I did not set out to write a series of "boy books." I am a boy and have been since I was born, so perhaps it was inevitable. But a recent Twitter conversation on the topic of writing for girls vs. boys among middle grade writers, readers, and enthusiasts, part of the weekly #MGLitChat, got me thinking about this perennial topic.
The series I write, The Accidental Adventures, is considered good for "reluctant readers," meaning the books are fast reads, heavy on humor, and when I use a big word like absquatulate, I define it right away, usually in relation to passing gas (it means to leave in a hurry).
Reluctant readers, it seems, like fart jokes. They also seem to like gross food, nonstop action, and the occasional illustration. For those not in the business, the term "reluctant reader" tends to be a synonym for "boy."
The conventional wisdom says that boys don't like to read a lot of description and that they don't like romance and that they won't read a book with only a girl on the cover or a cover that's pink or a book of [gasp] poetry.
Well, my books don't have a lot of description -- they're gags and action all the way. There's not much romance, unless you count infatuation with a Bieberesque teen celebrity with his own reality show. And while there is always a girl on the cover -- she's one of the two protagonists -- there are also tigers, machine guns, human eyeballs, giant squid, and her brother. The covers aren't pink, and there is certainly [phew] no poetry.
So I suppose I meet the criteria. And I do think my books are good for boys, but then again, I think they're good for everyone. A household or library without multiple copies is incomplete, in my opinion. I am passionate about improving boys' literacy and glad that boys find my books appealing, but I'm troubled by this idea of 'boy books,' because it reinforces -- and perhaps recreates -- assumptions about boys and girls and the things they should like, while giving short shrift to the real issue at the heart of literacy building: reader experience.
I have, in a previous piece about boys and literacy, criticized our educational establishments for privileging the literary novel above other forms of reading that appeal in general to boys, but I probably overstated the case.
It is not that boys only want to read a certain kind of books, it is that their individual reading experience and desires need to be valued. It's not that there is no difference between the reading habits of boys and girls or that the literacy achievement gap between the two is a figment, but it cannot be addressed through reinforcing stereotypes. There are plenty of great books for kids out there and some of them have a lot of description and some have romance; some have only a girl on the cover and some are even (gasp!) poetry. When we label certain kinds of books "boy books" we are not only reinforcing a certain idea of manliness that doesn't include all boys, we are also cutting boys and girls off from a lot of books they might actually like. Sure, many of them won't, but the reading experience of each individual needs to be considered. It is not about gender, but about why each person reads and how. Reading choices do not exist in a vacuum.
As Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book, ably wrote in Go Big or Go Home,
While habitual readers enjoy and are at ease with books along a spectrum that includes the ruminative and low-key, occasional readers want a bang for their buck.
His statement -- while written about boys -- places the focus on the reading experience, not on the gender of the reader. There are going to be boys who are habitual readers and boys who are not, boys who crave adventure, excitement and fart jokes and girls who do too.
Putting my books, or Captain Underpants or Shark Wars or the like into a gender ghetto as "boy books," reinforces gender stereotypes that leave no room for a boy who likes poetry or a girl who marks Shark Week on her calendar as if it were a national holiday. Boys and girls alike want a well-told story; boys and girls alike want characters they can feel connected to; boys and girls alike are as varied in their tastes as adults. Gender generalizations, while seductive, don't serve the goal they're usually intended for -- getting young people to read well and to read widely.
While categorizing books by gender does seem to make steering kids to books easier, this is not something that should be easy. Matching mood, ability and expectation with a creative work that might also inspire, entertain, educate or enlighten a budding reader demands a broad knowledge of the material that's out there, a sensitive ear to the wants and needs of the child, and an understanding of the values of parents or the community.
There are professionals who do this. I trust them.
As I'm writing, gender doesn't even enter my mind. I set out to tell a good story, the kind of story I might have wanted to read when I was ten, and I leave it to knowledgeable teachers and librarians to put it in the hands of the right reader at the right time, whoever and whenever that might be.