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>Children’s literature’s defining phrase,

>I’ve decided, is “disguised as a boy.” This phrase is necessarily used twice in our May book review section (and don’t worry, Mitali, yes, one is yours and, yes, we like it) but the fact that it’s such an established trope (a word I never speak aloud because I can never remember how many syllables it has) in children’s books must Say Something. But What?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Is it really a trope, Roger? Or is it a response to place, time, and culture? The sad fact is that in most cultures and in most eras, girls have had to dress as boys to accomplish what they needed or desired.

    I’m translating a memoir at the moment from 1810. This memoirist dressed as a boy in order to participate in a political coup. If I were writing a novel about her life, I would include this scene for sure, because it was one of the defining moments of her youth and her life. It wouldn’t be a trope, however. Merely a fact.

    I’m glad Mitali’s book got a good review in Horn Book. I thought it was great.

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    >Maybe I mean motif? I wasn’t speaking pejoratively, in either case, but I do have to question (or maybe to go with trope I should say interrogate!) your statement that that “in most cultures and in most eras, girls have had to dress as boys to accomplish what they needed or desired.” I would argue that what you mean instead is that “in most eras and cultures, girls whom we wish to commemorate for our own culture and era have had to dress as boys, etc.” What I mean is, did as high a percentage of Colonial era girls have as much trouble with their sewing as our historical fiction about them would have it?

  3. >Ah! I see what you’re saying. Maybe we like to write about the bolder girls–the ones who DO dress up as boys and take part in coups or fight in wars or seek a job for their family.

    Maybe that’s true. I’m only translating this memoir because this particular woman BECAME SOMEBODY in a big way. If she had remained home, it wouldn’t be much of a story.

    That being said…I do think most girls are/were bolder than the historical record shows. Memoirs clearly show this, and I think historical fiction uses personal records, like letters and memoirs as their evidence. (Kirby Larson has mentioned letters and memoirs, for example, as her inspiration for “Hattie Big Sky”)

  4. fusenumber8 says:

    >I just wish there were more books where boys were disguised as girls. Aside from “Tom Sawyer” can anyone come up with five children’s titles that do this? When girls do it it’s life or death. When boys do it it’s for comedic effect.

    Seems the gender-bending only goes one way.

  5. Anonymous says:

    >I just saw the trailer for the movie “Offside,” about Iranian women passing (or trying to pass) as men in order to cheer on their national soccer team. That’s right, otherwise they aren’t allowed to go.

  6. Mitali Perkins says:

    >Whew, Roger, thanks for the head’s up. A good HoBo (as Fuse would put it) review is always a delight. The irony is that the protagonist in my book didn’t HAVE to disguise herself as a boy to achieve her purposes. She only thought she did. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Grameen Bank, the lives of girls and women in Bangladesh are changing, slowly, but thankfully.

    Back in the day, as a third daughter, I was “disguised as a boy” for the first seven years of my life so that my Mom wouldn’t have to endure the shame of being a non-boy-bearing wife. I’ll never forget the amazement on her face when I raced back from high school biology to explain the Y-chromosome gender-determining factor. “You mean it’s not my fault?” she asked.

    I wish that the girl-disguising trope or motif could be completely eliminated on the planet, but given the high rates of female infanticide, etc. in many parts of the world, it may take a while. Too long.

  7. The Buried Editor says:

    >Of course, sometimes the girls in these novels are not cross-dressing in an effort to disguise themselves but as a matter of function. In one of the Lady Grace mysteries Grace dresses in boys clothes not in an effort to pass as a boy, but because she’s planning on climbing a wall and an Elizabethan dress wouldn’t work. A dress, although useful in some ways, isn’t always the most practical attire.

  8. Rachael V. says:

    >I thought “dead/missing mother” was the defining trope of children’s literature. Look at this year’s Newbery. Again.

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >But Rachel, lets pretend we’re in grad school and then we can say that “regendering” and death of the mother equal the same thing: the “absenting” of “the feminine.” 😉

  10. Anonymous says:


    I too have wondered if those girls in boys clothes appear so often — because they had to dress like boys to accomplish boyish things–, and also because we still value “boyish” things above “girlish” ones. Going off to be a pirate seems to make for a more appealing story than say, sewing. If I remember correctly it was Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s book The Striped Ships where a heroine’s sewing, which she was good at and which she loved, saved her. I can’t think of another pro-sewing story, off the top of my head.


  11. Kelly Fineman says:

    >Wow — talk about a great discussion.

    I believe “disguised as a boy” represents a sense of adventure in all cases, whether the girl is dressing as a boy for limited practical reasons (e.g., scaling a wall) or for more extensive social reasons (e.g., to take her brother’s place in the army). It’s also shorthand for a girl who bucks the conventions/restraints/limitations imposed on her by her society, and readers recognize it as such. No need to belabor the extent of a heroine’s pluck if she’s “disguised as a boy.”

    Although I’d love to see a thoughtful exploration of the idea that both cross-dressing girls and dead mothers amount to an “absenting” of the feminine.

  12. >Then there’s always the Freudian point of view — that those of us who write about dead mothers weren’t too thrilled with our own. Which has nothing to do with the absenting of the feminine, except as wish fulfillment.

  13. Emily H. says:

    >My theory:

    It’s partly about getting to do ‘boy things,’ but it’s also about relating to boys on a level that isn’t sexual. Where you can approach boys as equals; where you don’t have to fear being patronized, being allowed to win, being protected, being taken advantage of, being manipulated, being treated in all the ways you fear boys treat potential girlfriends.

    It seems to me as if one of the key questions in “girl disguised as a boy” stories is, how does the relationship between Girl and Closest Friend/ Possible Love Interest change when he finds out?

    Footnote: There are an awful lot of Japanese comics and novels, written mostly for teenage girls and young women, about putatively gay characters; a lot of theorists have explained that one of the guys in the pair is essentially a coded ‘girl.’ One wonders if there’s any relationship between these and the “girl disguised as a boy” books.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >I think this is a very gay question and the questions we ask tell us more about ourselves than the answers we receive.

  15. Andy Laties says:

    >On the reverse subject of boys disguised as girls, wasn’t it a not-too-uncommon practice for little boys to be dressed as girls during the late 19th century? I seem to recall this as a Victorian thing: a boy could be kept in a dress until age 12 or so. This is British, but the only specific name I can come up with offhand is the French photographer Jacques Lartigue. However this isn’t fiction I’m talking about. I believe it usually correlates with a mother who wished she’d had a girl.

    Does this ring any bells for anyone?

  16. Roger Sutton says:

    >What is a gay question? Would that be one that prefers other questions to answers?

  17. >Historically and culturally speaking, dressing as a boy was a REALITY for many, many girls. Mitali gave one good example of this in fairly contemporary Bangladesh.

    I’ve read hundreds of memoirs from 18th and 19th century Britain, France, Poland, and Russia. And many girls had to dress as boys for a number of reasons. I’m not sure this fact has anything to do with gender or cultural theory. It simply was a fact. During the Russian Revolution in 1917, for example, many women passed as men. Why? They HAD to to survive. It wasn’t a statement.

    To get back to Fuse’s point…I’m sure there are analogous situations when boys were dressed up as girls in order to escape conscription to the army, or to escape a regime change, etc. Why hasn’t this been written about? That’s an interesting question and one fitting with gender and cultural studies.

    (Oh, and Andy…that happened to my poor beautiful father in 1940s Kansas. He was a gorgeous child with blond ringlets born to a mother who really, really wanted a girl. [My father was the 2nd boy.] My poor father was attired in dresses and photographed extensively until, thankfully, his sister was born 3 years later. That is a subject for Freudian inquiry, but hopefully not a children’s book!)

  18. Andy Laties says:

    >Here’s the way – below – to integrate this boys-dressing-as-girls into a KILLER children’s book (My wife and I made friends with a couple of the described spirit-mediums when we were in Burma in 1981. I grabbed this descriptive excerpt here from an article in National Geographic online.):

    “Numerous spirits live along the river, and worshipping them has become big business. …I stop near a small village called Thar Yar Gone to witness a nat-pwe, or spirit festival. Inside a large thatch hut, musicians play loud, frenetic music before a crowd of rowdy onlookers. On the opposite end of the hut, on a raised stage, sit several wooden statues: nat, or spirit, effigies. I pass through the crowd and enter a space underneath the stage, where a beautiful woman introduces herself as Phyo Thet Pine. She is a nat-kadaw, literally a “spirit’s wife”—a performer who is part psychic, part shaman.

    Only she isn’t a woman—she is a he, a transvestite wearing bright red lipstick, expertly applied black eyeliner, and delicate puffs of powder on each cheek…

    …nat-kadaws are more than just actors; they believe that the spirits actually enter their bodies and possess them…

    To most Burmese, being born female rather than male is karmic punishment indicating grave transgressions in former lifetimes. Many Burmese women, when leaving offerings at temples, pray to be reincarnated as men. But to be born gay—that is viewed as the lowest form of human incarnation. Where this leaves Myanmar’s gay men, psychologically, I can only imagine. It perhaps explains why so many become nat-kadaws. It allows them to assume a position of power and prestige in a society that would otherwise scorn them.

    Pine, who is head of his troupe, conveys a kind of regal confidence. His trunks are full of make-up and colorful costumes, making the space under the stage look like a movie star’s dressing room. He became an official nat-kadaw, he says, when he was only 15. He spent his teenage years traveling around villages, performing… Now, at age 33, he commands his own troupe and makes 110 dollars for a two-day festival—a small fortune by Burmese standards.

    He outlines his eyes with eyeliner and draws an intricate mustache on his upper lip. “I’m preparing for Ko Gyi Kyaw,” he says. It is the notorious gambling, drinking, fornicating spirit.

  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >Two things: Andy’s fascinating anecdote reminds me of Gerstein’s picture book The Mountains of Tibet–check it out.

    Second, on Thursday our indefatigable assistant editor Claire was being tossed a ton of work by a ton of people, and to acknowledge this I started to casually say “Claire, you’re a prince,” but stopped when I realized the sexism of that idiom. So then, in my head, I started to say “Claire, you’re a princess,” and realized that meant precisely the opposite of what I intended. My point being that there are more advantages to girls dressing as boys than the other way around, because boys have the power, freedom, and status that girls don’t, thus making a need to switch from boy to girl a recourse most often to futility or shame.

    And related to that and getting back to this being a gay question, every spring when I watch the Jamaica Plain lesbians playing softball in the park where Buster and I walk, I think, “Man (!), I wish I could throw like a girl.”

  20. Monica Edinger says:

    >My father too; he was born in Frankfurt in the early 1920s and had his hair kept long till he was five or so. I suspect it was a similar situation to Kelly’s — a mother wanting a girl. As a result my father and I look exactly the same in our photos at that age, bob haircut and all.

  21. Monica Edinger says:

    >Just thought of a true story of a boy dressed as a girl — Anita Lobel’s brother in NO PRETTY PICTURES.

  22. Andy Laties says:

    >In reference to Roger’s “the princess versus the princes”, where did I read just recently this brain teaser (approx wording):

    “What word shifts both number and gender through removal of a single letter?”

  23. Andy Laties says:

    >I loved Gerstein’s book “The Mountains Of Tibet” and I used to read it at storyhours a lot. Also to my children.

    Along similar lines, one of the most popular Buddhist religious spirits, Avalokitisvara, was (Buddhist-historically) male — the God of Compassion, sort of — one of the most important of the Boddhisatvas. Now — he’s male back in the era from about 100 A.D. to maybe 700 A.D. but he gradually shifts gender as Buddhism diffuses from West (India/Afghanistan) to East (China/Japan) and by 700 A.D. Avalokitesvara the male Boddhisattva is now known as Kwan-Yin (or Kuan-Yin or Kannon) the FEMALE Boddhisttva of Compassion to whom everyone prays when in distress. There are a billion people who deeply revere Kwan-Yin/Kannon today.

    This Avalokitesvara/Kwan-Yin male-to-female shift is unmatched in the rest of Buddhism. The standard move is always for women to need to be reincarnated as men in order to progress in Direction Enlightenment. Gerstein’s exquisite book “The Mountains Of Tibet” offers up a plotline that’s unorthodox by Buddhist standards to say the least.

  24. Andy Laties says:

    >Hey what about the boys/men who dressed as women in Ancient Greece and Shakespearean England and Old Kyoto to portray female characters on the stage (as women weren’t allowed to be actors)?

    Isn’t it thought that Rosalind (As You Like It), for instance, was played on stage by William Shakespeare himself and this may be why the character is written so verbal and clever: because Shakespeare was writing for himself?

    I think that the movie “Shakespeare In Love” is built around a double-reversal, isn’t it, where the Gwynneth Paltrow character sneaks into a Shakespearean role by pretending to be a boy who specializes in female roles.

    On reflection, I think Roger’s original point actually needs to be answered not with the “girl-characters are depicted disguised as boys because that’s real life” answer, but rather with a response that acknowledges that there are quite a lot of taboo subjects in American children’s literature, and that one of them is that any depiction of “boys-playing/being-girls” is not desired by the parents/librarians/teachers.

    It’s an ellipsis that’s a full-scale blind-spot. The examples I’ve been coming up with are all fairly obvious opportunities for at least YA historical novels. In the past few decades, ample time has passed for some of these themes to be explored. “Jiro, the boy in Old Japan who becomes a female-character-actor on the Kabuki Stage” is not anyone I have met in American Children’s Literature and there is a REASON which is American Homophobia. Says me.

  25. Andy Laties says:

    >OK. Achilles was dressed as a woman by his mother, Thetis, in order to evade the draft. Odysseus was sent to uncover the ruse, and Achilles was off to war. (Thetis knew of course that Achilles, the so-called immortal mortal, hadn’t had his heel successfully immortalized, thus she didn’t want him sent to Troy because she knew his heel would be killing him. (Which reminds me that I need to get my shoes repaired.))

  26. Cheryl C says:

    >Another theory: The majority of writers of children’s books are women, many of whom struggle to accurately portray boys’ emotional lives. At the same time, many stories (especially historical fiction) offer more interesting opportunities for boy characters than girls for today’s readers. So by dressing her girl character as a boy, the author gets to tell an exciting story and still stay firmly within her comfort zone in a girl character’s head.

  27. rindawriter says:

    >All I can say about all the information in this blog post about Buhddism is that none of you have even touched the surface of that extremely complex religion nor all its many manifestations and varieties in so many cultures of the world. And I grew up in an extremely, and I mean EXTREMELY Buhddist country. And I wouldn’t spout off myself as an expert on any aspect of it except to say…it is a very vast and very complex subject…and y’all ought to have more humility and respect in tryting to show off your knowledge about it….

  28. Andy Laties says:

    >Well I’m the guy spouting about Buddhism so I’ll respond that of COURSE it’s a vast and very complex subject! I did spend a year in Japan where I studied Zen flute, 25 years ago, and also traveled in other parts of Asia and have been reading all manner of Buddhist material ever since, though. I’m not an expert but I know a ton of Buddhist history and theology. I’ve had plenty of time to wrestle with the puzzles that a profound belief in reincarnation imply, and where the analogies are for people like myself who feel that you only get one life to live, but you might go through huge shifts within your life that somehow match “reincarnation”. This issue of feeling more male or feeling more female, or being displaced into alternative gender-identified roles is quite significant in my own life, as a male children’s bookseller. I’ve definitely looked at life over the years through quite a few Buddhist-inspired lenses. I would say that my favorite book of all time is “Lotus Blossom Sutra” if that helps you any in figuring out how I regard life and literature.

  29. Mitali Perkins says:

    >The predominance of girls disguising themselves as boys in children’s books, especially in historical and international fiction, is because of the literary conflict established when there’s a lack of power.

    Essentially, these are stories about characters who triumph in a powerless situation thanks to a newly-acquired sense of scrotum. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

  30. Anonymous says:

    >nice to be reminded of Achilles’ disguise! remember how Odysseus trapped him? He threw a ball to Achilles, who didn’t think to spread his knees and trap the ball in his skirt as a girl would do – a wonderful small touch by an amazing writer

  31. Roger Sutton says:

    >Achilles’ mistake reminds me of a Superman comic I read in childhood that for some reson I’ve never shaken off, where our hero recognizes that the person hugging him is a man disguised as a woman, because women hug with the arms over those of the hugee and men do the opposite. I know, it sounds like the look-at-your-nails test. Any truth, or even tendency, to either?

    And no, I don’t know why he didn’t use his x-ray vision and for all I know I could have the story completely turned around.

  32. >There’s a good Belgian film titled “Ma Vie en Rose” directed by Alain Berliner (1997) that’s about a young boy who feels like a girl. Sweet and real. Slightly corny….

  33. Andy Laties says:

    >I suppose that “Zazie In The Metro” by Raymond Queneau unfortunately does not count as a YA novel (which since it has a child protagonist is really too bad). The book’s sub-plot turns on the efforts of a police detective to unmask the gender of a gay man living life as a woman (this was illegal in France in the 50s apparently). The man in question is the “wife” of the heroine Zazie’s uncle. The reader comes to completely identify and empathize with this concealed-gender man: he’s an extremely warm and sympathetic, motherly character, and the detective hunting him down is a total jerk.

    I’d say it should be on lots of highschool reading lists.

  34. KT Horning says:

    >There’s a great short story by Janni Howker about an old woman recalling her childhood where she passed as a boy. I believe it’s called “The Topiary Garden,” and it appears in the collection “Badger on the Barge.” (Whatever happened to this promising young writer?)

    As for boys dressing like girls, I think Christopher Robin might qualify. Even as a very young child, I knew I was different (i.e. gay) but I had no obvious role models in the 1950s. I was always looking for evidence of a third gender (half-boy/half-girl), and I found it in Christopher Robin. He was an oddly subversive character to me as a preschooler, and I’m glad my mother was willing to read those Winnie-The-Pooh books to me over and over again.

  35. rindawriter says:

    >Andy, I don’t mean to criticize your knowledge fund; I’m sure it is vast, but you are tending to intellectualize about something that for many, many people is something of the spirit and one’s own experiences and not something of the mind and not something always explainable by words alone. You cannot explain or comprehend Buhddism or Christianity by intellect alone, by what appears on the outside alone, that is what I am saying. There are things that cannot be explained totally by intellect alone, that is what I am saying. And mysteries do not mean you should stop searching or stop asking questions, oh no! But it means humility in the face of things bigger than you are and the willingness to keep learning…

    Although, you have not mentioned, for example, the important fact that orders of Buhddist nuns exist in the world today in many different countries. Priesthood in Buhddism is not something simply for men alone.

    You have now also made an assumption about me that is not correct. You presume that, because I say I am a Christian, a believer in Christ that I personally believe this mortal life here on earth is the only life I have to live. That is not true. I don’t believe this life is the only life I have to live, but I do believe strongly in making the most of its few short years while I am living it! That is why I say “life is too short” for some things that I perceive as not important for me to do or get involved in. I treasure every moment of my life now.

    Because I had no choice in being born into this life, I rather like, again, making the most of its short years and doing what I chose to do in it. But I have never said that I believe it is my ONLY life to live through! Ah, no, no, no, Andy…quite the contrary.

    You might try dipping into a few of the Christian mystics for contrast and comparision to the Buhddist works. And maybe try just listening for time now and again in quiet and aloneness with your heart rather than your mind. What do you hear (not what other people say you should know or hear) in your own heart, your spirit, your soul in your own silences?

    Although nothing quite surpasses First and Second Thessalonians or the Book of Revelations or the book of Isaiah for difficult-to-intellectualize words…

  36. Anonymous says:


    a commentor on called “astolat” made this comment, which says what I wanted to say but better:

    Oooh, yes! I am getting so sick and tired of scenes where the poor, unloved heroine is being forced to sew and wear pretty gowns, because only shallow, catty characters are good at feminine things. It’s an absolute slap in the face to centuries of women. It’s definitely sexist when the only “good” female onscreen is one who’s completely jettisoned femininity to (sometimes literally) put on men’s clothing and do men’s things, and feminine women are evil.

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