Often, I have walked into a bookstore and heard someone tell a bookseller how so-and-so won’t read “that” book because there’s a girl on the cover. Or how their son or grandson won’t read “that” book because the main character is a girl. It takes all of my willpower to keep from intervening to remind them (as an author, as a parent, as a book-buyer) that there’s no such thing as “boy books” or “girl books.”
We need to stop doing this. When we assume boys don’t want to read books about girls, we are continuing the narrative that girls and their experiences are somehow “less than.” We are furthering the idea that boys don’t want to read about girls because there’s little or no value in what girls do or that their experiences are not interesting to boys. And frankly, we are underestimating boys in assuming they only want to read about “boy things.”
Before we get too far, yes, I do believe the flipside of this as well: girls should read books with boys on the covers and books about boys. But girls already are. We always have been. I cannot think of one book I read in middle school or high school that featured a strong female heroine. There’s not the same stigma attached to a girl grabbing a book with a boy on the front cover as there is with a boy reading a book about a girl. There was a recent twitter chat about this very subject and the resounding conclusion from educators and authors was that adults are perpetuating this stereotype, not kids.
We all know that one of the greatest gifts of reading is that books create empathy by placing the reader in the shoes of the main character. My debut book, THE PROPHET CALLS, tells the story of Gentry, a girl who has grown up in a patriarchal society. She faces discrimination on a daily basis simply because she was born a girl.
In this era of trying to finally, finally move past toxic masculinity and mansplaining, shouldn’t we help our boys to understand how misogynist attitudes make our girls feel? When ideas about sex and gender are forming in those middle school years, what better place than a book to create safe spaces to explore these confusing concepts with our kids?
When it comes down to it, children like stories. Period. If you listen carefully, they will tell you what they want: adventure, drama, fantasy, suspense and so on. I have never once heard a child request a book about a boy or a girl.
In this global society, empathy building is as important a skill as ever. But when we’re too busy placing boys and girls in old-fashioned boxes, we are only furthering the inequity that already exists. It’s up to all of us. We cannot expect our kids to be empathetic if we don’t ever give them a chance.
So the next time a child is looking for a good read, peel away your assumptions about what you think they want, and listen. Really listen. You just might be surprised.
Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying world religions. Before becoming a writer, Melanie worked as a lawyer for more than 16 years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. THE PROPHET CALLS is her debut novel.