Recently, author Shannon Hale discussed a school visit to which older boys were not invited on her blog. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to take a look. The justification for excluding the boys was that the talk and/or Ms. Hale’s books (she was discussing her latest in the Princess Academy series, The Forgotten Sisters) would not appeal to them. However, when a male author presented at this same school, both boys and girls were invited.
And Ms. Hale is not the only author to have this experience. Her tweet about it prompted a response several other female authors who’ve had boys banished from their talks, with the principal or teacher or librarian giving similar reasons for their decisions.
I find stories like these problematic for a number of reasons. First, this is effectively telling young boys that women write “girl books,” but that men’s books should appeal to everyone. This is presenting women’s work as “less than,” and sets a dangerous precedent for these boys’ future perceptions of women. We’re essentially telling boys that they don’t have to understand or relate to women, while we’re still encouraging girls to empathize with boys. It’s attitudes like this that help perpetuate rape culture and discrimination in the workplace. And it’s just as offensive to the men and boys who don’t fit these educators’ stereotypes as it is to the women and girls they’re putting down.
Kicking the boys out of these talks also imposes the adult gatekeeper’s choices and prejudices on their students. Saying a book about a princess won’t appeal to a boy is just as bad as saying a book about an African-American boy won’t appeal to a white one — in both cases, we’re failing to give the reader enough credit. A good story is a good story, regardless of the gender, race, nationality, etc. of the main characters. And by telling young readers a certain book is “for girls” or “for black kids,” we’re telling them they can’t relate to girls or African-Americans unless they are girls or African-Americans. We’re telling them that that’s okay. And worst of all, by not letting these readers connect with these books, we’re not giving them the chance to grow and develop into culturally-competent individuals.
I was pleased to see the discussion on Twitter include tweets from boys who enjoy “girl” books using the #BoysReadGirls hashtag. If you’re interested, School Library Journal gives an overview of the conversation in their article, “When Boys Can’t Like ‘Girl Books.’” As a librarian, I’ve recommended plenty of books by female authors with female main characters to boys, and had them tell me they enjoyed my recommendations. I’d hate to think that someone out there was telling them these books weren’t for them. Everyone should be given the chance to enjoy a good book, regardless of who wrote it or what the characters’ backgrounds are, without being shamed or made to feel like that was weird.
I hope to see fewer stories like these in the future. For inspiration, I’ll leave you with this.