Having grown up in the Free to Be generation, I’ve tried as a parent to steer clear of limiting gender norms in raising, and reading to, my son. We’ve read about boys and girls of all types, and (just as Hilary Rappaport describes in her May/June 2012 Horn Book article “On the Rights of Reading and Girls and Boys”), his preferences never seemed to hinge on the gender presented on the covers or through the characters. We’ve loved stories in which characters cross gender boundaries, such as Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores and The Princess Knight and the classic William’s Doll, as well as stories that seem to ignore gender, such as my son’s one-time favorite, Ten Minutes till Bedtime, complete with discussions about which pronoun we should use for the main character.
I had never heard of the Rainbow Magic books (Scholastic) when my son, then five, announced that he wanted to read them; it soon became apparent that they were the new “in” books with his friends at school (kids with names like Emily and Ava and Sophie). So we borrowed Ruby the Red Fairy from the library, and he loved it: the good kids and the bad villains, the magic, the predictable formula, the tidy resolution. We moved on from the Rainbow Fairies to the Weather Fairies, and I told my partner it was his turn to read the next set (there being only so much trite writing I am willing to endure for the sake of crossing gender borders). As our son became an independent reader, we told him that if he wanted to read more Rainbow Magic books, he’d have to read them to himself, and read them he did.
One day when he was getting ready for a playdate, he said he wanted to hide his fairy books so no one would tease him. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with liking them, but he was beginning to recognize that some other kids might. The books were hidden for a while, and then when I started teaching children’s literature and asked if I could bring them in to work to show in my class, he said “sure.” He had moved on, continuing to devour books as he raced through the Littles and Humphrey the hamster, Little Wolf and Ramona, Hank Zipzer and of course the Magic Tree House. There weren’t “girl books” and “boy books.” There were just books.
He switched to a new school in first grade, and since then the books he has brought home from the school library seem to be very gender-typed: Justice League; Big Nate; several iterations of Star Wars. He tells me which kids checked the books out before him, and which ones are waiting to get them next (kids with names like Jack and Connor and Joaquin). He does enjoy these “for boys!”–blazened titles, despite the narrowing focus of the type of reading he is supposed to like. Though part of me mourns this loss, knowing there are many less-obviously-boy-oriented books that would appeal to him too, he is still reading passionately. But how is he being socialized to fit into gender categories? And what if a kid wants (or needs) to fight the categories? How much conviction does a second-grade boy need to carry a book with a pink cover out of the library?
My interest in the presentation of gender in reading materials has shifted over the past three years as I’ve begun to contemplate literary gender roles not just from a parental perspective but also from a professional one, teaching children’s literature to future teachers. Recently, one of my college students wrote a paper referencing The Secret Garden, and as I looked for a copy of the book in the library catalog I saw cover after cover that seemed designed to appeal to a specific category of readers: bookish girls. I do believe that we should work to change society so that we don’t have these gender limitations, and indeed we should not judge books by their covers (even though we know kids do, and will continue to do so). Yet by having images and colors that play into gender norms, aren’t book covers (or the publishers who select them) judging their readers? By putting a sparkly pink cover on a Rainbow Magic fairy book, has it been preordained that only girls need bother picking it up? By highlighting the fairies and jewels and glitter, do we inadvertently approve and promote the idea that boys won’t read about girls?
I have fallen into this trap, too. When I check books out for my class, if I think they might interest my son, I put them in his room until I need them; books I think are too old for him or not to his taste I set on my desk. One day he saw The Doll People on top of my pile and asked about it. Of course I said he could look at it, and in a matter of minutes he was immersed. In a couple of days it was read, as were the others in the series as quickly as we could borrow them. What had influenced me to sort that book into the desk pile? Was it the cover art (dolls, dollhouse, even a heart-shaped lock)? The flourish-filled font? The female authors? The word doll in the title? What if it had said mini-figure instead? The subconscious notions of my adult mind didn’t speak to the real child in my house. The avowed feminist had fallen for the old stereotypical assumptions.
Yet even more layers of assumptions are inherent in this discussion, identifying children as gender normative, boy or girl. On the rare occasion when titles like 10,000 Dresses or I Am J come out in which main characters identify as transgender, these books are praised—and rightly so—for providing bibliotherapeutic relief for young people who are transgender or questioning whether they may be. But our response to books portraying transgender characters reveals that we are once again falling into old patterns of categorization. Sure, we’ve added another perspective on gender, but we still want to separate people into clear-cut groupings: either you’re transgender, or you’re not. We believe we can embrace transgender children and a male/female dichotomy simply by reassigning these children to the appropriate gender role — swapping Captain Underpants for Babymouse.
The reality, however, is that many children are gender variant (with interests and behaviors persistently outside of typical cultural gender norms) and at different points in their lives might be living or exploring at various places along the gender identity continuum (see, for example, Ruth Padawer’s article “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” in the August 12, 2012 New York Times Magazine). Assigning labels to these places isn’t as important as having a rich understanding of the ways gender is presented in books; a rich understanding of how kids may be presenting and exploring their gender and gender identity; and the skills to connect the two.
To gain that understanding and those skills, we need to remember not to judge children by the “covers” they present. One child may be presenting as a boy only because no other option is permitted in that family. Another may present as a “girly girl” in a phase of experimentation, but may want to both wear pink and study science. Maybe we have to realize that there can be many paths to the same summit, and some of them might involve a detour through an obsession with Disney Princesses and Barbie (and the narrowed roles they suggest), as was the case for one transgender girl I know.
So I would propose that we modify our language, speaking not of “Girl Books and Boy Books,” but of books across gender. To the advice contained within the section of the same name in Roger Sutton’s essay in A Family of Readers (Candlewick), I would offer a modification (in italics below): “The best thing you can give to a would-be, could-be reader, regardless of gender, gender identity, or gender presentation, is access to a wide variety of reading possibilities among which he or she can find what seems just right, labels be damned.” And yet, peer pressure is a mighty force with which to contend, particularly for gender-variant or transgender children, who are routinely targeted for teasing and bullying. A boy who otherwise aligns with gender stereotypes may be given a pass for reading Ivy + Bean, but one who is already ridiculed for being effeminate may find taking such a risk much more dangerous.
So where do we find good books for the children along the middle of the continuum? What do we suggest to the child who feels like a girl but is called a boy (or vice versa), the kids who are exploring gender, or the ones who want to understand a friend who is exploring gender?
It’s not enough to have content with gender-diverse appeal; packaging matters too. Some authors deftly manage to weave rich characters of diverse genders into their books only to be faced with the loss of potential readers through covers that invite just one segment of the gender spectrum, such as the misleading suggestion of romantic fiction on the cover of Phoebe Stone’s engaging historical mystery, The Romeo and Juliet Code. Occasionally publishers make changes between editions, as happened with Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score: the paperback edition sports not only a new font and image (a dog and a baseball) on the cover but a new subtitle as well, all significant improvements over the cursive lettering and girl-centric picture on the hardcover.
Gender variant girls in many ways have it easier; in my work in the schools, they are comfortable picking up Diary of a Wimpy Kid and adore the Harry Potter books with no reservations. But let’s make sure it stays that way, while opening doors for boys to explore diverse genres. Let’s damn the labels, but let’s actively try to defy them too. There are lots of great examples with titles and cover art that don’t play into the trappings of gender. Books with girls as main characters should appeal to many kids, and titles such as Rules and Out of My Mind (both with goldfish on the covers), When You Reach Me (with its clever display of symbols), and Zebrafish (with a diverse group of kids pictured) are excellent models of inviting potential readers rather that prescribing them. The Judy Moody and Stink books serve as positive examples as well, with their neutral book covers and mix of central characters. The Hunger Games series demonstrates the potential for strong sales with packaging that appeals to all readers. We do want all kids to read more, regardless of how they identify along the gender continuum. And ideally all kids will feel safe to explore gender through their reading, in order (as Roger Sutton put it in his September/October 2007 Horn Book editorial) “to independently and privately assume whatever (not whichever) genders [they] like.” And then maybe, through access to the perspectives these books provide, they can come closer to finding an authentic gender identity and, in the best-case scenario, finding an identity as a reader as well.
Books with Gender-Diverse Appeal
Anything but Typical (Simon, 2009) by Nora Raleigh Baskin [Intermediate, Middle School]
I Am J (Little, Brown, 2011) by Cris Beam [High School]
The World According to Humphrey (Putnam, 2004) by Betty G. Birney [Primary, Intermediate]
Be Who You Are (AuthorHouse, 2010) by Jennifer Carr; illus. by Ben Rumback [Primary]
Beezus and Ramona (Morrow, 1955) by Beverly Cleary; illus. by Louis Darling [Intermediate]
The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008) by Suzanne Collins [Middle School, High School]
Out of My Mind (Atheneum, 2010) by Sharon M. Draper [Intermediate]
Peter H. Reynolds and FableVision Present Zebrafish (Atheneum, 2010) by Sharon Emerson; illus. by Renée Kurilla [Intermediate, Middle School]
10,000 Dresses (Seven Stories, 2008) by Marcus Ewert; illus. by Rex Ray [Primary]
Born to Fly (Delacorte, 2009) by Michael Ferrari [Intermediate]
The Princess Knight (Scholastic, 2004) by Cornelia Funke; illus. by Kerstin Meyer [Preschool, Primary]
Hoot (Knopf, 2002) by Carl Hiaasen (also Flush (2005), Scat (2009), and Chomp (2012)) [Intermediate, Middle School]
Operation Yes (Levine/Scholastic, 2009) by Sara Lewis Holmes [Intermediate, Middle School]
Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores (Atheneum, 1999) by James Howe; illus. by Amy Walrod [Primary]
Pinky and Rex and the Bully (Atheneum, 1996) by James Howe; illus. by Melissa Sweet [Primary]
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Amulet/Abrams, 2007) by Jeff Kinney [Intermediate, Middle School]
Rules (Scholastic, 2006) by Cynthia Lord [Intermediate]
The Doll People (Hyperion, 2000) by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin; illus. by Brian Selznick [Primary, Intermediate]
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (Little, Brown, 2006) by Wendy Mass [Intermediate, Middle School]
Judy Moody (Candlewick, 2000) by Megan McDonald; illus. by Peter H. Reynolds [Primary, Intermediate]
Stink (Candlewick, 2005) by Megan McDonald; illus. by Peter H. Reynolds [Primary]
The Littles (Scholastic, 1967) by John Peterson; illus. by Roberta Carter Clark [Primary]
Ten Minutes till Bedtime (Putnam, 1998) by Peggy Rathmann [Preschool]
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Levine/Scholastic, 1998) by J.K. Rowling; illus. by Mary GrandPré [Intermediate]
Bluefish (Candlewick, 2011) by Pat Schmatz [Middle School]
When You Reach Me (Lamb/Random, 2009) by Rebecca Stead [Intermediate, Middle School]
Little Wolf’s Book of Badness (Carolrhoda/Lerner, 1999) by Ian Whybrow; illus. by Tony Ross [Primary, Intermediate]
Countdown (Scholastic, 2010) by Deborah Wiles [Intermediate]
Parrotfish (Simon, 2007) by Ellen Wittlinger [High School]
Peace Locomotion (Putnam, 2009) by Jacqueline Woodson [Intermediate]
William’s Doll (Harper & Row, 1972) by Charlotte Zolotow; illus. by William Pene du Bois [Preschool, Primary]