There is something I hear often as I’m working in the children’s section of the library: “That’s a girl book.” It comes out of young boys’ mouths with a disdainful edge. The books in question never have hot pink covers or are dripping with glitter; they simply have a girl on the cover. Female main characters in all genres of children’s literature are becoming more and more common. The disparity of gender equality in media is ebbing, but there are still very few boys reading these books. It has made me wonder, why are girls more likely to read ‘boy’ books than boys to read ‘girl’ books?
To begin with, there seems to be a strange assumption that books aimed at boys are for everyone, but books aimed at girls are only for girls. Girls are encouraged to read everything, but boys are often shamed for reading ‘girly’ books. This leaves boys with far fewer reading options when they are already at risk of reading less.
In the 90s, gender segregated media was at its peak. Toy aisles were separated by pink and blue, and while the lines between books weren’t so noticeable, they still existed. Growing up as a tomboyish girl, there weren’t a lot of books with girl main characters I enjoyed reading. If I wanted to read adventure or fantasy, I had to read books with boy protagonists. All the most popular books had male leads, and the books read in the classroom were always about boys, because the teachers felt that the boys wouldn’t pay attention if they read books with girl leads in class. Although it was frustrating to not see ourselves represented in media, I and many other girls learned to empathize with male characters, but the boys in my class didn’t learn to empathize with girl characters.
Now, things are changing. Children’s literature is more diverse than ever before, and kids have tons of opportunities to read books from all different points of view. The library is a hub of interests and perspectives. However boys are still limited by invisible and arbitrary rules enforced by parents and peers. Boys are often chastised for taking an interest in anything deemed too feminine while girls are not nearly as often held to the same standards. Despite intentions, this sends a message that ‘boy’ things are the norm and ‘girl’ things are ‘other’ or possibly even inferior. This is a message that will stay with children into adolescence, possibly even adulthood, and will create a greater rift between all genders.
That message doesn’t have to be sent. Children should be able, and encouraged, to explore new worlds. What can we, as a society, do for our kids to help broaden their minds? Librarians can help by giving book recommendations targeting a child’s interests and by hosting book clubs that cater to a wide audience and cover a large range of topics. Parents can encourage reading and enjoy books of all creeds together with their children. Teachers can garner enthusiasm and understanding for underrepresented characters in writing. People can stop categorizing whether books are for boys or girls and just let kids read. Reading is for everyone. Books don’t have a gender.
Serina Aagard is a shelver at the library.