How “Girl Books” Could Save the World (Or At Least Help Out!) by Jen Malone
I doubt it will surprise any Nerds that a recent study offered definitive proof that readers of fiction tend to score higher on tests measuring empathy and interpersonal sensitivity, and are better equipped to interpret emotional cues. In short, fiction readers are superior at “human-ing.”
These findings make so much sense to me, because when we read a book about someone who’s “other” from the way we self-identify, and have the opportunity to live in that character’s head for a bit, it turns “other’ into “same everywhere it counts” for us, pretty darn quickly.
This certainly makes the (already clear) case for offering more diverse books to kids, and I know we’re all working hard to make that happen. But—in the same spirit of fostering empathy, respect, and understanding—how many of us do the same with “girl books”? Because included among our society’s issues is a gender problem. A big one.
We’ve seen example after example lately illustrating how girls and women are under-represented, underpaid, and undervalued in our culture. Take Hollywood: where men are on screen 2.24 times as often as women, and even in a film like Frozen, which features strong female roles, a majority of the speaking lines went to male characters. Heck, even the crowds in the backgrounds of films are gender-biased—they’re made up of only 17% women!
But guess where we have zero shortages (where, in fact, we have an abundance) of strong, intelligent, and competent female leads? Kidlit!
Guess who’s not being exposed to these main characters? Boys.
That’s a problem, because their female counterparts are only too happy to read books featuring male central characters, meaning those girls’ empathy for and understanding of the opposite gender grows, while the reverse isn’t necessarily happening.
I’m no Pollyanna, but I strongly believe that if more boys began exploring the world through the eyes (and narration) of female characters, they would grow to become men who don’t see women as “other”, but rather “same everywhere it counts.”
I know, I know. Easier said than done, because not only are the boys not gravitating to these “girl books” but, in many cases, they’re rejecting them outright. Trust me, I totally get it. I have twin thirteen year-old boys and I fully appreciate the resistance they put up when encountering a bubble gum pink cover.
So here are some concrete ideas worth trying, to counteract some of the barriers (and knowing this site reaches beyond classroom educators, please feel free to substitute “home,” “library,” etc. in the below examples):
- Examine your own bias. This is where we turn the lens on ourselves, and I freely include myself among the guilty. Are you inadvertently labeling certain books as being “for girls” or “for boys” when offering them to students, reviewing them, or book-talking them? Note: I’m using the term “girl books” in this post to make my case, but I’d love to see it eliminated all together—books needn’t have a gender! Are you, consciously or unconsciously, steering boys away from books you assume they wouldn’t be interested in, or only presenting them with options that fall more firmly along traditional gender lines? Many books are clearly packaged by publishers for particular gender appeal, so it’s very easy to fall prey to this without realizing it.
- Cover all the books (not just the “girly” ones) in your classroom with brown paper bags, old-school style. Talk about why you’re doing so and how packaging and marketing can influence book selections. For upper elementary students and older, Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip challenge makes for a great discussion topic and try-it-yourself activity.
- Assign “girl books” as class reading and place selections prominently on summer reading lists, with urgings (or requirements) for students of both genders to consider them.
- Invite authors of “girl books” to meet and speak with your students. When you do so, please, please ensure that author doesn’t have this experience.
- When choosing books to read aloud, don’t automatically select books with male protagonists in an attempt to offer broad appeal to both genders. In fact this might be your best shot to expose boys to “girl books” with little resistance!
- Ease boys into the idea by offering dual POV books where a male features prominently, but a female has an equal voice in the story. Some MG examples: Swap by Megan Schull, Nanny X by Madelyn Rosenberg, Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver, Above World by Jenn Reese, Rules for Ghosting by AJ Paquette, Lizzie and the Lost Baby by Cheryl Blackford, Broken Lands by Kate Milford, and The Lemonade Wars by Jacqueline Davis. Some YA offerings: the Legend series by Marie Lu, Video by Karen Romano Young, Chasing Brooklyn and The Bridge From Me to You, both by Lisa Schroeder.
- Offer high-concept, high-action series featuring female protagonists, like Divergent or The Hunger Games, as great access points for beginning to explore girl-centric fiction.
- Offer audiobooks or ebooks, where the outside packaging is far less of an influencer, and potential teasing by peers is less of a factor.
I appreciate all of this takes a conscious effort, but I also know that working to do so is worth it. Not only will you be proving to the girls in your classes/lives that their voices are worth hearing by all–not just by their fellow female peers—but you’ll be offering the boys around you the very same message.
**Let me end this post with a caveat, and the hope it doesn’t discredit everything I’ve said above:
The middle grade books I write are for an imprint at Simon & Schuster that specifically markets to tween girls, and I realize that, given that, all this advice could read as self-serving “here’s why you should buy my books” self-promotion. It isn’t, I promise. It’s because I write these types of stories that I’ve become a firsthand witness to how books perceived as “girl books” are presented and received. Rather, I’m writing this post as a fellow booklover, an educator, a woman, a mother, and someone who’s trying every day to be better at “human-ing” herself!
I’d love if we could use the comment space below to contribute success stories, other dual-POV books, or suggestions for persuading more boys to try out “girl books.” Nerdy Book Club staff will randomly select one commenter to receive a signed hardcover copy of my brand-new release, The Sleepover, a kid-friendly (and boy-friendly!) spoof on the movie “The Hangover,” termed by Kirkus as “(a) boisterous whirl of capers, pranks, and mystery.” “ ← see now, there’s the book plug!’
Happy almost-summer, Nerdy friends… and I can’t wait to see many of you at nErDcamp in July!
Jen Malone writes sweet and funny books about tweens and teens for readers of all ages. Her middle grade titles include At Your Service, the You’re Invited series (co-written with Gail Nall), and The Sleepover, all with Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Her Young Adult titles (with HarperCollins/HarperTeen) include Map to the Stars and Wanderlost. Jen’s a former Hollywood movie executive who once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about her and her titles at www.jenmalonewrites.com.