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September 20, 2011

Scholastic's Girl Stuff

So it's Book Fair time again in Lil' Lilith's school district. For those of you who are not parents (or who do not vividly remember their childhood or who had a sad, deprived childhood)... twice a year at every school in our district, the PTA hosts a "Book Fair" for the students where they can purchase books. Scholastic gives the PTA a small percentage of the money earned, so it serves as both a school fundraiser and an opportunity to encourage reading.

I have always been a big supporter of the Book Fair. I can't even think about how much money I have shelled out over the years and when Lil' Lilith was younger (before having your mom come to school was an embarrassment) I used to volunteer, working the register or helping kids select books. This year, I flipped open the Scholastic "sneak peek" flier, excited to see what great new reads Lil' Lilith could bring home... and I saw something that really bothered me.

There was an entire section called "Girl Stuff". Girl stuff? What!? What exactly is girl stuff Scholastic?

The books listed under "Girl Stuff" include the following titles:
  • 13 Gifts - When Tara steals the school mascot in order to make friends with the popular crowd, she gets herself into a heap of trouble! [Teen Fiction]
  • Faith, Hope, and Ivy June - When push comes to shove, two Kentucky girls find strength in each other. [Teen Fiction] 
  • Stir It Up - More than anything, Anjali wants to become a celebrity chef. Will her dream of a cooking reality TV show come true? [Teen Fiction] 
  • Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl - Recipe for disaster: 4 parties. Add 2 friends and 1 crush. Divide by 1 mean girl out to ruin Nikki. Mix well and cringe! [Favorite Series]
  • Tomorrow Girls 2-Book Special Value Pack (Behind the Gates and Run For Cover) - In a terrifying future world, four girls must depend on each other if they want to survive. [Adventure]
  • The Vampire Stalker - What if the characters in your favorite vampire novel left their world -- and came into yours? [Teen Fiction]
  • In a Heartbeat - Amelia must face a heart transplant in order to live. Eagan's sudden death prevents reconciliation with her mom. This powerful story brings together two girls through one heart. [Teen Fiction]
Note that there was no "Boy Stuff" category.  The other categories in the flier include "Thrills and Chills", "Super-Hot Series", "Great Reads" and "Popular Picks".

As far as I can tell, the only common factor that ties these books together is the fact that they all seemingly have a female protagonist. That's it. That alone makes them "girl stuff" according to Scholastic.

Are boys incapable of reading a book with a female protagonist? For years, girls have been expected to read books with mostly male leads, relate to those characters and enjoy the content.

Earlier this year a study published in Gender & Society confirmed what we all already knew: there is in fact a gender bias in children's literature. Of course, we've known this for years. I knew this when I was a new parent, book-shopping for Lil' Lilith (back when she was actually "little"). I knew this when I was writing my undergraduate thesis on feminist issues in children's literature. I knew this when I myself was a child and an avid reader. But finally after an entire century of inequality, this fact has been touted across the Internet as if it's actually "new" information.

The study, based on nearly 6,000 books published from 1900 to 2000, found that males are central characters in 57% of children's books published per year (compared to only 31% having female central characters); male animals are central characters in more than 23% of books per year (compared to 7.5% female); on average 36.5% of books each year include a male in the title (compared to 17.5% female) [via ScienceDaily.com].

With so many books for kids and teens already focusing on males, why would Scholastic feel the need to categorize the few that do not as "Girl Stuff"? It is important to have an equal number of male and female characters in books - and particularly those who demonstrate non-stereotypical gender behavior - but this does not mean that these books are therefore books for boys or books for girls. They're just books.

Neither the "Great Reads" and "Popular Picks" are sorted by gender. So why these books? Is it because books that focus on female characters or stereotypically female-centric topics are somehow lesser than the "Great Reads"? "Women's Fiction" has never been fully accepted or respected as a valid part of the literary tradition. Nathaniel Hawthorne once even referred to female writers as a "damned mob of scribbling women", dismissing their writing as trivial. It's really a shame to see fiction for young women and girls being treated the same way. 

Labeling these books - or any books - as "Girl Stuff" is problematic for two reasons:

1. It's bad for girls. Not only is it sexist, but it is also limiting to female readers. If these books are for girls, who are the rest of the other books for? Just for boys? Are girls going to learn the lesson that books are not intended for them unless they are about them? If girls are not interested in these "Girl Stuff" books and would rather read about history, politics, war, natural disasters, ghosts or mystery (all books listed elsewhere in the flier, but not as "Girl Stuff") how are they supposed to feel about that? 

2. It's bad for boys. This categorization also limits male readers. In our society, still the worst thing you can say about a boy or man is that he's too girly or otherwise "female-ish". Most of the worst insults you can throw at a male are those that compare him to females or question his maleness (and his hetero-maleness at that) -- bitch, sissy, pussy, faggot. So if there is a boy that would rather read, say, a book about a female teen who wants to be a celebrity chef instead of a book about male soldiers in the Vietnam War what does this label of "Girl Stuff" do to him? He'll most likely be afraid to buy it lest he risk mocking and bullying. So he buys a less-interesting, less "girly" book or perhaps he will just forgo reading altogether. It is true that in the U.S., statistically, boys are falling behind girls in literary achievement - so why would we want to make it even harder for them to read what interests them, furthering widening this gap and reinforcing the stereotype that boys are reluctant readers?

Charles London (a.k.a. C. Alexander London), author of  the Accidental Adventure series, recently wrote on the subject of "boy books" for the Huffington Post and makes the same point that I am trying to make here about "girl books". I'm going to quote him at length, because so much of what he wrote was just that good...
When we label certain kinds of books "boy books" we are not only reinforcing a certain idea of manliness that doesn't include all boys, we are also cutting boys and girls off from a lot of books they might actually like. Sure, many of them won't, but the reading experience of each individual needs to be considered. It is not about gender, but about why each person reads and how. Reading choices do not exist in a vacuum.[...]

There are going to be boys who are habitual readers and boys who are not, boys who crave adventure, excitement and fart jokes and girls who do too.

Putting my books, or Captain Underpants or Shark Wars or the like into a gender ghetto as "boy books," reinforces gender stereotypes that leave no room for a boy who likes poetry or a girl who marks Shark Week on her calendar as if it were a national holiday. Boys and girls alike want a well-told story; boys and girls alike want characters they can feel connected to; boys and girls alike are as varied in their tastes as adults. Gender generalizations, while seductive, don't serve the goal they're usually intended for -- getting young people to read well and to read widely. 

While categorizing books by gender does seem to make steering kids to books easier, this is not something that should be easy. Matching mood, ability and expectation with a creative work that might also inspire, entertain, educate or enlighten a budding reader demands a broad knowledge of the material that's out there, a sensitive ear to the wants and needs of the child, and an understanding of the values of parents or the community. [emphasis mine] 
Seeing as almost all of the titles listed as "Girl Stuff" are also labeled as "Teen Fiction", I think that would have been a more appropriate category. Then any teen (or tween) who happens to find these books interesting can feel free to check them out, without feeling that these books aren't really for them.

Boys and girls both need to be exposed to books that feature positive, strong protagonists of both genders. But in the end, if we want our children to read, we need to be less restrictive in what is "appropriate" reading material for their gender. Let boys read about romance and fairies and magic... let girls read about sports and action and fart jokes... let your children be who they are without putting them into boxes that say "BOY" and "GIRL" which limit them from the full experience they could be getting from the world.

1 comment:

tripleZmom said...

Had to grab my kid's Book Fair flyer and check for similar crap. Fortunately they haven't pulled that at the elementary level. Yet.