The Book Gender Debate (by Jacqueline Harvey)
This week I was so fortunate to host Jacqueline Harvey at school and, as on previous visits, she captivated students and staff alike with her enthusiasm, wit and wisdom. If you ever have the chance to attend a Jacqueline Harvey event – get thee along. I have an entire shelf in the library dedicated to her books as they are some of the most borrowed in the library, but after this event? ALL BOOKS GONE. SHELF EMPTY. This is the power of an author visit. Author visits give young readers the story behind the story, an insight into some of their favourite books and increase borrowing tenfold.
Jacqueline Harvey and I have been discussing the ‘gender debate’ regarding books for some time now, and this very topic has been in the media all week. Jacqueline is eloquent and wise and she has written the article below to share with Children’s Books Daily readers. Join in the debate by commenting on this blog post and sharing this article far and wide (with attribution) on social media and in school newsletters.
Click on title links or cover images to purchase Jacqueline Harvey books.
Books for Girls and Books for Boys
why the labelling has to stop
by Jacqueline Harvey
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a parent (or teacher) actively steer their boy away from reading one of my books, sadly I’d have enough money to keep me in expensive coffee for quite some time. It happens at book signings (when the child has clearly been keen), it happens at schools – it just happens.
‘You don’t want that – it’s got a girl on the cover,’ ‘Maaate, that’s a book for girls,’ ‘Boys don’t read those books’ – you get the picture. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve had this discussion with many of my author friends who write books with girls as the central characters.
As a former teacher, I know it doesn’t take a huge amount of encouragement to convince a girl to pick up a book with a boy on the cover but try that in reverse and more often than not it’s an insurmountable challenge. If we’re not encouraging our boys to read books with girls as the main characters, we’re doing them a great disservice. What are we telling our boys? That stories about girls are lesser – they don’t matter as much – they’re not as good as boys. And never mind, that many books with girls on the cover include boy characters in the stories – I know mine have loads of them.
This has extended even further when during school visits, I’ve been confronted in a co-ed school by a room full of girls. When I’ve asked where the boys are, I’ve been met with, ‘Well you know we didn’t think they’d enjoy your talk because your books are for girls.’ At which point my head is about to explode. I pride myself on being able to entertain and inform boys and girls in my talks – my talks are fun and fabulous and I’ve had lots of feedback that confirms I’m good at this. To think that boys miss out because the teacher (who in all likelihood hasn’t even read my books) has decided that I only write books for girls is not only ludicrous but offensive to me – an educator with over 20 years’ experience. I cannot imagine the girls being removed from a talk by a male author who writes about a male protagonist – it just wouldn’t happen.
In Australia in 2017 why do parents (and some teachers and librarians too in my experience) maintain that there are books for boys and books for girls. I tell kids that’s not true – there are just books – lots of them are great, some of them are not so great, some have a female main character and others have males at the heart of the story – lots of them have boys and girls in the cast. So why is it still such an issue?
Okay – the publishers play a big role in perpetuating the myths. Marketing is often quite gender specific. Books with sparkly, pink rainbow unicorns on the cover probably won’t appeal as much to boys as to girls and I get that boys and girls lean towards different things. But just a girl – a girl who looks like she’s going to have an adventure and probably bring down a bad guy or two – why is that still a problem – even if the background cover is purple or heaven forbid, pink. My covers have a whole palette of colours from blue to green to yellow and inky black as well as pink and purple. Society has come a long way in my lifetime but to think that the gatekeepers still limit the reading choices of our boys by reinforcing gender stereotypes is disappointing, to say the least.
I write about strong girls (and boys). They have adventures, they solve mysteries, they’re funny and clever and kooky. They travel to different countries and learn new things, they have fun and yet, my audience is still probably around 95% female. But when I do meet my boy readers, they are passionate. I love asking them why they like Alice-Miranda or Clementine Rose. Here are some of the responses.
‘I don’t like Alice-Miranda, I love her…’ ‘She feels like my best friend…’ ‘She’s brave and funny and she has great adventures…’ Clemmie has a pet pig and she’s always getting herself into trouble…’ ‘I love the mysteries…’
One of my favourite anecdotes about boy readers happened at a major Australian writers’ festival a few years ago. I’m not going to name names but I was on the bill with three of the biggest (male) names in children’s literature. During my last signing session, three boys in Year 6 approached me with books. I asked who I was signing them for and they all replied that they were for them. Their librarian who was standing beside them then said, ‘tell Jacqueline why you’re buying her books.’ I was intrigued. One of the boys then said that before they were allowed to come to the event they had to read a book by each of the authors and they all enjoyed mine the most. Did that make me feel awesome? You bet! I asked those boys to go back to school and share their love of Alice-Miranda with their friends. Who knows if they did but good for them for being brave enough to pick up a book with a girl on the cover and for admitting they enjoyed it.
Unfortunately, those experiences are far too few – and not because I don’t think boys will enjoy my books. I’m writing a new series with a boy and a girl on the cover. Kensy and Max are twins and they’re about to find out something amazing about their family. Will boys read it because there is a boy on the cover? Who knows – but I hope so and I hope they might go back and explore some of my other stories too – once they know for sure that I don’t just write books for girls!
You can purchase all of Jacqueline Harvey’s books by using the links below. You can purchase them for boys! You can purchase them for girls! You can even purchase them for yourself – I highly recommend escaping into Clementine Rose and her world!
Kensy and Max Series
‘Kensy and Max: Breaking News’
The Clementine Rose Series
Add these titles to your shopping cart in one click HERE.
‘Clementine Rose and the Surprise Visitor’
‘Clementine Rose and the Pet Day Disaster’
‘Clementine Rose and the Perfect Present’
‘Clementine Rose and the Farm Fiasco’
‘Clementine Rose and the Seaside Escape’
‘Clementine Rose and the Treasure Box’
‘Clementine Rose and the Famous Friend’
‘Clementine Rose and the Ballet Break-in’
‘Clementine Rose and the Movie Magic’
‘Clementine Rose and the Birthday Emergency’
‘Clementine Rose and the Special Promise’
‘Clementine Rose and the Paris Puzzle’
‘Clementine Rose and the Wedding Wobbles’
Clementine Rose Bind-Ups (3 books in 1)
Purchase all four books in the ‘Clementine Rose Collections’ for $67.00 here
Clementine Rose Collection One
Clementine Rose Collection Two
Clementine Rose Collection Three
Clementine Rose Collection Four
The Alice-Miranda Series
Add these titles to your shopping cart in one click HERE.
‘Alice-Miranda on Holiday’ out of stock
‘Alice Miranda Takes The Lead’
So much of the issue is in the marketing. My 6yr old is an advanced reader but struggles with some of the scary themes of the books that are marketed at boys. We read the pink, sparkly covered books with no concern at all. But then he’s only 6. I worry about what other people might say to him when he’s older. I wish books for children were more gender neutral in cover design
My 7 yo son chose a Clementine Rose from his sister’s bookshelf late last year and LOVED it. We were going to an Alice Miranda book launch the following week and he was so excited to take a Clemmie book for signing (to my MIL’s ‘bemusement’). Last hols we went to a Kensy and Max book launch and my son was captivated by Jacqueline’s talk, she’s so clever and engaging! I get very cranky with boy/girl book categories…if they are interested, let them read it!!
I am the teacher-librarian at a school where a male grade 2 teacher read Alice Miranda (book 1) to his class and they loved it.
Stories like this give me lots of hope that we can change things. It’s teachers like that fellow whose actions do so much. Thank you 🙂
Great article – thanks Jaqueline and Megan! I am often asked for “boy’s jewellery” – jewellery is jewellery! How the heck does it magically have a gender assigned to it? What was worn by boys one century will be worn by girls the next. What is worn by women in one country is worn by men in another. Wear it if you like it, read it if you like it. Actually, maybe read it even if you don’t think you will like it. You may be surprised 🙂
Angela, I cannot tell me how much your comment makes my heart soar. Thank you 🙂
Jacqueline, what a brilliant article! You have reminded me of the power we each have to change things, which can seem big and insurmountable at times, with the simple action of being conscious of our everyday choices for our children and our students. Thank you!
I’m a writer and I have two boys, so we have a lot of books, including many with girl protagonists. It’s an uphill battle to get them to read books that are obviously about a girl or marketed to girls, thanks to what they’ve picked up from society around them. They’ve certainly never been told they can’t do or have X because it’s “for girls”. But it’s really all about the cover. If I can get them past the cover (or if the cover appeals), they don’t care if a story is about a girl (their favourite character in the new Star Wars movies is Rey) and they certainly don’t care if the author is a woman. Some of their favourite authors are women and they are thrilled to have met some of them.
The labelling has to stop and I think there needs to be a push from schools to drive this and ensure that no teachers are sending this insidious message. Perhaps then parents will follow.
Great article. Jacqueline, I love the way you do have passionate boy readers. Obviously boys who are happy in themselves and not mindful of a few others’ snide comments. I was at a co-ed Christian school to speak to the Year 4s about Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll. I found the boys as keen as the girls; they loved it and had great questions. They didn’t even mind about the doll. They also had a male teacher who loved it. It was their class novel. There’s hope.
[…] Max series, about the gender debate in children’s books. You can find Megan’s interview here on her literary wonder of a website, […]
Great article, Jacqueline on such an important topic. It’s a trend that seems to be going in the wrong direction. Like you, I think a lot of it has to do with “sophisticated” and increasingly niche marketing. The Famous Five and Secret Seven weren’t boys books or girls books. It’s a very different landscape now. I don’t know what the answer is. But the more writers and readers and parents-of-readers speak up about the unhealthiness of gender-based marketing, the better. Good on you!