Earlier this week, I had a conversation about The Sisters 8 with an elementary school teacher. (There’s little point in naming the teacher or her school, because it’s easy to envision the same discussion happening with any teacher at any elementary school.) For those who don’t know, The Sisters 8 is a nine-book series for young readers that I created with my husband and daughter about female octuplets whose parents go missing on New Year’s Eve, leaving the girls to run the household and solve the mystery while trying to keep the rest of the world from realizing that they’re living home alone. In addition to mystery, there’s adventure and magic and cats. More on all that at www.sisterseight.com.
The teacher and I had been discussing the possibility of her school adopting the first book in The Sisters 8 series, Annie’s Adventures, for a One Book/One School read, in which every child in the elementary school would be provided a copy so they could enjoy a large shared reading experience. Who knows? Maybe I could even Skype in to talk to them! (Of course first I’d have to get Skype and learn how to use it.) When the teacher shared her brilliant plan with the school’s principal, however, the response she received was, “I think this would be great for the girls and they would love it! But what about the boys?” It fell to me to create an argument about why a series of books about eight intrepid siblings, who manage to learn how to drive the family Hummer and battle evil wherever they find it, would not somehow be a deficient reading experience for boys. I did create the argument—all the things I just mentioned, plus on the cover of Book 1, Annie is carrying a rather large spear through the snow, so no dolls having tea parties in these books!—but I’m not holding my breath. Now try to imagine a male author with a book featuring boy protagonists getting the question, “But what about the girls?” I’m asking you to imagine it because I can’t. We take it for granted that girls will be open to reading books about the opposite sex and we take it for granted that boys will not.
There’s a Britishism that I’ve always loved: “He began as he meant to go on.” I love the sound of the line and I love co-opting variants of it for my own writing. But as it plays out in the real world? Not so much always. And when it comes to this topic? Never.
Here’s the thing. From a very young age, we pander to boys’ tastes, or what we perceive boys’ tastes to be. We give them books by men about boys or if we’re really liberal, we give them books written by women about boys. As the boys grow, we become concerned that they don’t read as much as girls and so we create whole websites and programs dedicated to getting boys to read more. And the books we recommend on the sites? Again, almost exclusively, books written by men and about guys, the rare exceptions being books where the female author was smart enough to launch her career using initials (J.K. Rowling) or books with more masculine packaging (Hunger Games). By the time these boys have progressed through the teen years into adulthood, their tastes have been so programmed that their annual reading material looks like an author website I came across a while back. The author is a prominent literary novelist whose site I’d gone to because I wanted to do something I do a few times a year: I wanted to write him a fan email. I’d read his book, a book I hadn’t expected to enjoy—too long a story to go into here—but I had enjoyed it and wanted to express my admiration. On the front page of his site, there was a sidebar featuring not his own books, but rather, a long listing of books he’d recently read. ‘What a cool thing to do!’ I thought. Then I started scrolling through the list: Not a single title was by a female author. Not a single title featured a female protagonist. Really? In all of current literature, there wasn’t one title by a female literary novelist who he thought worth recommending?
At this point, you’d be justified in wondering: Where are we going with all this?
Here’s the thing. My mother read everything. From a young age, I read everything. My thirteen-year-old daughter reads everything. When she asks for my input for her year’s reading list, and I include books by men or about guys, she doesn’t say, “But what’s in that for me?” All she cares about is “What’s it about?” and “Is it a good story?”
Girls grow up reading Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott, Henry James and Charlotte Bronte, Neil Gaiman and Sarah Dessen. Really, I could go on with the list forever here, but you get it: Guys are programmed to look at only half of what is out there. If reading is knowledge and knowledge is power, then we are starting our boys on paths that ultimately will lead to less knowledge and less power, not to mention less enjoyment, because here’s the final thing concerning the way things currently stand:
For most girls, the world is their reading oyster, while in the meantime, boys are only getting half an oyster.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of over 30 books for adults, teens and children, the most recent of which is the paperback edition of The Twin’s Daughter for ages 12 and up. You can read more about her work at www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBaratzL.