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On the Rights of Reading and Girls and Boys

Discussions about gender issues in children’s literature are perennial (even in the pages of this magazine; see the special issue on gender in September/October 2007; articles on boy and girl reading in the September/October 2010 issue; and, most recently, Carey E. Hagan’s “One Tough Cookie” in the September/October 2011 issue). My personal experiences differ from many of the perspectives I have read and have led me to believe we should stop dividing reading by gender.

I have never liked the lists of “boy books” and “girl books” that appear in libraries, parenting magazines, educational handouts, and even make up whole books themselves. There always seems to be a note included that the choices can be enjoyed by both genders, and yet there continue to be separate lists. As a feminist, it drives me crazy that we are still talking this way, but it is more than that. The separation doesn’t make sense to me because it does not match my experiences reading books with boys and girls.

I have been reading aloud to kids and discussing their reading in book groups, as well as reading with my sons, for the past fifteen years. I have yet to have a child tell me they disliked a book we have read because they thought it was either “for girls” or “for boys.” The secret is that it simply has to be a good book.

It is sad to think that girls who read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series and the books of Louisa May Alcott would miss out on reading Treasure Island or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Or vice versa.

When my boys were very young, I never gave the gender of characters a second thought. I just read as many wonderful stories as possible to them. I noticed that picture books had far more male characters than female. It doesn’t get more fun than Dr. Seuss, but there are few admirable heroines in his stories. I did not, however, notice my two sons caring whether the lead character was a male or female person, or for that matter, as was often the case, a male or female animal. Do we hold the animals in E. B. White’s books or those of Robert Lawson to rigid gender stereotypes? Do children think about the fact that Charlotte is a girl who is the truest friend to Wilbur, a boy? I don’t think that is their focus.

As my sons grew and we read more chapter books, the gender of the characters continued to make no difference. They loved the silly Pippi Longstocking and the fierce Ramona as much as they did little Sam Krupnik in Lois Lowry’s series. As a result, they had the opportunity to laugh at and admire kids not all that different from themselves. I remember the special joy they experienced when, as second graders, they could be hysterical about the antics of a preschooler. It was such fun to see them looking back at their past. And it made no difference if it was a boy or a girl; it just had to be funny. I don’t think kids care if the main characters in the Roald Dahl books are male or female; they eagerly jump from Charlie and James to Matilda and Sophie. The kids I know insist on reading them all.

In many of the early children’s classics we read, such as those of E. Nesbit, it is a group of children, both male and female, who have the major roles and adventures. C. S. Lewis sends two girls and two boys into the wardrobe to Narnia. Does anyone ask this gender question about Harry, Ron, and Hermione?

There are so many books I want to share with my sons that no matter how much reading we do (and we do a lot), I have lists in my head that we will never be able to complete together. That is what got me started on our read-aloud summer of “‘Girl’ Books I Didn’t Want My Boys to Miss.” We started with The Secret Garden, which really shouldn’t be considered a girls’ book because two of the three main characters are boys. It is a book, however, about feelings. Not only did my sons love it, but my husband didn’t want me to begin the reading until he was home. So I decided to see how far I could push this idea of mine. If you are setting up a girls’ book category, nothing fits better than A Little Princess. Well, all I can say is that my three male listeners were as enamored of it as they were of the others by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The fact is they were responding to the beautiful writing and not to the gender of the characters (in an all-girls school). Could I go still further? Yes, even my much-loved Fossil sisters in Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (and then Theater Shoes) were a hit in my house—though it was not the ballet but the portrayal of theater in England to which my family was drawn.

As we began reading aloud Little House in the Big Woods, I found myself stunned that this was considered a girls’ book. Laura and Mary may be the heroines, but if you want to stick to stereotypes, has anyone noticed how much of this book is about the technical construction of homes and barns and icehouses or how many pages are devoted to guns and hunting and defending oneself? (What we noticed most about the book in the series about Almanzo’s childhood, Farmer Boy, was all the food!)

We also read Heidi and began seriously planning a family vacation in the Swiss Alps, which exceeded all our dreams when we were able to make it happen more than three years later. (My son ran through the fields of flowers, announcing he had made it to “Heidiland!”) In any case, this summer reading series continued a good deal past the summer and answered both my questions and my prayers.

Some might argue that the men in my family are in the minority and that the children in book groups are not a random sample, and that all may be true. But I have spent a lot of time considering the powerful negative impacts of generalizations. There is no need to reinforce the ideas of differences between the sexes. Those ideas are still widespread and deeply engrained in our culture. There are, however, serious reasons to protect those in the minority and serious dangers in encouraging people, particularly children, to believe that they belong to a somehow “deviant” group.

Our children—both boys and girls—lose when we constrain their reading preferences. Ironically, what is acceptable in books for girls today is a much wider range of characters and themes, thanks to the advances of feminism, while what is acceptable for boys is still sadly influenced by what I assume is homophobia and an intolerance of effeminacy. A girl reading Homer Price, Sherlock Holmes, or anything by Robert Louis Stevenson or Mark Twain would be viewed as a reader of classics, but a boy reading much of Louisa May Alcott, the Brontës, or Jane Austen would have a harder time with his image. Girls, at the same time, are harmed by believing boys cannot be interested in female heroines and authors.

Of course, some boys may want to read books about boys and some girls, books about girls. I would hope, though, that we could let those choices be truly free. Let’s stop dividing into blue and pink pages. Let’s protect every person’s right to read what they love.

About Hilary Rappaport

Hilary Rappaport is a founder and the president of the Friends of the Fox Library in Arlington, Massachusetts. She also teaches drama and reading classes in afterschool programs.



  1. Preach on, Sister! There are so many, many excellent books on the library shelves for all tastes and interests. Just because many boys like books on certain topics doesn’t make those “boy books,” and it bugs me when things are so divided by gender. By all means read a boy an adventure story filled with action and gross-outs and descriptions of how to build stuff… but read it to him because it’s what he likes, not because it’s a “boy book” and he’s a boy. And don’t neglect to offer it to his sister if she likes that stuff too, and don’t make her feel like a “tomboy” for liking it. (and then offer them both another book, perhaps one that’s a little different and expands their horizons a little into a new genre).

  2. Yes!! Lists have their use, but let’s use them in a way that actually tells us something about the books. Some boys might find a list of, say, mysteries or sci-fi novels useful, but then, so might some girls. Segregating lists based on who some outside party thinks should want to read the books is useless at best.

  3. Beautifully said and thank you for saying it.

  4. I love this article. I have a little girl, so I’m actually on the flip side of this problem right now. My daughter comes home from kindergarten labelling everything as a “girl’s THIS” or a “boy’s THAT” and, as her parents, we just keep deflecting those BS distinctions and keep asking “Well, what do you like?” And now that we’ve started reading her longer chapter books – and letting her choose what we read – it’s been a really refreshing mix of material that could fall on either end of the girl book/boy book divide. She’s picked a lot of Roald Dahl books, Lulu and the Brontosaurus, The Tale of Despereaux, Hugo Cabret, Anne of Green Gables, How to Train Your Dragon… she likes what she likes, regardless of the gender of the protagonist. But, all that aside, she’s still SUPER aware of the perception of “girl books” and “boy books” and I think that stinks.

  5. As a kid, I always read books from both lists. I didn’t mind if boys were the main characters, but I admit it was fun to read an adventure sort of book that featured a girl (like PIPPI IN THE SOUTH SEAS). I’m so glad you’re giving your boys a solid background in “girl” books. It seems adults are a lot more hung up on this divide than kids.

  6. This is wonderful. I grew up on so many of those stories you mentioned. I had my Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and then I had my Matilda and princesses. And it’s safe to say that while I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, I was actually surprised when I discovered one of my boyfriend’s favorite books is Pride and Prejudice! In fact, you can translate this to newer stories – The Hunger Games has taken both a male and female audience, so much so that I had to convince my boyfriend to wait to see the movie until we could see it together. He was so disappointed in having to wait!

  7. “Let’s protect every person’s right to read what they love.”

    Yes. This. Thank you for a beautifully written piece.

  8. Working in a bookstore, I see this prejudice(not sure if this is the word i’m looking for) every time I am asked to recommend a book(well most times, I may be exaggerating a bit). And it disturbs me slightly, and I have noticed it is quite commonly the parents which enforce the gender specifications. One of the books I recommend to parents for their children(aged 10-14) is the Percy Jackson series and commonly when the book is for girls I get a response along the lines of, “BUT THAT BOOK IS FOR BOYS! She’s a little girl, surely you have something more girly?” and yes, it gets on my nerves every time, and I tell them that yes we do have more “girly” books but I do not forget to tell her that I being a girl myself enjoyed that series greatly(but alas my words are at a loss and she buys something with a sparkly kitten-no that there’s anything wrong with that- on it for a girl who is much beyond the reading age of the book the lady had chosen). And the same goes for parents when I recommend their sons books like the Sister’s Grimm.

    And I can’t help but recognise the similarities in societies choices and Disney movies, encouraging gender roles and in turn giving their children, I guess you could say, an obscured view of the world. If you surround young impressionable girls with books and movies depicting pretty flowers, talking fluffy wild animals, princesses and princes and hopes of happy endings, it will blind them to the world. The same goes for boys, if you surround them with pirates, fighting and ninjas, how do you expect them to see the love in the world?

    And I don’t even know where I get off classifying those things to those genders, because it’s wrong, and I in a way am conforming to a society of gender specification, just by saying that one is girly and one is boyish. But all round, I guess what i’m trying to say is, it has to stop, but change won’t come quickly, hell, the amount of uptight women I met who believe women are “ladies” and must read classic romance novels and stay homes and do womanly chores, is disgusting. It’s the 21st century for gods sake! Throw your prejudice out the door and stop hindering the forward movement of our society! Boys and Girls of any age should be able to read whatever they want to read and not be held back by their gender or society. They should be able to read Charles Dickens, The Bronte Sisters, R.L. Stine, Rick Riordan and all other authors and never stall before diving in to the next adventure.

    SO, I guess what I’m basically trying to say is, I agree with you. And things need to change.
    Sorry for the rambling, being a teenager I tend to do that(whoops more stereotyping) and sorry for any spelling or grammar errors (and how it doesn’t flow properly), it’s quite late at night in Australia and this was a rant I felt strongly about and had to reply.
    *le rant over*
    -Thanks, Rachael

  9. It does seem that the “problem” is with adult expectations rather than children’s wants and needs. I’ve found that middle school boys are visibly startled when somebody describes a book as “for girls.” And I can see them thinking, “I liked that book. What’s wrong with me?” That’s sad and it has to stop. Probably a good idea for covers to be as unisex as possible, if only so Dad doesn’t have a fit about his son reading a “girly” book.

  10. Thanks for the great insight. As a young girl I loved Gary Paulsen and Jack London, and many people accused me of liking “boys’ books”… luckily, my parents let me read what I enjoyed.

  11. Really enjoyed your article. As a youngest child in a family with two older brothers and sisters I inherited a lot of “previously loved” clothes, catchphrases, and books and comics. I know I didn’t differentiate between reading Roy of the Rovers or Mandy and didn’t feel that my enjoyment of Little Women made me less likely to move on to Robinson Crusoe. I think the stereotyping is insulting and limiting for both genders.

  12. I agree with this completely. My 7-yr-old son has loved Betsy-Tacy, Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and more. Although older-fashioned gender stereotypes are sometimes present in such books (i.e. “boys don’t cry”), in general I’ve found they tend to show boy and girl characters as more similar than different. They all get to have adventures, and often in a big mixed-gender group, as you mention (more examples of this type include Swallows and Amazons, The Saturdays, Edward Eager’s books, etc.). In contrast, I find the gender stereotyping in Harry Potter so frustrating: the smart girl is bossy and annoying, the boy-hero is good at sports…

  13. oh fer gawd’s sakes…you snooze me with all this political correctness…can we not say “yes” there are gender differences and so what? must you all turn your boys into wimpy little twits to prove you are just so “modern”. young people….male an female…prefer to read a protagonist such as their own gender because they are learning their way: how to act, who to be, and what to value. really, i when your boys decide that yea, they wish to wear dresses, and your daughters decide yea, i just love that chainsaw…blame it on this ridiculous mismah of political correctness.

  14. Great piece! Story is at the heart of favorite books, not gender. (Same thing with race)

  15. I always find myself wondering what’s going on when people start whining about “political correctness,” and it amuses me that conservatives never seem to see the PC icons on their own side. I learned to read in the 1950s, and I read everything I could find. Yes, more of the books had male protagonists, but I read books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott as well and enjoyed them very much. One of the most wonderful books I read — and re-read — as a child was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” very much the story of a young girl.

    In these times when fewer and fewer children are reading at all, it seems to me we ought to encourage whatever it is they want to read. That includes not telling them some books are for boys and others are for girls. Silly rabbit. Books are for kids.

  16. I must comment on Ms. Rappaport’s statement at the end of her first paragraph, “my personal experiences differ…”

    As I lecture to educators, parents, and writers about the literary components of a good boy book I invariably hear some form of this comment; “my personal experiences differ.”

    My MFA thesis was on the subject of Combating Aliteracy. Aliteracy describes children (and adults) who CAN read but choose not to engage in active literacy on their own. No educator in the public school system can deny that it is mostly boys who lose interest in recreational reading. In my lecture I cite research which unquestionably demonstrates that boys, in general, have different reading preferences than girls, in general. Of course there will be children who buck this trend but right now they are the exception, not the rule. Anticdotal evidence to the contrary in no way negates the fact that there are objective literary components of a good boy book that need to be promoted and utilized so as to usher these kids (mostly boys) back into the world of books.

    For those of you in this thread who have successfully won the battle of aliteracy, join the fight, don’t thwart it. We need your success to be passed on to thousands of others.

  17. Hurray, well said! And thanks for the reminder. Now that we’ve finished the Little House series I think we’ll read Robinson Crusoe before launching into Little Women.

  18. Kate Pernia says:

    Brava!!! It’s so wonderful to see you and your family enjoying reading together. I still remember my sisters and I sobbing through the end of Where The Red Fern Grows – a book about a boy and his dogs. We keep hearing about our culture being post-racial and gender neutral yet we still have to check boxes on race and gender. Drives me crazy too! So glad you are fighting the good fight and reading through it all.
    Q;-) K

  19. Ms. Rappaport is singing my song! While I am glad there are those who keep boys in mind as they write, I abhor the lists that make boys feel like something is wrong if they like “girl” books. Three children, eight grandchildren, and innumerable students from 28 years of teaching with daily read-alouds to kindergarten, second grade, and junior high may amount to anecdotal experience, but that experience was real. The children in my family and my students loved books that were good, and I chose what I read with that in mind. Some were about boys and some were about girls. Their choice of favorites had little to do with the sex of the protagonist.

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  1. […] lists that focused more on the type of story than in the protagonists involved. #ddtbEmbedded Link On the Rights of Reading and Girls and Boys — The Horn Book Hilary Rappaport talks about boys and girls reading in the May/June Horn Book Magazine. Leave a […]

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