If you have been following news about literature at all for the last year, then you know there’s been quite a bit of discussion about female writers. Are they taken seriously enough by book critics who write the reviews and compile the must-read lists? Are they represented adequately in the nominations for the year’s top literature prize? The numbers show that, no, no they’re not, which then leads many to simply conclude that either (1) men are better writers than women or (2) women’s writing appeals only to women while men’s writing appeals to us all!
Both, of course, are total BS.
I’m going to let others make the arguments about female work being under-represented and ignored or sequestered to the tables festooned in pink and feature words like “Leboutin” (I’ll post links at the end of this post, if you’re interested). Instead, I’m going to start in the middle of this conversation to talk about why I think there’s this division, this attitude, and what we can do about it.
Simply put, I think boys are pushed to read “boy” books only.
Girls, though, wind up reading everything. Those habits continue through adulthood. I don’t think this happens because boys are too rough and tumble and poop-obsessed to read female characters, by the way. Rather, I think they’re discouraged from reading “girl” books — at home, at libraries, by Scholastic and their famous book orders, and, eventually, in the grown-up world. So when Nobel-prize winning writers like V.S. Naipaul claim they can tell the difference between male and female writing, and that his writing is superior to any woman’s, I think, “Hmmm, how very close-minded of you, sir.” Then I wonder if he actually ever reads books written by women. Answer is likely, no. In fact, he probably never really did.
Which is something I definitely don’t want for my son. Sure, my boy can like whatever books he wants. Our house is filled with books featuring little female characters, which we read to our son just like we did to our daughters. We’ve got books featuring boys, too, since kids’ lit is chock full of them (read this fantastic article about gender imbalance in children’s books).
We’re going to get to them all.
This isn’t just me trying to blot out the pink/blue world my kids are growing up in — though if I knew how to do that, I totally would. Rather, I don’t want to see any of my kids limited in those ways — by the expectations of their peers or teachers or book-sellers or, eventually, the people who get word of new and interesting literature out to us. Male authors are the big winners of how things function now; but as readers, men with this “I only read men’s books” attitude are the ones who lose out. It’s not that I don’t think men and women are different. It’s just, we’re not that different. Which is why I twitch when I read lists like Esquire‘s 75 books every man should read.
I’ve got a list of my own: it’s 10 “girl” books every boy should read. These are books that my son either likes now or I suspect will like in the future — that is, if the boy-media mafia doesn’t get a hold of him first. They’re funny or poignant and speak of the universal struggles of being a kid. It doesn’t matter that the main characters are girls. Paraphrasing my daughters, it’s not like reading them will make a boy’s penis fall off.
I hope you’ll add your suggestions in comments (you can also add your comments in comments, whichever).
1. Bedtime for Frances (and any of the Frances books), by Russell Hoban
Frances struggles with bedtime, a new sister, thoughts about running away — universal kid stuff. Her parents are a study in patience and empathy.
2. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes
Lilly brings her awesome new thing to school, which is a distraction to the class. She turns on her teacher when he takes it away and then struggles with feelings of guilty and shame. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.
3. Lilly’s Big Day, by Kevin Henkes (fine, anything by Kevin Henkes)
Lilly deals with profound disappointment and feelings of jealousy when her teacher picks his fiancee’s niece — and not Lilly — to be the flower girl at his wedding.
4. Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelman
Excellent rhymes, plenty of mischief — and appendix removal.
5. Stephanie’s Ponytail, by Robert Munsch
Yes, the story revolves around a girl and her hairstyles. But really, it’s about being who you are and what happens when you don’t bother thinking for yourself.
6. Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems
Boys lose their lovies too!
7. Cam Jansen mysteries, by David A. Adler
Solving crimes at a beginning reader level!
8. Junie B. Jones, the series, by Barbara Park
Keep an open mind! This girl is a blabbermouth, sometimes a bully and completely disruptive to the classroom. Oh, and she says bad words and likes weird PJs. What boy couldn’t relate to that?
9. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume.
Blume? For boys! Oh, come on. The Fudge series, especially the first one, are great stories of a boy finding his way. His little brother Fudge provides all the slapstick a kid needs.
10. Little House in the Big Woods and the rest of the series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
These are great read aloud books, especially when your son is ready to sit through really long chapters. It’s not all hair braids and petticoats. There’s hunting, skinning squirrels and getting lost in the tall grass prairie. Even just one could go a long way in keeping your son from going all Naipaul on literature.
You can read about last year’s Jonathan Franzen kerfuffle here and here.
You should also take a look at how Slate came to the conclusion that, indeed, female authors basically aren’t taken as seriously as male ones.
More recently, VIDA discovered that female writers are under-represented in the “Best American” series, something you realized long, long ago if you were ever a fan.
Check out Babble’s List of Best Children’s Books that Rhyme!