Once, when I was at the desk with another teammate, a boy approached us asking for a good adventure or mystery. He was in fifth grade and loved the Harry Potter series so fantasy was also on the table. I was new in our library, so I let my teammate take the lead on booktalking him through the collection as I listened. She introduced him to Fablehaven, The Familiars, and Gordon Korman. He picked through them, trying to decide if they would actually be as thrilling as Harry Potter. When he’d stepped away, I wondered aloud if The Sisters Grimm might also be a good choice to which my teammate said, “But I think it’ll be too girly.”
If you haven’t read The Sisters Grimm series, you absolutely should. The main protagonists are two sisters who are brought to a magical town to live with their grandmother. In this town, fairy tale creatures exist in the open under a magical shroud that protects them from the rest of the real world. The girls are intrepid detectives who romp through all kinds of trouble to unravel the mysteries in town, all the while getting one step closer to finding out what’s happened to their parents.
While it’s true that the series has two female stars, I would never summarize the series by saying that it’s “girly.” In the second book, for instance, the oldest sister gets launched like a slingshot into a pool of slime and discovers that her teacher has been either eaten or abducted by a giant spider in the first fifty pages. In their home, the girls also have a strange and reclusive werewolf living with them as well as an obnoxious Peter Pan-type boy. It’s a collection of all things that make boys clap as well as things that make girls feel brave and independent.
I love it and I tell boys about it all the time. A few have actually read it and come back to me saying they liked it.
It breaks my heart when I see other professionals refraining from recommending books about girls to boys because I believe that it’s a great disservice to them. I believe that it sends a message to boys that girls are not interesting (at least until romance is on the table), and that it simultaneously underestimates their ability to understand and like something different. If we believe in teaching all children about the diversity in our world with books about different cultures and history, why can’t we also apply that to the opposite sex?
Here are ways that I counteract gender bias:
Present lots of options, no matter what. If I’m giving out prizes to children during a program, there’s always something pink available, even if the winner is a boy. (And you would be surprised how many boys want that something pink, especially under the age of seven or so.) If I’m booktalking, I absolutely include good books with a girl protagonist so long as it fits the child’s interests. Last month, I even did a program about tools and included pink and purple tools for the tool belts we made. I noticed that parents of boys chose blue, green, and yellow instead, but the options were there.
Don’t undermine the transaction. If I’m booktalking with a child, I go at it full swing. I never say, “Well, this book is about a girl, but you might like it anyway.” I’m in it to win it so there’s no room for doubt. Also, don’t doubt yourself. If you’re picking books for storytime, and you wonder if Pinkalicious won’t be accepted just because there are boys in the room, remind yourself that a good book is a good book. I had a very successful pink-themed storytime last month and the boys in the group were every bit as excited as the girls because I sold it.
Don’t Preach; just reward. I never stop a parent from saying, “You wouldn’t like that. It’s a boy/girl thing.” When it’s my turn, though, and a boy wants to pick a pink bookmark or a girl wants a ball of slime, I say, “Good choice. I like that a lot.” If a boy trusts me on a book selection and returns to tell me how he liked it, we exchange high fives. I don’t say, “See how cool girls are?” I just want those gender-defiant choices to seem normal.
What do you think?