Friday, September 24, 2010

Girls like Boogers, Boys like Romance: Let's Get Beyond Gender in Children's Books Already, People!

Well, cyberspace is all in a tizzy again. This time, it's a Wall Street Journal article called How to Raise Boys who Read. Hint: It's not with gross-out books and video game bribes.

I don't think the article is really that controversial. The writer, Thomas Spence, rants a little about Captain Underpants and the ubiquitousness of boogers and other bodily fluids in recent books aimed at boy readers. But the important part of his (ok, slightly old fashioned 'pro-classical education' flavored) message seems to be for parents to raise readers by turning off electronics and (*shocker*) having a lot of interesting books around.

But the cybernetic furor today among parents was palpable. The Scholastic blogging team at On-Our Minds (OOM) posted an also very reasonable response to the WSJ essay entitled Boys Should be Allowed to Read Books They Choose. The facebook posting of this article garnered 70+ comments within an hour or two - most of them to the tune of "Fart and poop jokes saved my son from a life of illiteracy -- God Bless Captain Underpants." (Ok, not exactly that, but something along those lines.)

The problem I have with both essays is as follows - neither challenges the assumption that there is something called a "boy book" and a "girl book." Call me an idealist (or just a mother of both a boy and a girl), but I think girls - if given the opportunity - like a good fart joke as much as the next XY chromosome. And my big reader boy can't get enough of 'girl' titles like the Betsy-Tacey books, the teensy-bit racist Little House series (as I blather about here), and lots of series that happen to have girl protagonists like Judy Moody, Ramona Quimby, and that annoying Junie B. Jones (boy am I glad that phase is over). Of course he also gobbles up Harry Potter, Septimus Heap, and Percy Jackson with just as much alacrity.

What's the big deal, y'all? Are we really that ridiculous?

Because, the other day, we went to a 9yo boy's house, where there happened to be a lot of Ramona Quimby covers in plain sight. To be friendly, I asked him "Oh, do you like the Ramona books?" (thinking he and my son could talk about them) The boy (who doesn't have a sister to blame) looks abashed - like he'd been caught in some criminal activity, and shook his head. Then his dad smoothly stepped in, saying "Oh, he loves the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and (yea, you guessed it) Captain Underpants books."

Say what? Are we so fixed on boy books and girl books now a days that big tough dads of schoolboys are ashamed if their sons read a little Beverly Clearly? What, are books with girl heroines too woosy to read or something? Because I clearly missed that parenting memo.

My son and I love the Franny K. Stein books - a girl who doesn't want to be a ballerina or a princess but a mad scientist with spiders and bats and zombies and stuff. How cool is that? I'm planning on handing my 6year old daughter the whole set when she gets up to reading them.

And right now, I'm writing a YA fantasy with a lot of boogers. And a princess. Who gets covered in boogers. In fact, I'd like to see more books about, say, farting butterfly fairies or zombie mermaids who fight evil (hm... evil fighting zombie mermaids...let me make a note of that idea) .
And let me tell you, my potty-joke and tri-wizard tournament loving son also loved it when Almonzo and Laura courted. Loved it. Big f-n deal, people.

I think the most important lesson I learned from following this cybernetic controversy today was that shared by a fellow comment poster on the OOM site. This poster brought the WSJ article to task for failing to recommend what I think is the one of the strongest predictors of raising book-loving boys and girls - which is for families to enjoy books together. (In fact, a while ago, I called for a nationwide reading streak where parents and kids read together at least 10 minutes a day. There were, like crickets chirping in cyberspace after that one...)

I don't think that we have to get our boys to wear cravats while they read, nor do I think we should limit them to doo-doo based literature because of some false fear of de-masculinizing them. Nor should our daughters only hold that bratty Pinkalicious or the fabulous yet uber-feminine Fancy Nancy as their only role models.

Boys like romance. Girls like boogers.

Let's stop segregating their books, already.

(Oh, and turn off the TV, take away their video games, and read together as a family while we're at it)

End of rant. Bow, bow. Clap, clap.


  1. I love this post because I totally agree with everything you said! Boys play with dolls, right? But as far as books, there are male characters in books with female protagonists. Beverly Cleary's "Ramona" books did have Henry Huggins (he even had a book of his own), and even "The Baby-sitters Club" series had Logan, a boy baby-sitter who garnered a few books of his own in the series.

  2. reposting, my friend! Amen on the farting fairies!

  3. Thanks for the support! yea, I'm really thinking I'm onto something with the farting fairies and zombie mermaids...

  4. I hope you did write down that evil fighting mermaid zombies thing. If you didn't, I might steal it. :) I about wanted to fall over when my son came home recently and said something about "boy books" -- and this from a kid who lives in a home where EVERY ROOM has overflowing bookshelves and he has Riordan on his shelf, along with Cleary. Frustrating!! I guess I have to work at counter-balancing the messages he's picking up from his friends -- who must be related to the boy you mention above. Yep -- most of his friends would NEVER admit to liking Ramona. Even though she is hilarious. Think of what they are missing!!

  5. Hear, hear! I'm a YA librarian and also mother of two 11-year old boys who are enthusiastic readers of many different types of books, probably because my husband and I both read a lot, we have lots of books in our home, and we read aloud to our sons from the time they were babies. Do they read titles classified as "boy books"? Certainly, but they were also fascinated by Understood Betsy, because of the description of the one-room schoolhouse in Vermont. My one son recently urged me to read a book he is reading for school and thinks is really great. What book is that? Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons. And, in the reverse, some of the biggest fans of Rick Riordan's Lightning Thief series at my library are girls. I read Ian Fleming's James Bond books as a teen (and still have a sneaking fondness for 007).

    You should totally do that fighting zombie mermaids story - one of my favorite recent reads was Diana Peterfreund's Rampant about a girl who slays killer unicorns (and my sons both read this book too).

  6. Love that a librarian agrees with me! :) For those of us who love books - nothing better than the endorsement of a librarian!

    Don't know Understood Betsy - must look it up - but even more intrigued to hear of your love for James Bond (and Rick Riordan - I think the same personality type probably loves both!). I am a HUGE 007 fan - although am disappointed in the films as of late!

    OO - Rampant "girl who slays killer unicorns"! You've heard of all this "zombies vs. unicorns" debate in the YA community as of late, I'm assuming? :)

    Thanks for the enthusiasm and posts everyone!

  7. Hi! This is a great article, and the ones you linked to have been really helpful to me as I write a review of the problems with one particular series of "boys' books". Just wanted to thank you.

    Thank you!

  8. Thanks "illusclaire" - glad the blog was useful! (and not just rant-y!) Just signed up to follow you on twitter - I'm Sayantani16 in tweet-world...

  9. It was definitely useful. :]

    Actually, having read more of your blog now.. I wonder if you might be interested, if you have time of course, in looking over the review I mention?

    The main book and series in question have problems re: treatment of learning disabilities, body policing, treatment of class, girls vs boys, girls books vs boys books, treatment of race and racial issues..

    and I'm kind of nervous about taking it all on. But you seem to have a practiced history of talking about this stuff in children's and YA literature, and I'd really appreciate a guiding eye.

    I completely understand if you'd rather not or have no time! Probably can't hurt to ask, though. Thanks for listening!

  10. HI Claire-
    I just saw this post from oct. 28th - sorry I missed it until now - what are you writing on? would be happy to give it a read it it helps!