We’ve all seen the lists: “Best Books for Boys,” “Books That Empower Girls,” “Best Books for First Grade Boys.” But can we–or should we–make book recommendations based on gender alone?
Recently, I was reading aloud Beezus and Ramona to my daughter. She was completely captivated by the book, bringing it on vacation with us and asking my husband and I to read it to her in the hotel and even on the train. My son didn’t listen to the entire book all the way through, but he did sit through some chapters with us. Both of my children laughed a great deal.
I asked my daughter if she is like Beezus, and she said, “Yes.”
I looked at my son, and he said laughing hysterically, “I’m Ramona!”
For them, it isn’t a book about girls or a book for girls. It is a book about siblings. My son, who frequently wants a haircut so he won’t look like a girl, saw himself in Ramona. He saw through the gender and identified with this character who is an energetic, mischievous younger sibling.
My son received the book Galaxy Zack: Hello Nebulon! for his birthday, and my daughter was completely intrigued by it. It didn’t matter that the main character is a boy, and my daughter sleeps in a Cinderella carriage bed.
Why then do we recommend books to children based on their gender alone?
I’ve seen countless lists of books for boys and books for girls (many with excellent book recommendations). Truth be told, I was working on one myself. Then when I thought about my children’s reading experience, I decided not to. I would certainly recommend Ramona the Pest to any kindergartner and Galaxy Zack: Hello Nebulon (or any others from the series) to any child who moved to a new school or has a new student in his or her class.
What Happens When We Make Gender-based Book Recommendations?
In an article on Free Spirit Publishing, Amadee Rickets, a librarian and children’s book author, wrote, “There are no such things as ‘girl books’ and ‘boy books.’ There is just a universe of books, waiting to be matched up with a universe of readers and listeners.”
Parents, teachers, and librarians should all remember that their recommendations really matter. Four out of 10 children say they have a hard time finding books they like, according to research from Scholastic. We have a chance to help them, but not with baseless gender stereotypes.
Recommending and giving books based on gender generally plays into gender stereotypes and ends up not only depriving children of potentially wonderful and relatable stories but can also narrow their world view.
The Impact on Boys
In essence, when we offer or recommend books for boys based on gender, we perpetuate gender stereotypes about what boys “should” be like. We also discourage them from empathizing with girls or others who are not like them.
Boys tend to lag girls in both reading skills and their affinity for reading, although the gap has been narrowing over the years.
Many adults with the best of intentions of inspiring a love of reading in boys fall into trite and shallow stereotypes when recommending books to boys. “This was especially true when trying to connect reluctant readers with books—and even more so when the readers were boys,” Rickets says.
What kinds of books get recommended to boys? Generally books with male lead characters, and often books that feature action and adventure. Of course, these books will appeal to some boys, but there is a wide range of books that may appeal to boys with varying interests.
In an enlightening article in the Washington Post, author Shannon Hale, creator of The Princess in Black and many other books, explored the topic of gender in reading. She says we make “ugly assumptions” when we make these kind of shallow recommendations, one assumption being, “Boys are all the same. They do not like to read. They will never be interested in reading books about girls, which are ‘girly.’”
She said, “Not only does this kind of thinking prevent boys from learning empathy for girls, it also prescribes narrow gender definitions: There is only one kind of boy, and any boy who doesn’t fit that mold is wrong.”
Hale’s Princess in Black series features a female lead, but she has found plenty of boys who enjoy the series. Sadly, she also has witnessed countless times when adults have subtly or quite overtly steered their sons away from her books because they are “girls’ books.”
“What happens to a boy who is taught he should be ashamed of reading a book about a girl? For feeling empathy for a girl? For trying to understand how she feels? For caring about her? What kind of a man does that boy grow up to be?” Hale asks.
The Impact on Girls
While the gender-based book recommendations or overtly steering boys away from “girls’ books” has obvious negative implications for boys, it also has negative impacts for girls.
Interestingly, many have noted that while books with female leading characters are quickly defined as “girls’ books,” the same is not true for books with male leads. These books can be for anyone. As Hale says, this is “belittling” to girls.
Also, just as is the case with boys, when we recommend books to girls based on the fact that they are girls, we imply that girls are all the same. All girls will love reading a book about a princess.
In addition to implying all girls are the same, “we also perpetuate harmful stereotypes when we imply that ‘girl’ books only apply to a narrow audience and are therefore not as appealing or important,” Rickets says.
In my own observations as a mother, I’ve noticed that any time a girl does something that is typically thought of as part of boys’ domain—play with trucks, play sports, etc., she is met with a kind of surprised praise. Unfortunately, the same is not true when boys engage in something more typically thought of as a girls’ activity.
This is unfortunate for both the boys and girls who take an interest in books or things that people deem “girly.”
Things or books that are “girly” should not be presented as less admirable.
How should we recommend books to kids?
So, now that we’ve discussed the potential harm in selecting and recommending books based on gender, what should we do instead?
First of all, let’s eliminate the language of boys’ books and girls’ books. Let’s not assume or present a book that is about a girl must be for a girl reader.
Rickets sums it up nicely, saying “We should be presenting all kids with all kinds of books: fiction, nonfiction, comics, poetry. Books about kids who look like them and kids who don’t. Books that are funny, sad, and scary. And books about boys and girls.”
As Hale says, and as I’ve seen with my own kids, “Kids get it. They just want a good story.”
Instead of making baseless recommendations according to a child’s gender, try thinking about or asking a child what they are interested in—superheroes, outer space, art, animals. Then think of good stories that go with those themes.
Also, use books as an opportunity to broaden a child’s world view. Recommend books about people from different places, books about characters that look different from them. We know that reading fiction is connected with higher levels of empathy, but imagine how much more empathy we can encourage by allowing children to see themselves in even those who appear different from them at first glance.
If you tend to recommend books based on gender, don’t feel bad! Now you can broaden your thinking and broaden your child’s horizons.
To break out of the habit and start thinking in terms of book themes and child’s interests, here are a few themed book lists from blogs I love: