Last week there was a wave of online articles and blog posts related to which books girls and boys should read.
The first came to me through a blog post by author Shannon Hale, after receiving an invitation to speak about her books and writing career at a grade school. When she arrived, she discovered that only girls were allowed to attend her presentation.
Why? Because the name of her book is Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters. And boys don’t read princess books.
Sadly, this was not Shannon’s only school presentation that unfolded in this manner. Even on those occasions when boys were part of her audience, she found they didn’t feel free to ask questions about writing and reading, or to say they’d like to hear the rest of the story after she read a teaser chapter. They were afraid their teachers and friends would laugh at them for wanting to know what happened to the Black Princess.
Holy Bookmobile, Batman! Way to put throw children’s natural states of wonder and discovery in a box and nail the lid shut. Way to carve imagination right out of their brains.
Myth: Girls don’t read pirate adventure books and boys can’t read princess adventure books.
Fact: Adventure is adventure. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing pants and leather boots, or wearing skirts and billowing headdresses. It’s just a little harder to race through the woods, chasing an evil troll if you’re snagging yards of satin and lace on hawthorn bushes. It’s kind of like Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire. She made every step he did, except backwards and in heels.
In the next few days I ran across other posts, Facebook comments, and newsletters containing articles that promoted the belief that there are certain books suitable for boys, and others that only girls should read.
One post celebrating International Women’s Day implied that as a woman, if my bookshelf holds more books by men than by women, I am disrespecting woman authors.
What? For me, there are only two kinds of books. You’ll notice that in neither category do I mention that the author has to be male or female. They only have to be good at what they do.
Books worth keeping
These are the books that keep me engrossed past 2:00am even though I know I have to be up at six o’clock. Within their covers I dive into history, walk with people who inhabit my real world, or dream of new worlds as I follow the author’s breadcrumb trail into the future. These books entertain, educate, and inspire me to do better, to be better, and to aspire toward a brighter future.
Books worth keeping have me thinking about their plot or message far longer than it takes to read their pages. They cozy together on my bookshelves until I feel a need to revisit old friends. And when I pull one out and sit down to read, it’s like coming home to remembered joy.
Books not worth keeping
This category is different for every reader—it amounts to personal taste. I may enjoy these books in the moment, but they don’t touch anything deep in my soul. Maybe they’re poorly written, or so full of factual errors or editing errors that I have to grit my teeth and force myself to keep reading.
But books never fall into this category because they are books for boys as opposed to books for girls. Never, never, never!
Ignore the drumbeat of “You can’t read this or that”
If I had listened to those people who told me what I was supposed to read or do from childhood on:
- I would never have read the entire Hardy Boys Mysteries series at the same time I was reading the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series.
- I would never have read the entire works of Shakespeare the summer before I entered high school.
- I would never have read two decades worth of Broadway plays during my first two years of high school.
- I would never have read every Zane Grey novel by the time I finished high school.
- I would never have read an entire box of science fiction novels someone left in my assigned barracks room while in Air Force technical training school.
- I would never have read books that inspired me to move past my comfort zone and discover what I am capable of.
- I would never have refused to take typing in high school, already knowing I would never be content filing papers and organizing an office when there were so many intriguing adventures waiting for me to discover them.
- I would never have chosen electronics when I enlisted in the Air Force, especially when that field had just opened for women.
- I would never have re-enlisted for a chance to live in Europe, never discovered the depth of history and grace in another part of the world and in other cultures.
- I would never have looked at the world with wonder and excitement, never been inspired to share my observations about that world.
- I would never have discovered the majesty and mistakes of the past, never delighted in discovering something new and exciting in each day, never been open to the possibilities of the future.
When do we stop labeling things (not only books) “girl” or “boy” appropriate? When do we take the lid off those boxes and allow every child to celebrate the discovery of every possibility in their worlds?
I’d like to think that every child has the opportunity to determine what he or she enjoys, what intrigues him, what she wants to pursue as an interest or a career. As long as we keep assigning labels to books, I fear one hundred percent of our population will be missing fifty percent of everything that’s possible one hundred percent of the time.
There’s a moment of breathless wonder as you open the cover of a book, no matter if it’s the first time you’ve read this one or not. It’s that feeling that you’re about to go places you’ve never been, have adventures you’ve never imagined, and come home safe again when you turn the last page. I want that wonder to shine in every child’s life long after they’re a child only in their own memories.