Books for boys and books for girls

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When I opened a box of new children’s books last week, the first one I picked up was From Burglar to Football Star by Ian Whybrow, but what I noticed first was the big sign in the top right hand corner saying Books for Boys. I was a bit shocked because it seemed so out-dated and simply wrong to label a book like this (I know its a series title, but I still don’t like it). Lately there’s been a lot in the media about how shops such as Boots, Marks and Spencer, Toys R Us and Debenhams have removed  the boys and girls labels from their toys, thanks largely to the Mumsnet campaign, but it seems there’s still a bit of a problem with books.

In our library we’re careful not to have separate sections for boys and girls books but I have seen several public libraries that still divide their fiction like this. Most schools and libraries are aware of the problems this creates and see that it’s important for children to have the full range of books open to them so that they can develop into confident and enthusiastic readers. But many publishers are still happy to churn out the stereotyped book covers because they’re most interested in sales and they know that these covers sell books. It’s less of a problem for girls because it’s more socially acceptable for them to read books aimed at boys but few boys are going to be confident enough to read “girly” ones.

David Lomax, a teacher, writes

We’re still having trouble getting boys to read. I can turn an open-minded boy onto reading with Cormac McCarthy, Cory Doctorow or Christopher Barzak – but if that boy goes into a bookstore and sees what he thinks of as all girls books on the displays, he may not stick around…Librarians are often my solution. The good school librarians and public librarians are always ready to listen to what someone last enjoyed and figure out what they’d like next.

These habits can stick and lead to men reading only male authors and women reading only female ones. On University Challenge a few weeks ago Jeremy Paxman asked the brilliant (all male) Southampton team three questions about the Orange Prize for Fiction. They admitted they had no idea and seemed never to have heard of Barbara Kingsolver, Rose Tremain or Carol Shields. Paxman looked shocked and said, “There really is a divide in reading, isn’t there?”

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10 thoughts on “Books for boys and books for girls

  1. Stan Bloxham

    Problem is so many boys (eg my two grandsons) are not interested in reading; would much rather play video games.) at age between 6 and around 13-14 there does seem to be a difficulty in getting boys interested. Maybe some compromise required in terms of marketing books to boys. ie in terms of the blurb and the cover picture and even the shelf labelling. I know this may be an antediluvian view, but if it gets the lads reading at all it may be worth it. Sad aint it!

    Reply
    1. blackcountrylibrarian Post author

      Yes, I think boys do need encouragement to read but I don’t think you have to actually label the books “for boys”! Attractive covers can work – especially some of the ones publishers use for the scary/horror and comic ones that are popular with boys.

      Reply
  2. anexactinglife

    I was analyzing the adult fiction collection at my public library recently and noting which genres the books fell into. The books by women authors which have lead female characters are seen as either chick lit or women’s fiction. The books by male authors which have lead male characters are seen as either genre fiction (such as thrillers or sci-fi) or literature – not “men’s fiction.” 😦

    Reply
    1. blackcountrylibrarian Post author

      How depressing! There’s a lot of talk about the lack of female reviewers in the serious literary media and I think there’s a definite perception that women authors write on a “smaller scale” than men and therefore their books aren’t serious literature. I find the “chick lit” term quite derogatory, although it includes many well-written, enjoyable novels. But having said that, I actually wrote it on a book description for a “blind date with a book” display this morning, so I obviously find it a convenient term!

      Reply
  3. Rachel

    And did anyone catch the post about The Hobbit on, I think but am not sure, a parent blog? Having the Hobbit read to her, one girl decided Bilbo was female. On reflection, the parent continued the story on that basis. It is possible to read many books altering the gender of the hero figure either way.

    Reply
    1. blackcountrylibrarian Post author

      I didn’t, but have just read about it so thank you! I think this is it: Bilbo Baggins is a Girl. I remember changing the words “farmer’s wife” to “farmer” when I read to my children but I don’t think I ever changed the gender. Even if it’s true that girls/women are more accepting of male heroes than boys/men are of female ones, it’s important that there are books with more female heroes (although it may be hard to persuade publishers of this!).

      Reply
  4. thestoryofrei

    This made me think of an article/interview that Neil Gaiman did a while back where he firmly states that we shouldn’t be telling kids what to read, that we should let them read what they want to. I agree that dividing it up based on gender makes me cringe. Sadly I have no solutions on how to get boys interested in reading otherwise.

    Reply
    1. blackcountrylibrarian Post author

      Dividing books by genre is a good way to encourage boys but I don’t think they need to think that girls won’t like some of the same books as they do. the good thing is that at least lots of us are cringing about it now!

      Reply

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