench him in whatever his sisters choose to favor. It is no picnic going to school with “girl interests” and then being bullied by boys who can’t wait to lynch-mob you for being different. And, it’s not because their dads taught them to pick on boys who were different or because they were only reading stories that taught them such behavior. But, if the families instilled better reading habits, and if there were more stories about boys by boys…well, this would be a different story, wouldn’t it?

    When we see girls playing football and baseball, the way we, at least now, see them play basketball and soccer, there will be less concern for what is a boy or girl thing. But, it will take time. I guess tennis and many Olympic events have no impact. 🙂

    I see how we boys lack(ed) a good male role model other than the superheroes we found in comic books…who are not exactly realistic or the sort we’d consider friends. When Stan Lee speaks of Peter Parker being more “relatable” to the average reader, the average “nerd,” though that could be some form of “selective social thinking” or whatever -ism you want to give it, he may simply be right; everyone needs a “friend” in which they can see themselves. Now, I am seeing classic superheroes being “recast” with different ethnicities in the spandex. Why can’t different ethnicities create or be their own heroes and heroines?

    And, while I am on that subject, as I am learning of this pursuit for more “ethnic diversity” in the world of superheroes, it’s a shame there aren’t more women like Marjane Satrapi in countries other than the USA who can write graphic novels like Persepolis about characters closer to home and share those stories with other nations to bridge the gaps between cultures. I am very pleased when a rare Iranian or French (versus the more common and less pleasant “anime”) cartoon reaches my area. It’s nice to see another culture’s take on art and life. I’ve been told Persepolis isn’t written honestly about what happened; and, if that’s true, that’s a shame. But, it was/is a great story to watch, at least. [I have not read the graphic novel/comics.] We cannot depend upon “white” American artists to create every nation’s stories.

    I’m currently reading some young-adult literature my sister recommends because she favors the author. It is rather cruel in the way it describes the male protagonist, going into detail about his weight and how he struggles socially. I could look at it as mean-spirited or, perhaps, the exposition of an author’s feelings, provided he went through those experiences (not that the author is just writing his perspective on what a fat person might think). But, it’s a book about a boy having boyish thoughts, not written by a woman like Judy Blume (who I adored in my youth though I read very little). Would I recommend such books to a boy who struggled with his weight and/or social interaction because of his girth? Doubtful, unless I knew he could relate and handle the story…or you just take a chance and see what he thinks. Would I recommend a glittery book about unicorns or fairies, instead? Only if the boy (or girl) really expressed an interest in reading such a story and the parents (if they are a factor) approved. I am not sure I can even recommend such a story to a girl, but my sister seems to like it.

    As a child, I did not read many books, regardless of who starred in them. I favored stories about female leads when I did read. The Blue Sword trilogy by Robin McKinley was probably the first female-lead story that sparked a fire (pun intended) in me. But, that may have been because those were the stories I was given most often by female teachers. I did not see many books about boys like me who made me feel okay with myself. The closest I had was probably Henry Higgins. I related more to books about small animals going on crazy adventures. The Catcher in the Rye did not “speak to me” the way others expected.

    Had I found those stories I could connect with the way girls in my class related to stories about girl clubs of detectives and horseback riding and babysitting, maybe I would have felt more socially acceptable and interact more. I joined a kids’ book club once, too. I was a lousy reader and a lousy social person. I still am. And, no amount of classics you throw at me will change that. I will like a mix of stories, regardless if someone requests or suggests them. I will not likely ever love Shakespeare or To Kill a Mockingbird. Sorry, Oprah. 🙂

    I hope my lengthy thoughts are not seen as an offense or bother. After all, we are all unique. 🙂

    1. I agree with many of the points you made. As a child, I don’t recall being made to read books specifically intended for girls. Also, as a mother of 2 sons. I select books based off my sons interests, which is cars and zoo animals. I’ve selected picture books that feature a girl and he likes them just fine. But there are some things, I think, work differently for boys and girls. Like potty training books a girl potty training book wouldn’t have worked for us. Peace.

  16. Sorry—as a high school English teacher I see first hand what students select to read. Maybe it’s conditioning, but few guys run to the bookshelf and pull out Jane Austen. Girls don’t care if it’s marriage or monsters. I have had only one guy appreciate Jane Eyre. I sell the idea of a good read is a good read. Personal preferences are hard to overcome. Maybe it will be different when your kids get to high school.

    1. I agree with your observation. Sometimes just as problematic as stereotyping is insisting on pressing someone into your preferences. Personal preferences of the reader can often get lost (or covered up) in the rush to make him or her fit your perceived ideal.

  17. Girls and boys are different and like different things. So what? I dont see why thats such a shocking revelation
    Ive known this for a long time. Some times i liked more boy like things growing up, again . No biggie! They called me a tom boy ( no biggie- i grew tough skin) , classification is important because in this case a few anomolies want to redefine everyone and i think that is a really selfish thing to do. If i like boy books, then ill just buy boy books, whats the big deal? Without that, id have less of a classification system to find what i like. Again, gender, genre are all important differentiators of determining likes and interests. # my2cents

  18. What makes a good book is based on the characters and what the author has them doing. In my mind there are books for children and books for adults, that doesn’t mean that adults can’t enjoy the children’s stories when reading these to their children or can read stories themselves which were written with children in mind. We need to stop the gender stereotyping which has become outdated with the advent of modern thinking and realising that people are a mixture of hormones and no-one fits into the role models which were around when our parents were young.
    I enjoy reading books which would have been considered written for females thirty years ago, and why shouldn’t I? I feel female some days and male most of the time so why can’t I enjoy reading stories, or biographies for that matter, because the story is well written?

  19. I found myself recently going through my kids’ books changing ‘princess books for girls’ or ‘pirate stories for boys’ to ‘girls and boys’…. always been taught to respect books and not to write in them but for this I make an exception!!!

  20. This is so true. I think what I loved most about reading as a child was the opportunity to explore a new world. Who’s that quote by? About how if you read you live a thousand lives or see a thousand places or something. It had very little to do with the gender of the protagonist. If anything. I do now prefer to read books by female authors and with female protagonists. I can identify with them. But having said that, I will choose to challenge myself with other books from time to time. And they often surprise me. The same is true for books about or by people from other cultures. I love reading books about people with a different experience of the world. I seek them out. I perhaps do so less when it comes to gender. I think as I get older I’m tired more of hearing the male perspective. I think it feels “done”, I can’t relate to it. It makes me angry. But if as children we weren’t taught there were different perspectives for different genders… what a different world we would live in! It’s aspirational

  21. Great insight. I noticed though as a former Escal reading volunteer who used to help primary school children read a book via phonics, that both genders would pick the same book from the shelf. Interestingly their levels were different but insisted on reading it. The book they chose was about aliens and space so you could imagine how excited they were to read it. This statement is testament to the fact that both genders may think differently but may choose the same book. However, as they come of age, boys may opt for books that contain pictures and a few words whereas girls prefer novels, hence the differences in their reading comprensión. Naturally, boys may catch up with their vocabulary and tend to be less advanced than their female counterparts but I think that is a generalisation, however boys do learn but in very different ways. People always surprise us. Whether that is in the form of newspapers as both genders may prefer Journalism or Magazine writing for their degree, later on in life.

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