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Complications of Gender in the World of Children’s Books by Uma Krishnaswami

May 18, 2011

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in northwest New Mexico. She is the author of a retold story collection (The Broken Tusk), picture books (Monsoon, Chachaji’s Cup, and The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story), early readers (Holi, and Yoga Class) and novels for young readers (Naming Maya and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything). In addition to her writing she is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Visit her website at http://www.umakrishnaswami.com/

Note: This piece is cross-posted at Gender across Borders.

“In the world of children’s literature the gender divide is alive and well, but it’s not about the representation of women. Go to any children’s writer’s conference and you’ll find rooms full of women, with the occasional man doing his best not to feel like an affirmative action icon. In YA and illustration circles, you’ll find a few more men. Still, all the way from the days of Ursula Nordstrom and Harper Books for Boys and Girls, this has been a field dominated by women. As in elementary school teaching, and for a similar host of complex reasons, droves of male writers don’t seem to be writing for children.

And then there’s the question of who reads and who does not. The common wisdom holds that girls read. Boys don’t. They won’t at any rate read books with girls on the cover, or books with girls as protagonists, or books with girlish themes (whatever those are). Girls on the other hand (still referring to the common wisdom that gets tossed about with no regard for where it came from or where it’s been) are endlessly forgiving, and will read anything regardless of the genders of characters or whether the covers are pink or blue. Judging by the pinkness of some covers, you’d think the publishers were actively trying to discourage those picky boys.

And here is another thing. No one talks about girls who don’t read. Presumably there are some. Why are we not in a stew about them? And why does everyone talk about boys who don’t read as if they were representative of all boys? It seems a little unfair, but then we who are not men and boys have an unfair advantage over them. We know and have known for several hundred years, that fairness as a concept is mightily flawed.

So since I am not a man but only what Ursula Le Guin once called a “Pretend-a-Him,” I thought I’d go to the source. I asked Greg Leitich Smith, a real live man who writes for real live young readers, for his opinion on this whole complicated muddle of gender in our little universe of children’s books. Here’s Greg’s reply:

“BOYS DON’T READ: As a former boy who read a great deal, I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of this statement. It often seems to me we’re lumping “boys” together in some sort of over-generalized anthropological grouping. (I understand why, sometimes, but still.) It would probably be more accurate to say, “some boys don’t read…” Also, when I hear this statement, I’m not sure it’s including boys who read magazines and nonfiction….

BOYS WON’T READ BOOKS WITH GIRL PROTAGONISTS: I think it depends on the book. If, say, the novel is (a) entirely self-reflection, and (sometimes message-y) emoting or (b) exclusively a romance (in which the entire focus of the plot involves  girl A falling in love with both  boy B), then perhaps a boy is less likely to pick it up.   But a girl protagonist per se is not an absolute veto for a boy reader.

WOMEN CAN’T/SHOULDN’T WRITE MALE PROTAGONISTS:  Nonsense.”

Ha! So there. It’s the book that counts, and doesn’t good story still rule in children’s books? Plot matters. Action matters. Children won’t read in the hope of finding some obscure literary affectation that doesn’t show up until page 300, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smart and can’t make meaningful connections among texts they read and between life and text. As for the gender of the author–really, I don’t give a chin-hair, and I tend to think I’m not alone.”

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3 Comments
  1. Love this essay Uma! Reposting it on FB/Twitter now… As a mother of a HUGELY prolific reader 8yo son – one who gobbles up just as much Laura Ingalls as Percy Jackson (in fact, he also is equally interested in cereal cartons, and particularly so in airplane safety cards… let’s just say he’s the iconic equal opportunity reader), I’m so TIRED of this “boys don’t read” fiddle-faddle. And boogers (supposedly a boy topic?) I love ’em (well, not the real stuff, just the literary manifestation). As does my 6yo daughter. 🙂

    A recent rant by me on the subject: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2010/09/girls-like-boogers-boys-like-romance.html

  2. Naturally there are always going to be exceptions to any general rule, and I’m sure there are plenty of girls out there who don’t read: it’s just that the majority of readers of all ages are female. And it can’t be because boys are turned off reading for lack of male protagonists, surely, since these predominate in all forms of fiction, I’d say (apart from books written specifically for women)?

  3. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to
    say excellent blog!

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