Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Boy’s Books vs Girl’s Books

This post recently got me thinking about the issue of “books for boys” and “books for girls”, and the different things we can mean by phrases like that, and whether such phrases are inherently pernicious or not.

I mean, is there such a thing as a “boy’s book” or a “girl’s book”, and even if there is, is this a useful distinction or one that tends to reinforce negative stereotypes?

Let’s take it as a given that we don’t want to discourage boys from reading books in which the protagonist is a girl. Actually – and I know others’ experience may differ – but I can’t personally remember ever noticing a boy (or a grown man, for that matter) refusing to read a book because it had a female protagonist or because it was written by a woman. But I’m not a librarian or a bookseller, so my sample size isn’t very large. Seems extremely strange to me, though. Let’s just say that though my imagination is pretty good, I definitely can’t wrap my mind around the notion of anybody in my family caring about the gender of the protagonist, or the author – even though everyone in my family prefers a different kind of genre novel.

But the question of whether that kind of bias exists and if so how prevalent it might be, that’s a different question. Here’s the question I’m interested in at the moment: Are there “boy’s books” and “girl’s books”? And is this distinction useful? If a woman asks you to recommend a “SFF novel for boys” for her son, what would you tell her? That there’s no such thing as a “boy’s book” and the kid ought to understand that girls can be great protagonists, too? Is such an argument, even if gently put, actually the least bit helpful? Is it even true?

The fact is, I think there is such a thing as “boy’s books” and “girl’s books” – or, more precisely, I think there are “boy’s-and-girl’s books” and “girl’s books.” And I think those are actually useful categories when:

a) you are trying to get boys to read in general; or

b) you are trying to encourage boys to read books with complex, realistic girl protagonists; or

c) you are trying to recommend books for any particular kid of your acquaintance and he wants a “boy’s book.”

But the gender of the protagonist is definitely not what puts a book into one category or the other.

There’s no point declaring that boys should like all the same books that girls like, if in general they just don’t. Sure, you can declare that sexism is deeply embedded in society, or that society encourages boys and men to disregard books written by or about girls or women, and all this may well be true, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also real differences between the sexes.

Parents out there have probably noticed that boys generally prefer toys that involve propulsion and moving parts – toy trucks, for example, and toy guns – whereas girls may like those toys, but they also tend toward play that involves dolls and stuffed animals. And sure, socialization and all that, yes, let’s take that as a given, shall we?

But here’s where my background in animal behavior comes in. Because did you know that infants as young as three months already show clear gender differences in toy preferences? Already at that age, male infants prefer to gaze at toy trucks, whereas female babies prefer to gaze at dolls. At that age, babies do not yet even know whether they are boys or girls; they don’t know what the toys are for; they cannot be guided to play with one kind of toy over the other because they are not yet anywhere close to being physically able to play with those toys. But the difference in interests is still there.

It gets even more interesting than that, because young vervet and rhesus monkeys show the exact same gender biases in their preferences for human toys. Young male monkeys strongly prefer wheeled toys, whereas young female monkeys show much less of a preference, playing about equally with wheeled toys and plush toys. See the references at the end if you’re interested in this sort of thing; these articles are all available online, and really they are very interesting.

But the point is, obviously young monkeys have not been socialized by contemporary human society to prefer one type of toy over another! Instead, it seems quite clear that toys favored by male monkeys — and, we may reasonably assume, boys — provide a different kind of rewarding experience than those preferred by female monkeys (and girls). And both boys and girls are then attracted to the sort of toys that provide the right kind of experience – or even look like they might provide the right kind of experience, before they even touch the toys.

And if boys generally prefer one kind of play over another, then I don’t think it’s a surprise if many boys generally prefer one kind of book over another, too – intrinsically. Or that boys strongly reject “girl’s books” whereas girls may like both “boy’s-and-girl’s-books” and “girl’s books” – this is exactly what we would expect. It is not very helpful to declare that boys should be interested in girl’s books, because boys are not going to change just to suit anybody’s idea of how gender is a purely social construct. Because that just isn’t true. But boys certainly can learn that books with girl protagonists can be great stories, as long as you offer them books they have a genuine chance of loving.

What makes a book a “boy’s book” – or, more precisely, a “boy’s-and-girl’s-book” – is that it emphasizes action, adventure, and movement. The gender of the protagonist has nothing to do with anything. But sometimes boys probably think it does, because of the kinds of books they have encountered in the past, or the way books are marketed, or the comments their peers and parents make. That’s the bit that is pernicious.

If you want to encourage a boy who likes reading but isn’t sure about “girly books” to read books with female protagonists, you might be well advised to skip the prom-dress-girl-paranormals that emphasize romance and relationships, even if they are very good books of their type, and go straight for adventure stories that are more likely to appeal to boys who like action. There are plenty of choices out there besides The Hunger Games. How about Divergent by Roth, say? Or The Scorpio Races by Stiefvater, if the kid is okay with a slower-paced but amazing book? Or Partials by Dan Wells? Or if your kid is allergic to even a shred of romance, then maybe Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede? And on and on – it is not going to be a short list.

Once boys who like adventure stories discover that fabulous adventure stories can feature girl protagonists, I don’t think you’ll find many boys insisting that they won’t read girl’s books. And that’s a blow against bias and embedded sexism right there, regardless of what aspects of gender are socially constructed and which are intrinsic.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Alexander GM, and M Hines. 2002. Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evol.Human Behav. 23:467–469.

Alexander, GM, T Wilcox and R Woods. 2009. Sex differences in infants’ visual interest in toys. Arch Sex Behav 8(3):427-33.

Hassett JM, ER Siebert, K Wallen. 2008. Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Horm. Behav. 51:359–364.

Hines, M and GM Alexander. 2008. Commentary: Monkeys, girls, boys, and toys: A confirmation comment on “Sex differences in toy preferences: Striking parallels between monkeys and humans”. Horm Behav. 54(3): 478-481.

Williams, CL and KE Pleil. 2008. Toy story: Why do monkey and human males prefer trucks? Comment on “Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children” by Hassatt, Siebert, and Wallen. Horm. Behav 54(3): 355-358.

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12 Comments Boy’s Books vs Girl’s Books

  1. Elaine T

    Or the first Tortall book by Pierce, featuring the wannabe knight who is a girl. Maybe the Uglies series but I haven’t read it.

    I remember someone years ago writing about how Harry Potter was a good ‘boy book’, because it did boy things in boyish ways. The writer of that article thought that there was a dearth of such in the market. His particular example that I remember was from book 1, where Harry and Draco are going to duel, and Harry wonders what to do if something goes wrong. Ron says wtte throw away your wand and punch him.

    That IS a male thing to do. And he’s right, it may be the books I choose to read, but I don’t see a lot of that sort of thing.

    Non fiction, too, especially adventure nonfiction such as RC Andrews wrote. Surely someone is still writing that sort of thing for the younger market?

    Fascinating about the babies and monkeys, Rachel! Goes against the grain of the article you’re pointing us to, which seems to want to pretend there aren’t any real differences, even if at the end he nods to there being the possibility of some. (Maybe I’m just over sensitized to the whole subject.)

  2. Rachel

    I think it’s easy for people to believe that girls-and-boys are all the same, just blank slates . . . . until they either have kids (maybe more than one of each, and I wonder if today’s small families contributes to this modern they’re-all-the-same conviction?), or start looking at animal behavior. Frankly, I’d think either one would be sufficient to make it plain that gender can’t be PURELY a social construct.

    It seems to me that there are relatively few YA novels these days that don’t have a fairly strong romantic thread — even things like The Scorpio Races, which I had to think about for a moment before I realized that yes, indeed, romance. I would definitely hate to see YA turn into nothing but paranormal-romance-for-teens — though my general feeling is that YA is very strong right now, stronger than adult fantasy.

    Plus, it’s hard to tell what’s really out there. It’s not like I actually read a huge number of books, compared to what’s actually published every year, and I only follow a small number of blogs regularly, so it’s quite possible that I’m just unaware of a lot of more modern adventure-story titles.

  3. Cheryl L

    There are some good YA series out there with two viewpoint characters – one male and one female. Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series is a good example. Reeve writes very strong female characters and there is nothing “girlish” about Hester in the Mortal Engines books. Scott Westerfeld’s series beginning with “Leviathan” has both a male and a female (disguised as a boy) protagonist. While a romantic thread does develop in the later books, I think many boys would enjoy the fighting machines and the battle scenes.

  4. Maureen E

    Okay, warning, this kind of touched a nerve with me, so long comment ahead! Also, I’m not sure how directly it relates to your original post.

    As a library worker, if a 10 year old boy comes up and asks me for a book, I’m not necessarily going to suggest something that’s pink. I might try suggesting a book that’s typically seen as a girl book, but if he says no, I won’t push it. It’s not my place to make reading decisions for kids, to tell them what they ought to read, whatever my personal views. And so a lot of times I do see boys reading boy books and girls reading girl books and I see it both as a natural thing (as you’re discussing above) and as something which is constantly reinforced. But I have had boys say, “I’m not going to read that; it’s a girl book.” I don’t remember ever having a girl say, “I’m not going to read that; it’s a boy book,” though pink books–Disney Fairies, Fancy Nancy, Disney Princesses, Dora–are extremely popular.

    And to be honest, with young kids I don’t see that as so much of an issue. But then I do hear and see reactions from adults, usually males, who react to female books as if they are inferior because they are female. Read what you want; that’s not my issue. It’s when there’s a sense of gendered books (on either side, but I see it usually as male looking down on female) as wrong or inferior that I get het up. And I do see that kind of comment, in a variety of ways, not the least of which being the recent complaints about the number of women on the Nebula/Norton shortlist.

    I want boys to read, absolutely, but I also to encourage their reading not at the expense of girls’ reading. And so I worry about people who say, ‘We need more male protagonists!’ (Again, something I have actually seen.) If women have historically struggled to make their voices heard, the fact that people start swooning as soon as there’s the appearance of a larger female voice in a body of literature, that’s troublesome to me.

    And I remember growing up, my sister and I were allowed and encouraged to read EVERYTHING. Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, Patrick O’Brian. My brother, on the other hand, was actively discouraged from reading anything written by a woman because those were ‘girl books’.

    So I know that when I have a boy who comes into the library and will only consider ‘boy books’, there are probably both inherent and huge cultural reasons for that. I’m not going to change that, or force him to read something he doesn’t want to. That’s not my place. But I know if I have boys, I will encourage them to read whatever they want. If they want to read about dinosaurs and outer space, that’s just fine. But they’ll be free to read either.

    As far as specific suggestions, The Thief springs to mind, especially for the boy who wants boy books but is also a bit introspective. Rosemary Sutcliff, if they’re willing to go a bit old-fashioned. *I* think anyone ought to love The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, though there is some romance there. I certainly mourn the rise of cookie cutter paranormal/dystopian/steampunks, but that’s less from a gendered viewpoint and more from wanting interesting and unique stories.

    And so much of it is marketing–put better/less feminized covers on a lot of books and I bet male readership would shoot up. Put a girl in a prom dress on the front cover and what teenage boy is going to be willing to check it out.

    I don’t know. I guess my summation is that this is such a complicated issue and at the intersection of a lot of things I think a lot of people care about but don’t necessarily have really good answers for.

  5. Rachel

    Maureen, thanks so much for your comment, it’s so interesting to hear about what you actually see as far as library patrons go. Also, I must say, to me, the way your brother was pushed away from woman authors is just so strange and artificial it’s hard to wrap my mind around. I assure you that kind of prejudice isn’t everywhere, because no one EVER cared about the gender of the author in my family. But then, when I was growing up, everyone washed dishes and everyone shoveled snow; there was a little boy/girl stuff, but I guess not much, comparatively.

    I totally agree that there is a big cultural component to our modern conception of “masculine” and “feminine”, as well as an intrinsic component. And I also agree that a lot of marketing is very problematical and makes both boys and (I guess) their parents shy away from many books that the boys would probably really like, which is definitely a shame, especially as it keeps shoving woman authors and the kinds of books more often written by women toward the margins. I would love to see that change.

    I do think we need books with boy protagonists — and plenty of books with girl protagonists, and since historically boy protagonists got to have all the fun, hey, it seems fair to me to have plenty of girls driving the action in modern YA. As for parents pushing their sons away from books written by women, or books with girl protagonists . . . *rolls eyes* . . . honestly, they need to cut it out this minute.

    As a social experiment, I am almost tempted to suggest that ALL debut authors go by their initials for the next ten years. Then people can guess which ones are men and which women. Wouldn’t that be interesting? And, who knows, it might get people over caring about the author’s gender.

    I wonder, if you don’t mind thinking about it, in your experience, do boys in general seem to see books with female protagonists as “girl books”? Or if the story doesn’t have a prom dress on the cover, but rather looks neutral rather than feminine, then do boys think it’s okay to read it even if it has a girl protagonist? I’m thinking of books like GRACELING here. Can you comment on that?

  6. Brandy

    Hey! I got here via Maureen’s blog.

    First, I found this a very interesting article full of things that needed to be said. Yes, there are intrinsic differences in the genders. I have a daughter and a son. The differences were obvious from infancy and have to be accounted for by more than personality differences.

    As a teacher I have seen the boys being pushed away from any books that are “girly” in the slightest way and boys refusing to read any book they perceive might be about girls. I taught 5th grade for four years and now teach homeschooled students in a co-op environment grades 4-12. Interestingly the co-op boys are far more open minded about the books I book talk or assign than my public school boys were. Those boys are willing to read ANYTHING that has the elements you spoke of. I don’t know if this is because many of them are spending hours a day with their sisters or if it is because homeschooled kids tend to not care about peer pressure as much and think outside the box more. My public school boys were very adverse to reading any books they considered “girl” books which to them did encompass any book with a girl as a MC. They were fine with female writers, but not so much characters.

    I have recommended all the books you mentioned to boys with excellent results. Megan Whalen Turner is another good rec. For MG readers my boys are loving Jenn Reese’s Above World books and Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendent Trilogy.

  7. Maureen E

    Yes, my family was very conservative in some ways growing up and gender roles were definitely there, though a lot of chores were not gender specific. Often that’s not something I mind, being generally a naturally feminine woman and therefore okay with knowing how to cook & sew & etc. But there are definitely things my parents did which I would do differently, though I appreciate a LOT about how they raised us. And when a lot of times it was less a blatent ‘that’s a girl book’ comment to my brother and more of a tone–ie, “Well you don’t want to read THAT one.” Just that THAT one was always a girl book and so the pattern was pretty clear.

    All that by the by, it’s good to know that others have been raised in different ways and hopefully that only increases.

    both boys and (I guess) their parents shy away from many books that the boys would probably really like, which is definitely a shame, especially as it keeps shoving woman authors and the kinds of books more often written by women toward the margins. I wold love to see that change.

    Yes, that’s it exactly! Really kind of heartbreaking and a loss for everyone involved. And of course there are all kinds of boys, just as there are all kinds of girls and so I wonder if some of the reluctant readers we worry about are simply not seeing the books they actually want to read in the deluge of Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues (though those seem to be popular with both boys and girls).

    And I didn’t intend to sound as though I hate boy protagonists–can’t quite tell how that part of my comment came out. A lot of my favorite books actually feature very noticeable male protags. I’m just wary of the idea, which I have actually seen, that simply having more male voices and more male protagonists will fix the problem of reluctant male readers. In my utopia, everyone writes excellent books from a variety of viewpoints and everyone reads excellent books from a variety and it’s not even an issue. I really like my utopia.

    That would be fascinating! I’m always interested in why authors choose to go by their initials, or maiden vs married names (sometimes as prosaic as not being married when they started writing), or using pseudonyms.

    I would tend to say–and I’m in the children’s department rather than teen, so this is less concrete than I’d like it to be–that books with female protagonists are seen as girl books, but that it’s possible to sell them where it’s nearly impossible to sell something like, say, THE SELECTION, to a boy. Because so much of it is really, at least IMO, how it looks to other people. Are the guys on the bus going to give me crap because I’m reading this? And for a lot of boys they do want more action and adventure, which cuts out a lot of the books with female protags, even more if they really don’t want any romance. (Trying to think of a book which actually qualifies for that and I haven’t come up with one.)

    Incidentally, GRACELING, as I look at the cover again, actually looks quite feminine to me, in terms of the designs in the reflection and the covers–but that’s an overall impression and would certainly be better than having Katsa in a frilly dress (can you tell I don’t like the frilly dress thing, I wonder? :)). FIRE maybe less so, but BITTERBLUE to me again looked quite feminine. Personally, I don’t actually have a problem with this in any real sense; if the covers tried to hide the fact that the books have female protags, that might bother me more.

    And the truth is, in the ages I actually mainly work with, fiction itself is often a hard sell to the boys. The most frequent boy patrons at my library want non-fiction, military history, dinosaurs, trucks.

  8. Elaine T

    “And for a lot of boys they do want more action and adventure, which cuts out a lot of the books with female protags, even more if they really don’t want any romance. (Trying to think of a book which actually qualifies for that and I haven’t come up with one.)”

    Zahn’s DRAGONBACK series? Features a boy (14, IIRC) , adventure, a dragon shaped alien, spaceships, … a girl comrade, but no love story. Our boy is an orphan, raised by “Uncle Virgil” famous con man and safecracker. Uncle Virge died about a year ago and the kid has been on his own ever since. Enter Draycos, the alien, with a big problem. My whole family liked the series.

  9. Rachel

    You know what? I would just *bet* that it is exactly a peer pressure thing for the public school boys, and that the homeschooled kids are just less aware of even very standard peer attitudes. Not that I have personal experience with kids of that age, but that makes so much sense! What an interesting contrast, and it just opens up all sorts of questions and ideas about socialization and how that happens, doesn’t it?

    I have heard good things about ABOVE WORLD, haven’t read it — I don’t read that much MG in general. I would recommend MWT to all kinds of people, but the main pov characters are male — though Irene and Helen are both pretty amazing as secondary characters.

  10. Rachel

    It’s interesting that you feel that Graceling and Bitterblue look feminine! To me all three of those books look neutral, simply because we don’t have people on the cover at all. I like all three covers, partly because I am actually pretty tired of close ups of people’s faces. Ah, I just went and looked at The Selection, and whoa, yeah, I can’t see many boys wanting to be caught dead reading that! I have heard it suggested that one thing ebooks do, though, is make it possible to read a book without letting anybody see the cover. I wonder if that might actually help with this kind of issue? But the boys would still have to want to try the book in the first place. So really the marketing of titles would still be important.

    I always sort of forget that many boys prefer nonfiction — though I’m aware of that tendency. Not that I have a problem with dinosaurs! (Trucks, boring — but yay, dinosaurs! All I ever read when I was a kid was animal stories, fiction or nonfiction. Do kids still read those books by Jim Kjelgaard? I used to love those.)

    “so I wonder if some of the reluctant readers we worry about are simply not seeing the books they actually want to read”

    That’s exactly what I think is happening. And then people say boys don’t like to read, but I think, well, if you insist they ought to like THIS and really they want to read THAT, then it’s not a problem with the kids, it’s a problem with your attitude about what’s fit to read. Kid wants to read about trucks? Fine, go with that, no one needs to push Where the Red Fern Grows on a kid who would rather be reading about trucks.

    “In my utopia, everyone writes excellent books from a variety of viewpoints and everyone reads excellent books from a variety and it’s not even an issue. I really like my utopia.”

    Hah! I’d join you in that utopia!

  11. Elaine T

    To me, GRACELING looks feminine, too. I think part of it is in the title itself: Grace is a girl’s name so the word Graceling carries female connotations.

    [deletes comments about that particular book]

    I remember Jim Kjelgaard books fondly. I’d drag them home from the library and we’d all read them. My brothers, AIR, had more typical boy taste, and wouldn’t touch stuff like FIFTEEN or other ‘teen girl’ type books. OTOH, I didn’t much go for that sort, either, it was my sister who would pick up those. And if they were lying around and I needed something to read, well, any text is better than no text, and I still remember some of them, so the writers were doing something right. i don’t remember my brothers being steered in reading away from girly books, they had quite decided taste themselves. I’ve certainly heard of – and had the occasional electronic encounter with men being obnoxious about woman writers or girly books, though.

    I can certainly see that homeschooled kids could have different reactions based on different socializations. I think homeschool has the possibility of being actually healthier for socialization than the stick with your age group regular school sort of socialization. (speaking as one who never fit in all that well.) I’ve watched it some with the resident teen, who isn’t in regular school, was miserable when she was there, and finds her own strengths interacting with people of all ages. And, being a true outlier, she’s one who on a memorable occasion at age 4 went for the transportation kiosk at the fair, not the doll kiosk. Glommed onto a B2. Every little girl needs her own warplane, right?

  12. Rachel

    “Every little girl needs her own warplane, right?”

    Absolutely! — Seriously, at age four?!? I bet she completely charmed the people at the transportation kiosk.

    If I had kids — and actually, I’m sticking to dogs, so it’s not an issue — but IF I had kids, I would homeschool them. Partly because I don’t see much to admire in modern teen culture, partly because I clearly remember being miserably shy in school and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody; but mostly because I know VERY well just how utterly putrid math (and other, but especially math) education is these days. Don’t get me started.

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