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.
If we can set up reading partnerships and have double copies of books, we could pair two boys together. This might bring a comfort level that wasn’t there before to explore any book! Thank you for sharing!
In my school library I have noticed that many fourth grade boys are reading graphic novels starring females. Hopefully, this will spill over to other fiction and other grades.
Flipped by Van Draanen is great alternating point of view title between a boy and girl.
Loved this post. It made me think of my former eighth grade LA colleague who was a master at getting boys to read books with strong femal MC ‘s. She just book talked the good stuff and put it out there and once they had trust that she knew a good book they were hooked. Hero saving boys one book at a time! Miss u MS. Kelley!
I read Liesel Shurtliff’s “Rump” and “Jack” to my class this year. They have strong male leads, but there are good “girl” moments too. Now we are reading “Red”, and she is definitely a strong female lead. My class has a 1:3 ration of girls to boys. Getting the boys to read a book with a girl on the cover has been a challenge. BUT, now that we’ve met Red, I’m hoping they’ll see that a girl on the cover doesn’t preclude the book from being awesome!
This is a great article! Lately, I’ve actually been worried about the lack of frequency in guys’ representation in kid’s books, especially those for tweens and teens. I think your article makes a wonderful point about the value of boys being exposed to “girl books.” Since you were looking for suggestions about encouraging boys to read typically girl books, I would say, teachers, librarians, parents should try not to let their own prejudices about guy preference get in the way of introducing boys to girl protagonist books. As a teen librarian, I used to look closely at circulation stats, especially when I’d buy books that I thought would hold special appeal to boys. I was often disappointed by low circ of these “guy books” (and I would check gender of circulating books), but when talking to boys about books, I was often pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic guys were about “girl books” — romance especially. Maybe it’s valuable for us to be more neutral in our presentation of books. Thanks again for the great piece!
Great post, Jen. I have a few thoughts about this. Just read elsewhere on the web an interesting (although sad) observation that one of the reasons that boys feel comfortable reading “The Hunger Games” is that Katniss is NOT featured on the cover.
From personal experience, I would say that my son (and his book loving male friends) had a few “gateway drugs” to get them to read books about female protagonists. One is the classic books of Middle Grade – From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Westing Game, A Wrinkle In Time, Tuck Everlasting…they all have strong, smart fearless girl protagonists.
The second way is through Graphic Novels, which seem less “Girly” as long as they are funny and relatable. All of the boys I know (we’re talking ten and eleven-year-olds) loved Raina Telgemaier’s books, esp. Smile and Sisters. As well as El Deafo by CeCe Bell (I know you know the authors, but on the off chance ANYONE doesn’t, I thought I’d include them). And Noelle Stevenson’s NIMONA also is a big hit.
One last selection from the humorous end of things would be Geoff Rodkey’s Tapper Twins series, which is a wonderful look into the insanity which is New York CIty Private Schools.
As a side note, the Studio Ghibli films of Miyazaki, especially Spirited Away practically all have strong female characters.
I found graphic novels were perfect for getting the boys in my class reading books with girls as main characters too. Even had one struggling reader tell me Smile was the best book he’d ever read. And they all passed around Raina’s other books, as well as El Deafo and Amulet.
I’ve heard that about Hunger Games too- same with Divergent. And even the classics you mention (which my boys also loved) have gender-neutral covers. These are really great book suggestions- thanks, Denis!
Story Thieves is the latest craze in my classroom. It has very strong female characters and male counterparts. It has raised very different discussions/arguments that have focused on the female characters–not even worm by a”girl-minded” author.
Sorry Thieves is the latest craze in my classroom. It has strong female characters with male counterparts. The discussions/arguments about this book are very different than discussions about other books we’ve read with male dominated folk sixth as The Fourth Stall. Is exciting to listen to boys routing for the female characters.
This article is so relevant after I spent my entire Saturday purchasing books for my elementary school’s Leveled Reading Library. Don’t get me wrong, this was fun, but reader gender played a role in some of my decisions as I spent the $9,000 provided by the PTA..
Gender bias exists in our youngest readers as I have seen it in one of my kindergarten students. Thanks for giving me something in which to reflect. You need the voices of other students, both boys and girls, when having book conversations..
If you like YA books, I recommend THE SERPENT KING for good read with multiple povs. Each chapter is told by one of the book’s three characters, and the female character is strong and independent.
Generous PTA! Thanks for commenting, Nancy- I think a lot of us are in the same boat of having our own unconscious bias. I know I definitely struggle with it when buying books for my own kids.
As a school librarian, I see this up close. I think your point about dystopian novels is right on.
I once had a male teacher send a boy back to get another book because the book he picked had a “girly” cover & he thought the boy wasn’t serious about reading it, but the kid just happened to like reading teen romances. So frustrating!
My class wrote an email to Lauren Tarshis asking why there aren’t any female protagonists in her survived series. See never replied. I try to balance my read alouds to include both female and male leads, Running Out of Time by Haddix is a popular one with the boys wanting to read more of her books. I also would read The Farthest Away Mountain because it has a female hero who goes on a traditional fantasy adventure. It is by Lynn Reid Banks. She also wrote The Fairy Rebel which is also a super book to read, but I don’t read The Indian in the Cupboard, because I want the boys to like her other two books.
I remember that when A Little Princess came out in the movie theater there was an article about how families with only girls saw the movie, families with just boys did not , but families with both boys and girls did not see it because they only saw boy movies because it was easier to make the girl see a boy movie and they didn’t think a boy should ever see a girl movie. It is so wrong and I discuss this with my class every year!
Interesting to read your comment regarding the I Survived books. After seeing the publicity materials enclosed with our Scholastic order featuring a poster of all the book covers, two of my sixth graders spent their study hall time composing a letter to Lauren Tarshis. With input from their classmates, they were respectful, yet direct, in asking why there were no girls featured as “heroes when disaster strikes.” Like your students, they did not receive a response. Fortunately, I think the support these girls got from their male classmates (urging them to write and providing revision ideas to help to strengthen their argument) somewhat made up for the fact that their letter was ignored. They know their opinion is valid.
Love this story so much!!! (Not the non-response part– but the support from classmates, definitely!) FYI: according to a commenter below a female heroine is forthcoming in an I Survived book.
Another great series with both a boy and girl protagonist is the Blue Balliet series. The first one is “Chasing Vermeer.” I read it aloud to my class of 3rd graders every year, although the characters are 6th graders. They love it and learn some art history along the way.
I teach 3rd and 4th grade and the one area where I find my boys read female protagonist books with no comment or complaint is graphic novels. The boys might not be as quick to pick up the Babysitters Club ones, but they happily read (and ask for more) Cleopatra in Space, Smile, Roller Girl, Princeless, etc.
In my 5th grade classroom, I offer lots of choice. This year we read Rules by Cynthia Lord in which Catherine is the main character. I would agree that having the cover appear gender neural is key for the initial buy-in for boys. But baby if my students enjoyed other strong female leader character books like Red, Sisters, Smile, Every Soul a Star, The War that Saved my Life & Paper Wishes. I always promote books as great books – it shouldn’t matter who the main character may be! Having other students book talk or showing trailers also helps generate overall excitement!
There is a definite link between reading and empathy. I wrote about it on my blog. Here’s the link: https://lisaorchard.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/the-link-between-reading-and-empathy/
The thing is reading is on the decline and so is our compassion for our fellow man. We need to encourage reading over screen time in our homes to turn this trend around. Check out my article for more details. 🙂
That study you link to is both scary and eye-opening!
Yes it is! In my opinion, we need to get our kids back into the habit of reading. My boys read at least twenty minutes a night, and I sometimes wonder if that’s enough. Thanks for checking out my post.
I have a ten year old son and am a writer–and thought I had my biases in check. But a few months ago, after listening to Shannon Hale talk, I realized I was offering my son books with girl protagonists with the caveat, I think you’ll like this even though it’s about a girl. I was horrified, and I’ve tried to be a lot more conscious of how I present books. Great post!
Last year I taught grade four and made a point to alternate our read aloud novel between male and female main characters. All of my students enjoyed the books and there were never suggestions that Mathilda or The City of Ember were “girl” books.
My boys enjoyed the Judy Moody series when they were in lower elementary. One of my sons loves Zita The Spacegirl series and Cleopatra in Space. We have enjoyed Gordon Korman’s Mastermind series and his new book, Slacker. He uses multiple POV in both with strong girl characters. Dave Barry’s Worst Class Trip Ever and Worst Night Ever are from a boy’s POV but have strong girl main characters. The I Survived series will have a girl protagonist in the new addition to the series in August (I Survived Mt St Helens). Our school has had two male authors visit in the past two years and both strongly promoted and spent time talking about how boys should read books that are considered “girl books”. One discussed reading Anne of Green Gables because he wife asked him too. It was wonderful. 🙂 Thank you for the post and the opportunity to share. 🙂
Jen, my twelve-year-old grandson loved your first book, AT YOUR SERVICE. I bought it for him telling him I read it and thought he’d like it. Simply suggesting a book is sometimes the ticket to get a boy to try a book he might not otherwise have picked up. Good luck with THE SLEEPOVER. You’re a fabulous writer!
Carol, you are too sweet- thank you so much for sharing this story. It made my night! I definitely have a lot of boys who write me about At Your Service and I’m so glad your grandson enjoyed it
I homeschool. So this is ALL up to me. My daughter is the oldest and so some of her first books have been The American Girl series and the Rainbow Fairy series. I always figured I’d buy “boy” books when my son began reading. But then he mentioned looking forward to reading these same books when he learned to read. I realized he hasn’t had any exposure to this idea of girl books and boy books. And I’m not going to introduce it. Oh, I’ll get him a boy centered series or two, but I look forward to also reading the AG and fairy books with him too, with zero commentary on who the books are “for.”
The other day in the car, my 7yo daughter and 5 yo son were talking. And my daughter said, “Remember, all stories with girls can be exciting.” He replied with, “okie dokie.”
Reblogged this on Mayor of Bookopolis.
Great discussion here! I have two seventh grade boys who are racing each other through the Dork Diaries right now. I think it started as a bit of a joke–oh, these look easy, I’ll churn one out–but they realized they actually enjoy them, and they can “blame” it on the competition. One of the boys just finished all our Telgemeier graphic novel adaptations of The Babysitters Club, and I think he’s catching on to the idea that books about girls aren’t Girl Books.
I agree that read-alouds can be a great way to get kids reading something they might not have picked up on their own. My classes really liked April Henry’s YA thriller “Girl Stolen,” which alternates male and female narrators. Everyone also got really into Margaret Peterson Haddix’s “Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey,” which has a female narrator.
Love the Coverflip challenge–thanks for letting us know about it!
Jen..great article “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.”..I’ve been suggesting this for such a long time. Not only in terms of boy girl books but ethnic diversity too. Much of this issue comes not from the writing, but marketing. Thanks for writing this!
Thanks, Nora. I definitely agree this is a big part of where the bias comes into play!
Thanks for the book suggestions everyone!! My “to read” list just grew exponentially!
Really great tips here! Thanks for the article and the ideas. Agreed–gender is such a huge problem.
I agree so much with all of this. But I also understand boys not wanting to read “girl” books based on the way they look. (Why the idea of wrapping all books in paper bag covers is a great one!) I don’t expect a tween or teen boy — who is already SO sensitive & worried about teasing and being picked on — to pick up a book with a frilly pink cover, or a cover with a striking young women model on it. I mean, yeah, it would be great if they could overlook the clearly gender-biased covers out there — but that’s also an unrealistic expectation. Ya know? I mean, I know how much covers influence ME as a reader, too. I’m certainly drawn more towards certain styles over others.
But I do think the publishers have a certain responsibility in this regard. YES, it’s their job to sell books & they’re going to give a book they cover they think will help it sell the most copies, and they don’t care (really) whether it’s getting a fair shot at both genders. But I think there IS a responsibility to be more gender neutral in their cover designs. Steer away from the crazy pink/fluffy/girly covers. For one, how much do those REALLY appeal to girls? And secondly, they are unnecessarily screaming that these books are “for girls.”
For the most part, YA & MG covers have gotten a LOT better in the last few years, I’ll say that much. But there’s still a long way to go.
My 8-year-old read “Sisters” by Raina Telgemeier at his after school program and loved it! I’m a horrible mother. I am a children’s librarian who has loved Telgemeier for a while, and I never thought of introducing it to my son. I can’t wait to share some of my other fave graphic novels with him – Smile, Sunnyside Up, El Deafo.
My eight-year-old son loves Sarah Mlynowski’s Whatever After series. Perhaps the cover might have put him off, but I was reading it aloud to my daughter, and he was drawn in by the fact that one of the main characters is a seven-year-old boy, even though it isn’t in his voice (although he has asked why the author hasn’t written part of it in Jonah’s POV 🙂 ). He’s even taken the books to read by himself. I suggested the series to his second grade teacher as a read-aloud for that reason–because boys might not be interested in reading it on their own but would be engaged in the story.
No need to enter me in the drawing since I already have THE SLEEPOVER :).
Thank you, Jen–just shared this. Great discussion and suggestions in the comments!
Love this conversation and appreciate the book suggestions. My school year ends this week and I think I’ll share the reading-empathy study link with parents. We’re finishing up The War That Saved My Life as our read aloud right now. ALL of my fourth graders are rooting for Ada. Some are even trying to understand the unlikeable mother and are offering ideas for what could have happened in her past to make her the way she is. Empathy in action and modeled for all students as we discuss our ideas.
For the boys who are into sports books I urge people to check out the group Sporty Girl Books blog (of which I am a part). We review tons of books with strong female athletes for every reader and try to tag all of our posts so you can search for what you want! http://sportygirlbooks.blogspot.com/
A year or so ago I bought a t-shirt that read : “All books are girl books”. I’m a junior high librarian and I had a great range of reactions predominantly positive from my staff. However I bought it right around the time I had a teacher e-mail me a list of books for a parent of a male student; basically “boy books”. And I thought immediately that it made no sense to give “boy books”, so my list contained everything from the most popular circulating books (THG, Divergent, Percy Jackson, etc.) in my library to the lesser stuff but still had great content. I didn’t use the protagonists as my inspiration when creating my list, it just made sense to give the kid major options from series’ to standalones.
It’s very hard to sell a boy a great book if it’s pink and covered in hearts & glitter. I had one boy just a week or so ago say “are all these girl books?” I hate that, but as a reader, I can understand some books are for girls and some are for boys just because if pure interest (with the exception of a few). I love the idea of having a challenge, or book study, where everyone reads a “girl book”, maybe along side Women’s History Month. I did have several boys this year read Dork Diaries after I told them it was just like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Packaging definitely works against us!
One thing that I’ve found helps at my library is graphic novels featuring girl protagonists. Or dual narratives with a boy and a girl.
This is why a lot of reading challenges (look at Goodreads) include “read a book from a character of a different gender/race/etc”—-too bad you couldn’t do a reading bingo for kids with the same type of list.
Growing up as a girl with an older brother who was an avid reader, i would get suggestions all the time. I don’t remember my brother saying anything other than,”this is a great book. You should read it.” The fact that it came from him really impacted me, so i have always done the same type of thing with my students and children. My son enjoyed Cam Jansen mysteries when he was younger and that seemed to help keep the “girl” line open without me pushing it in his face. He then read and enjoyed Judy Moody and others. We spent time reading Wendy Maas books with alternating POV and strong female characters. He has recently read through Hunger Games and is an avid Rick Riordan lover. Riordan is fabulous for strong female leads that are appealing to bots. 39 Clues was a huge hit and The Kane Chronicles has alternating POV of an inter racial brother and sister team, which is an excellent series for the boy/girl crossover. Thanks for posting and inspiring us to pay attention to this topic
Ms. Yingling at Ms. Yingling Reads does a Boys Read Pink month every year at her middle school library – featured in SLJ here: http://www.slj.com/2016/05/books-media/challenging-gender-norms-with-boys-read-pink-celebration/ . I’ve put together some lists of fantasy books with girl protagonists and boy appeal on my blog, many of which I’ve read to my son. https://alibrarymama.com/2013/11/19/top-ten-fantasy-books-for-boys-with-starring-girls/ (looking back at this list, I see that 3 of my 10 are graphic novels, going along with the trend several other commenters have noted. and https://alibrarymama.com/2014/07/27/12-spec-fic-books-for-teen-boys-starring-girls/
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Valuable re-blog today…