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.