Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

boy and girl books

One of the great pleasures of teaching children's literature is introducing "girl books" to male students. Invariably there is a surprised pleasure in their response to a book like, say, The Secret Garden, when they find out that it speaks to them just as much as, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It's possible that The Secret Garden is a bad example here. After all there are plenty of significant male characters in it; in fact, a common complaint of feminist literary critics is that Burnett gives up Mary's story for Colin's halfway through. Although this is accurate--you can see it in the chapter headings, in fact, when Mary's pleading "Might I Have a Bit of Earth?" gives way to "I Am Colin"--it never felt that way to me as a child reading the novel. Indeed I continued to give Mary pride of place, even when the novel didn't, by recognizing that she engineers Colin's recovery, his new importance in the novel. She never goes away, she just has to share. It's not all about the protagonist, of course: plot lines (romance vs. adventure, "relationship" vs. "action") are usually trotted out as part of the explanation for how books get gendered as well. But if we read novels to "experience other minds," then at some level all novels are relationship novels, and we should just give up on giving them to boys.

I am of course unpersuaded that there really are "boy" and "girl" books. Marketing strategies that put floral covers on some books and monsters on others would suggest otherwise, but if you get beyond the covers, both books I just linked to have both male and female protagonists, and seem as if they could appeal equally to readers of both sexes. Let's not even get into the heterosexist assumptions behind some of this marketing...though I might for the record note that it's the book with the monster cover that seems to me to be suggesting a romance-plot-outcome (Nick and I haven't finished it yet, so I can't be certain).

The thing is, of course, a well-told story should appeal to any reader, and the canard that boys won't read girl books does the boys, above all, a disservice. Girls will read boy books (I could get into a long digression here about feminist standpoint theory, and may do so another day, but for the moment it's enough to say that, take my word for it, girls will read boy books--sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they can), but boys are often dissuaded from reading girl books, and it's too bad.

One year Mark claimed that Little Women and A Little Princess were the two best movies he'd seen all year (one in a second-run theatre; I know they didn't come out in the same year). Both stories were a complete revelation to him; both films told them well (again, we can debate their merits as adaptations another day--they worked for us); and I felt sorry that he'd gone so long without knowing them. But I have to acknowledge that Nick has so far evinced little interest in either, and I haven't yet pushed to read them to him. So what am I waiting for? He did give up on the Little House books (despite having heard one of them read aloud in class) with me, so maybe I just stopped trying at that point. And, while I'm at it, do parents of girls read "boy books" to them? There are very few books I've read to Nick that I didn't at some point read to Mariah (except the Bartimaeus trilogy and a few others that just weren't available when she was small), so for myself I think the answer is "yes," but I'm probably not the best example. I won't read what I think of as "trash" to either of them, so I gave up after one book in the Warrior series with Nick just as I never read a Babysitters' Club book to Mariah. And I think it's the "trash" books and series (oh, another topic for another day!) that are the most deeply gendered, so maybe a commitment to literary quality can (almost) obviate this problem. But not entirely.

Ah, too many digressions, not enough time! I'll have to come back to this one.

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