Sarah Pekkanen on the gender divide in children’s books

March 18, 2011

I have a confession: As a teenager, I dog-eared the juicy pages in Judy Blume’s “Forever,” then hid the novel under my bed, even though I worried that the spicy scenes might cause my mattress to spontaneously combust.

How quaint that little book about first love sounds now. Teenagers inhabiting the pages of literature today are stalking vampires, slicing the heads off demons, and occasionally saving a fictional world that doesn’t really seem to deserve it. And while such action-packed stories might seem targeted at boys who learned to read with chunky books starring tractor-trailers and dinosaurs, ’tween and teen girls are actually the ones gobbling them up.

In fact, when it comes to children’s and young adult novels, many publishers are scrambling to capture the attention of the elusive, picky boy readers. Girls tend to accept a broad range of books, especially if romance is a thread in the story line. But boys lag behind girls in reading skills in all 50 states, making reading “the most pressing gender-gap issue facing our schools,” according to a 2010 report by the Center on Education Policy. Captivating boys and making reading fun presents a big challenge — but it can translate into an enormous payoff, as Scholastic learned again when the fifth Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” earned $185 million in just six months.

The publisher that discovers the next big boy book “is like whoever can find a way to open up China. You’ll have a great market,” says Michael Sullivan, a frequent speaker at schools and the author of “Connecting Boys with Books.” Sullivan also writes novels aimed at boy readers.

A longer-term concern is that non-reading boys will grow into teens and men who shy away from books in general and fiction in particular. Statistics back this up: Women read more books and more broadly across genres than do men. The British author Ian McEwan once stood in a London park handing out free books. Women gratefully snapped them up while many men “frowned in suspicion or distaste,” McEwan wrote in the Guardian newspaper. “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

“I think there is this assumption that any book we publish will be read by girls or could be read by girls, so there’s more concern about, ‘How do we get boys to read it?’ ” said Mary Lee Donovan, executive editor of Candlewick Press, a major publisher of children’s literature based in Massachusetts.

Cover art plays a big part. Girls will read a book featuring a boy on the cover or a simple but evocative image of, say, hands cupping a red apple (yes, “Twilight,” we’re talking about you), but boys tend to recoil from an image of a girl on a book cover. Many boys are drawn to the bold, splashy and outrageous — think garish colors, battle scenes and especially humor. The book “Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder,” for instance, combines laughs with charming illustrations by Mike Lowery. He notes that his artwork has a “naive feel to it” that can make young readers relate.

Humor isn’t threatening, which is one reason that books like the “Wimpy Kid” series take off. “Boys feel far more uncertain about their reading than girls do, so they’re less likely to take a chance,” said Sullivan, who has studied the issue of boys and reading extensively. “Studies show that psychologically, boys are known for overestimating their abilities in many areas. The one area where boys consistently underestimate their abilities is in reading.”

Some books, of course, bypass the boys completely and aim directly at girl readers. This seems particularly apparent in young adult novels, where paranormal books with dangerous love interests abound. H.M. Ward recently finished writing her first YA novel, “Demon Kissed,” about a teen named Ivy who is claimed both by the people chosen to protect humanity as well as by the soulless servants of Hell. Ward created a Facebook page and quickly attracted 30,000 fans for a book that hasn’t even been published yet. “Teenagers feel trapped,” Ward explains, “and my book explores whether you have a choice in your destiny and what happens to you.”

Lack of control over their destinies (curfews! homework! acne!) could explain why plenty of teenagers are attracted to books featuring empowered characters, which also may be one of the keys to the prized crossover books that appeal to both genders. There isn’t a stronger example than Katniss Everdeen, the lead character in Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy, which has dominated best-seller lists recently. Katniss kills to save the people she loves, hunts food with a bow and arrow, and manages to topple an evil government — all while tolerating the affections of two handsome suitors. Romance is lightly woven through the books, but survival and maintaining personal honor are the dominant themes. The trilogy has leapt across gender as well as age lines, attracting adult readers along with boy and girl ’tweens and teens.

“Whenever a book like this comes out of nowhere and becomes so big, people take notice,” wrote David Levithan, the trilogy’s editor, in an e-mail. “But I think the biggest take-away isn’t for there to be more dystopian fiction, or more Katniss-like characters. The take-away is that when you have an author with a singular vision, you should do everything you can to let her follow that vision.”

In other words, empower the author. Both boy and girl readers would definitely approve.

Sarah Pekkanen is the author of “Skipping a Beat” and “The Opposite of Me.”

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