Boy Books? Girl Books? Eek!

So, Chestnut and Diana just spent a lovely week in Vermont with their
grandparents, and part of that meant trips to the 4h of July library
book sale, and to the very tiny but excellent local library, where
Chestnut discovered this:

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Gender and
kids books is such a massive sticky morass I am hesitant to wade in,
but here I go.
The first thing I want to acknowledge is the
significant (I think) advantage girls have over boys in the 
culture of books: so many, many of the amazing and wonderful books for
children concern girls. In some very real way it seems like
books—especially magical books, and childhood books—center on girls
because girls are the writers, and I mean that to be more metaphorical
than literal. It's as though the role of interpreting experience, of
recording it from within it but a little bit distanced, is what it
means, in our historical culture anyway, to be a girl. Girls are
narrators. It's as though being female is a way to understand
experience.
Now, the problem is that when I get to thinking along those lines, I
freak myself out. Because it, on some deep level, seems wrong. Surely
experience is human, not female? Surely action, participation, is
human, not male, right?
Chestnut LOVES the Billy & Blaze
books, which are about a boy and his horse. They have a certain purity
of vision and story. They were written in the 1930s and have very direct, clear illustration. There is
something very hopeful about them, about a world in that acted as though it was a matter of course to teach our children to go out and do good in the
world, to be proud and strong and brave and trustworthy. A whole different universe of virtues
from the reflexive sass of children (and their avatars—wise-ass pandas and penguins and mice) in books today.
I don't mean to judge one or the other; you're brought up in the culture you're brought up in, you don't have a whole lot of choice in the matter.
But Chestnut responds powerfully to this past world, and here's the thing:
for this sort of straightforward heroism, particularly of a human and
an animal aligned in adventure, it seems it's always a boy.
My even saying this makes me feel like I'm falling into that familiar boys-are-uncomplicated-girls-

are-emotional mold, and I don't mean to, but it's so tangible.
But maybe this is all fine? Maybe I should just be happy that it's a great thing that she's reading Billy
and Blaze, and identifying as powerfully as she could with anything;
why should it be a girl, after all? Girls have dominion over so much of
children's literature, why not allow the boys their wildlife outdoor
adventures (see The Trumpet of the Swan, The Once and Future King,
Lassie, etc etc etc etc)?
I wonder.
Or maybe just take this away: the Billy and Blaze books are sweet and true, with interesting and moving illustrations. Maybe you ought to read them.

7 thoughts on “Boy Books? Girl Books? Eek!

  1. One of the things I noticed when I was little was how many of the “classic” horse books featured boys. (The Black Stallion series, My Friend Flicka, etc.) When did horse stories start to feature girls?
    I think that the main problem is that girls will read “boy” books (I know I did) but that boys will not read “girl” books (in general). And that’s a shame.

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  2. I agree with Akycha. Brynn prefers to read books about girls, because she’s such a girly-girl, but she will happily read books about boys if they are good. But I’m not sure the opposite is true. My little brother wouldn’t read “girl books” no matter what.

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  3. When my son was born, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to share the books I loved as a girl; I just assumed that a boy would reject those books.
    Turns out that’s not true. My 9 year old son definitely prefers books about boys (just as I tended to prefer books about girls when I was his age), but he’s also found plenty to engage him in books like Ramona and this summer he’s loving the Little House books. I think that boys of today have a very different expectation of gender roles; certainly my son does (thanks, Hillary!).
    I’ve also sought out books about boys where emotions are experienced and acknowledged. Two I HIGHLY recommend: The Cabin on Trouble Creek, by Jean Van Leeuwen. It’s the story of two boys left alone to homestead over the winter in Ohio; v. compelling.
    And The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Spring by Betty Birney, about a boy searching for excitement in the world of his 1930s small town in Missouri. This book is an amazing read-aloud (I read it to the 2nd graders in my school the last two years in a row). And the hero, a boy named Eben, is quite charming.

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  4. Interesting.
    I write action-adventures & mysteries especially for tween boys. Why? I have a background in the production of dramatic films for kids. My work also involved the marketing, promotion, and distribution of those films for rental. What we found was that boys would not watch a girl’s story, but girls were interested in, and would watch a boy’s story.
    So I adopted that same template for my books and it works well. I believe there is a great need for books that will attract boys to read, and I know that isn’t happening, on a large scale, if the stories are girl centered.
    Max Elliot Anderson
    Books For Boys Blog – #1 on Google today
    http://booksandboys.blogspot.com

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  5. It’s an interesting question; I remember one of the first books I read that really dealt with grown-up questions was “The Yearling,” which was one of those marvelous finds from wandering the grown-up shelves in the library for possibly the first time. I didn’t really think anything of the fact that the main character was a boy; probably given the historical context, it made sense to me. I don’t know if you would have found a story about a girl left alone to homestead while her father went back east to fetch the family (or whether it would feel kind of forced if you did?).
    I also loved the Oz books, which seem very girly to me; few of the characters are male, and the main characters (Dorothy, Ozma, Glinda) are all female. So far, my son is enjoying those, but he’s 5, so his interests are a little fleeting and his gender awareness isn’t overwhelming yet. I hope he continues to like the best of the “girl” books as he gets older.

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  6. I read Billy and Blaze when I was in grade school. That was in the early 60s.
    It never occurred to me, then to worry about Billy being a boy and me being a girl. All I cared about was the story.
    Perhaps it is that girls like me grew up to write those stories, and it was then acceptable for such adventure to be had by girls?
    I agree that the simple honorable nature of the books is a wonderful thing. We can still teach our children about such qualities.

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