When I envisioned having children, my happy fantasies included curling up and reading my childhood favourites to my kids. I pictured evenings of Little House on the Prairie, Pippi Longstocking and Little Women. When my two boys came along, I worried that their affection for board books about farm equipment meant that they wouldn't even consider reading, say, Anne of Green Gables, because that was a "girl's book" and they might be interested only in boys' stories.
Photo: Amanda Tipton
As it turns out, my worries were unfounded: So far, they like books with both boy and girl protagonists, and I believe that's due to a concerted effort their father and I have made to put a wide variety of books in front of them.
Frankly, the primary challenge has been the sheer volume of books with boy leads: A Florida State University study found only a third of children's books published 1900-2000 have an adult woman or female animal character, but adult men or male animals are nearly ubiquitous. The writer Caroline Paul checked out the New York Times bestseller list for kids and found that of the top 10, not a single one had a female protagonist.
Keeping boys front and centre in kids' stories — and erasing girls — means that children come to understand that only boys' stories are worth telling. Now, girls will read so-called girls' books and boys' books, but boys, afraid to be associated with anything feminine, will learn to reject girls' stories. The YA writer Shannon Hale, who writes novels with "princess" in the title, notes that when she speaks at school assemblies, administrators sometimes allow only the girls to attend. (Although occasionally a lone, embarrassed boy will ask her to sign a book once the coast is clear.) Other visiting novelists — whose books feature male protagonists — have the entire year in their audience. Hale makes the compelling argument that "the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don't have to read about girls, that boys aren't expected to understand and empathise with the female population of the world… this belief directly leads to rape culture".
Over the last few months, I've developed a program to get more girls' stories in front of my boys' eyeballs. And I'm happy to report that, so far, I've had a pretty good success rate. Below, a few tips for encouraging your boys to read "girls' books".
Encourage Reading in General
Here's a handy guide on how to raise a reader. First up, remember that you like to read, and that if your kids see you enjoying a good book, they will be more inclined to pick one up as well. Read to your newborn, your infant, your toddler — and introduce your old favourites too (but the guide suggests you "tweak the text" to avoid outdated racist, sexist or xenophobic elements).
Change the Pronouns
When you're reading stories about a gorilla, or a tractor, or a little engine that could, make those characters girls. As Jennie Yabroff writes in the Washington Post, there's nothing in the pictures that indicates that Pete the Cat needs to be a boy, and if your kid isn't reading yet, he won't know you're gender-swapping Elliot the elephant.
New York Public Library children's librarian Gwen Glazer, who suggests books for kids via the NYPL's virtual recommendation line, says, "We have a responsibility to try to put books about girls in front of [boys], just as we have a responsibility to put books about characters of colour, about kids who don't live in this country, and about kids who have experiences that are really different from theirs [in front of them too]."
So in our weekly trips to the library, I choose two or or three books per trip, and my seven- and four-year-old boys choose a few too — usually stories about dragons or tractors — as well. Once we've read the dragon and tractor stories, I offer to read Pippi Longstocking or The Borrowers. (Pippi was a huge hit and we read a chapter a night.) Every trip means a few new books with girl protagonists, and the books I buy are also selected with an eye towards gender balance.
This is my A++ number-one strategy. In preparation for a long car trip recently, I downloaded a couple of the Little House books as well as Ramona the Pest. Listening to books was actually kind of new to me, too, and I discovered that that skill of the performer is totally key. Which is to say: You must get all the Ramona books, which are read by Stockard Channing. Her voices are to die for — she perfectly captures the slightly hysterical edge of the desperate-for-attention, misunderstood Ramona; her voice for Howie makes him out to be the quintessential stuffed-up twerp of an annoying kid neighbour. (Talk about introducing girls' books to boys: My husband, who had never read the Beverly Cleary books as a child, said he wanted to listen to Ramona the Pest again.)
The Little House books are read by Cherry Jones, also no slouch in the performing department, and the description of life on the prairie, particularly the mechanics of building homes from scratch, held everyone's attention in the car. Note: You will have to have a conversation with your kids about Native Americans and that particular stretch of American history.
Glazer strongly emphasises that she doesn't believe there is such a thing as "boys' books" and "girls' book" — there are target markets, and publishers try to hit those markets, but if the kids themselves aren't dividing books into "girls'" and "boys'" categories, we shouldn't introduce that idea either.
She described her role as a children's librarian and frequent recommender of good reads for kids:
"What we're going for is two things — one, to see a child's own experience reflected on the page. It's important for young readers to see themselves in a book. That doesn't mean the character has to 'match' them exactly, but the characters' experiences have to resonate with them." And second, she emphasises that "kids should be free to read what they choose. We talk a lot about raising a reader, about how to direct kids' energies towards certain books, and I think it's really, really important to let a lot of that be self-directed... the more we try to proscribe kids' reading habits, the more joy we suck out of it."
This means don't go overboard in curating what your kids read — by criticising, for example, their choice of graphic novels or superhero stories. My son did not like The Borrowers, and we abandoned it after only one chapter. There are a lot of other books in the world, and I'm not going to die on that one hill.
Look for 'Read-Alikes'
This where your local children's librarian really comes in handy. If your son likes Harry Potter, you can ask the librarian what he or she thinks has a similar feel.
Even if a kid says, "I'm a 12-year-old boy and I want to read stories about boys," Glazer teases out exactly what elements the boy enjoyed in his previous reads: "I would try to isolate what that boy thinks is a 'boy's book', and what attributes we're really talking about — is it fast-paced? Is it about sports? What sort of stereotypical 'boy' thing are you actually reacting to?" and then try to match those attributes, sometimes even with a suggestion for girl protagonist or a non-white protagonist.
"There are so many girl adventure stories and girl detective stories right now... I feel like if you had a boy who said, 'I only like boy books,' I would say, 'Maybe you could try something like the Cronos Chronicles by Anne Ursu, which is about a girl who has to save the world. I like to recommend this as a Percy Jackson read-alike, because it's also about Greek mythology.'"
For my son, who's crazy about Harry Potter, she suggests The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. If you go your local children's library and describe what your boys are already enjoying, the librarian can help you take home a stack of new books to try.
If your library doesn't have a children's librarian, check out the We Need Diverse Books summer reading series, which offers a lot of "if you liked that, try this" suggestions. Or take a look at the the "NYPL recommends" service (also @nyplrecommends on Twitter).
But whatever you do, don't push. If your boy only likes comic books about superheros, that's ultimately fine. I hear a good read-alike is Wonder Woman.