REFRAMING THE IDEA OF "GIRL BOOKS", "BOY BOOKS", AND GENDER EXPECTATIONS
When you first announce a pregnancy or a new birth, the first question most people ask: “Is it a boy or a girl?” This seemingly innocuous question is our brain’s way of classifying information. We immediately begin having images of pink or blue, tea parties or trucks, figure skates or hockey. You probably don’t even realize you’re doing it because our brains are tricky that way.
Research on how the brain processes information shows that our brains seek to classify and organize. By doing this, we keep what’s important and discard what’s irrelevant, superfluous, unnecessary, and extraneous. You probably noticed I used four words that effectively mean the same thing in the last sentence and you chose one to remember, maybe without even realizing it.
If your brain purges what it doesn’t need, why can you remember song lyrics from high school but can’t remember what you need at the grocery store? Briefly, it’s a combination of long term versus short term memory and the fact that music, through the structure of its rhythm and rhyme creates neural pathways that help unlock the information.
So what if we rewire our thinking? Is it possible to break the habit of setting expectations from birth based solely on gender? As a parent, elementary school teacher, reading specialist, and children’s author, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve seen in publishing: picture books testing the limits of male and female expectations.
Considerable attention has rightly been given to TEDDY’S FAVORITE TOY, by Christian Trimmer and JULIAN IS A MERMAID, by Jessica Love. Both of these books released in 2018, feature a boy who prefers something that is stereotypically considered female. Is this important in the canon of children’s literature? My opinion is YES, it’s wonderful for children to see themselves in the books they read. In my childhood, girls who preferred sports, getting dirty, or trucks were called Tomboys and boys who preferred dolls and cleanliness were called Sissies or worse. Over the years, Tomboy has garnered a positive connotation while Sissy has not.
Most people would agree books about boys who make unconventional choices is a step in the right direction. We also have an abundance of recent books with strong female characters including the series by Andrea Beaty (ROSIE REVERE ENGINEER, ADA TWIST SCIENTIST,) several excellent picture book biographies about amazing women, and my own book, ALIANA REACHES FOR THE MOON. I didn’t set out to write a book with a strong female lead, I based the character on real girls I have known and love dearly.
A funny thing happens when a book is released into the world. It’s not yours anymore. Other people read it, they write about it, think about it, and classify it. There’s that brain classification at work again. ALIANA REACHES FOR THE MOON, for those of you who haven’t read it, is a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) book about a little girl who notices the brightness of the full moon in her room. She uses her curiosity to learn about the moon, harnesses her creativity to experiment with light and reflection, and creates a surprise using both of these at the end of the book. Yes, she’s a strong female character, but I never considered her breaking a female stereotype. I also don’t consider it a ‘girl book.’
During the month of April, my book was featured at the four locations of Timbuk Toys in the Denver area. I spent time in each store promoting it and engaging with parents and grandparents shopping with and for children of all ages. As an author, it’s valuable to share my book with people and hear their feedback. I also had several deep conversations about books and children in general with teachers, parents, and grandparents. Many of them have inspired this piece, but the following conversation with a mother of three sons under ten, who I will refer to as Ms. B, really brought me to sit down and write.
I asked her if she was interested in hearing about Aliana Reaches for the Moon.
“I’m shopping for a six-year-old boy’s birthday party. It looks like a girl book,” Ms. B replied, pointing at Aliana on the cover.
“It’s not really a girl book. The book is about Aliana and her brother. It’s Gustavo’s birthday in the book,” I said as she paged through it.
“It’s lovely. A signed book would be a nice gift, but I don’t know the boy well enough.”
“I understand. Do you have sons? Daughters?” I asked.
“I have three boys. Most of the books we read have main characters who are boys,” she said.
I nodded, knowing that main characters in children’s books are twice as likely to be male as female. I waited, seeing that she was thinking about the impact of this unconscious decision.
“Even when I was growing up, I remember reading and enjoying a lot of books that featured boys doing things I wanted to do, and now I read them with my boys.”
I asked her what books come to mind that she enjoyed as a child and now reads with her boys.
“WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, DANNY AND THE DINOSAUR …” she trailed off.
“I love those.” I agreed.
“I think it’s great that now there are books with better female role models. The only one I remember reading was LITTLE WOMEN. It’s great that there are so many stories today, about girls who love math and science, who build things, who are competitive,” Ms. B said.
Again, I agreed. But here is where the conversation gets most interesting.
“I have two daughters. I raised them to be strong and independent, to believe girls can do anything. What I failed to do, was raise my son to understand this message,” I told her.
Can you hear my big sigh of parenting hindsight? I’ve spent a lot of time now that they are adults thinking woulda, coulda, shoulda. It doesn’t help that all parents feel this way.
She considered this additional responsibility as a mother of young boys. In the end, Ms. B chose something else for the birthday present, but she bought ALIANA REACHES FOR THE MOON for her own son. For me, it’s not about selling another book, even though that’s gratifying. It’s about changing the way we think of our role as parents and teachers of all children. It’s not enough to empower our daughters, we need to teach our sons that girls can do anything.
Below are links to a few 2018 articles about the gender imbalance in children’s literature and why it matters as well as articles about memory and how the brain works that added to my knowledge while writing this.
Links to how the brain works: