I publish the graphic novel “Real Friends,” an autobiographical story of my elementary school friendships. Book bloggers and online reviewers begin to recommend it but advise against giving it to boys since most of the characters are girls.
A school librarian introduces me before I give an assembly. “Girls, you’re in for a real treat. You will love Shannon Hale’s books. Boys, I expect you to behave anyway.”
At a book signing, a mother looks sadly at my books. “I wish I could buy some for my kids, but I only have boys.”
A little boy points to one of my books and exclaims, “I want that one!” His father pulls him away. “No, that’s a girl book.”
I’ve published 30 books over the past 15 years, and I’ve heard all this and much more in every one of the 40-plus states I’ve toured.
It’s clear that our culture assumes:
1. Boys aren’t going to like a book that stars a girl.
2. Men’s stories are universal, while women’s stories are only for girls.
After all, books about boys (“Harry Potter,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Holes”) are for everyone, but books about girls (Judy Blume’s novels, “Anne of Green Gables,” “Twilight”) are just for girls.
I wasn’t always sure this assumption was incorrect. Early in my career, I was publicized as “the author of Princess Academy,” my most well-known book, and predictably, only girls and their mothers attended my signings, with just a few brothers lurking in the back or the occasional forward-thinking home-schooled guy.
But after my book won a major award, teachers began reading it to their classes. Dozens of teachers reported to me the same thing: “When I told the class we were going to read a book called ‘Princess Academy,’ the girls went ‘Yay!’ and the boys went ‘Boo!’ But after we’d read it, the boys liked it as much or even more than the girls.”
For the first time I had evidence that contradicted everything I’d been taught about boys and reading. I started to pay more attention and found I did in fact have many boy readers — most likely hundreds of thousands of them at this point, but they’d been reading in secret because they were embarrassed. I got better at noticing the myriad ways adults teach boys that they should feel ashamed for taking an interest in a story about a girl, from outright (“Put that down, that’s a girl book”) to subtle (“I think you’ll like this book even though it’s about a girl”). There is peer shaming as well, but it starts with and is supported by adults.
I’ve now asked thousands of kids the same question: “What kind of books do you like?” They answer: fantasy, funny, comics, mystery, nonfiction, etc. No kid has ever said, “I like books about boys.” Yet booksellers tell me that parents shop for their sons as if books have gender: “I need a boy book. He won’t read anything about a girl.”
Not only does this kind of thinking prevent boys from learning empathy for girls, it also prescribes narrow gender definitions: There is only one kind of boy, and any boy who doesn’t fit that mold is wrong.
Stories make us human. We form bonds by swapping personal stories with others, and reading fiction is a deeply immersive exercise in empathy.
So, what happens to a culture that encourages girls to read books about boys but shoos boys away from reading books about girls?
What happens to a boy who is taught he should be ashamed of reading a book about a girl? For feeling empathy for a girl? For trying to understand how she feels? For caring about her? What kind of a man does that boy grow up to be?
The bias against boys reading about girls runs so deep, it can feel daunting to try to change it. But change can start with a simple preposition swap: When talking to young readers, we can communicate that a book is about girls without prescribing that it’s for girls.
The goal is to encourage lifelong readers, and the more we try to tell kids which books are for them, the more reluctant the kids are to read. I have four kids, and I am terrible at predicting what books they will like. The best I can do is fill our house with lots of different genres and styles of books — and then make sure we have a mix of books written by male and female and non-binary writers, writers of color and from other countries and backgrounds, writers of different abilities and beliefs. When I offer these books without shame or judgment and let my kids choose for themselves, they read broadly and voraciously — and we have great conversations.
At a recent school assembly, I asked students from kindergarten through fifth grade, “If a book is about robots, does that mean only robots can read it?”
“No!” they yell.
“Is a book about cats only for cats?”
“So, if a book is about a boy, does that mean only boys can read it? How about a book about a girl?”
Kids get it. They just want a good story. They have the potential to be lifelong readers of all kinds of books, learning empathy for all kinds of people and gaining all kinds of experiences different from their own. They’ll be fine. If we adults would just get out of their way.
Shannon Hale is the best-selling author of more than 30 children’s and young adult novels, including “Real Friends,” and the “Ever After High,” “Goose Girl” and “Princess Academy” series.