A few minutes ago I received a rant by email from my friend Sharon Levin. She was infuriated because she'd just come back from a children's literature conference at which people kept talking about how boys wouldn't be interested in books with girl protagonists or even with a girl on the cover. One presenter even held up a copy of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate -- a Newbery winner -- and said, "Would a boy like this book? No.”
To quote from Sharon's email:
What do I find most disturbing about this? Well, that it’s mainly women who keep this ‘boys can’t possibly like books about girls’ train of thought on the track. It’s the female teachers and librarians at conferences I hear asking about ‘male appeal’ of books. It’s the moms I’m selling to at the bookstore who will not buy books about girls for their sons
What I find interesting is that when I do booktalks in classrooms or am handselling at the bookstore, boys do not run away from Kiki Strike or Heir Apparent or Red Scarf Girl.
Do we truly think so little of ourselves that we believe that adventures featuring our gender cannot possibly be of interest to the opposite gender? What is it about women that we instill the value in boys (and girls by extension) that reading about girls is for girls and reading about boys is for everyone? Where does this self loathing come from? It breaks my heart.
As the mom of a boy, I both agree and don't. I have learned, reluctantly, that there are, in fact, books that I loved as a kid that my son doesn't, and that most boys will like less than most girls. For all I know, Calpurnia Tate might be one of them. Certainly my son isn't particularly keen on realistic fiction, particularly books that are all about a character's feelings. He likes action, humor, magic, adventure, anything with animals, and -- most importantly -- interesting characters. Would Calpurnia's character win him over, despite the fact that the book is realistic fiction in which the adventures are internal rather than external? I don't know. But I do know that there are many books with female protagonists among his favorites. Right now we're jointly immersed in Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy which features female protagonists all the way through. His favorite book of all time is The Princess and the Goblin, which -- well the title says it all, doesn't it?
I've had this debate many times in different contexts. When I got the sketch dummy for my picture book Firefighters in the Dark, I saw that the illustrator, Nicoletta Ceccoli, had made the protagonist a girl (I'd written it imagining a boy, but since it's in the first person, it could be either.) My editor at Houghton Mifflin and I talked at length about what the impact of this choice might be on sales -- would firefighter-loving boys be turned off by a girl narrator as we'd always been told? We decided to risk it. As it turned out, the very first customer review I got on Amazon was headlined "Finally, A Firefighter Book for Girls." But of course the book was never intended to be "for girls" or "for boys" -- it was meant to be for kids who love firefighters.
Are there boys who love firefighters who spurned that book because it's got a girl in it? Probably. Even so, I think it's important to encourage kids to cross the race or gender divide when choosing books -- even if it means encountering resistance. Most kids are ego-centric enough to assume that people like them are the most interesting people on earth, and kids who aren't omnivorous readers are always going to tend to the familiar. But the push is worth making, particularly because as kids find books they like with opposite-gender protagonists (or protagonists of other races), they learn that those books are "for" them too.
In the end, the true determinant of what books kids like is what interests them, not the gender (or race) of the narrator. My son likes Lirael and its precursor, Sabriel, because both books are filled with swords and magic and zombie-like dead people and wonderful characters, including a very irritable cat. Along the way he gets exposed to a little bit of the female psyche as the heroine of the second book, Lirael, obsessively considers her place in the world. I have to think that exposure to girl heroines and girl thoughts in books might make it easier for him to understand girls in real life. And I know that the habit of mind that says "I'm not interested in people who aren't like me" is one that we should confront at every turn, as readers, as writers, as teachers, and as parents.