When writing any book, I always cut more than I keep. I just have to go through a lot of sentences, try out a lot of ideas, before discovering what works just right. Sometimes what I cut I really like but doesn't work for the best of the story. In this case, Dean and I adored the Epilogue to The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party. It made us laugh. But we cut it for two reasons.
1. Originally we didn't have a chapter about Frimplepants in book 2, but we decided to add one in order to introduce him again. New readers might not yet be familiar with him. And besides, I just never tire of saying the name Frimplepants. Adding the new chapter 2 also added several pages. We want to be mindful of page count. The more pages, the longer the book for young readers and their parents, the more illustrations LeUyen must complete, and the more expensive for the publisher to print it. This book was already longer than the first, so we had to watch that page count!
2. It was nice to end the story in the celebratory moment with Princess Magnolia and all the princesses enjoying the party. Cutting away to Monster Land after that was funny but also anti-climactic.
But at the least, I'll post it here. It might be fun to read it with a young PIB reader and help them understand a little bit about the process of writing and editing a book. This epilogue would also be a good one to discuss in terms of reading comprehension and inference.
The pink monster could not get out of that goat pasture fast enough. It was good to be back in Monster Land. No shiny sunlight. No unpleasantly fresh air. No yelling princesses.
The pink monster put its clawed hands in its pockets. It went for a stroll.
A slimy monster was heading toward the hole. It had its nose in the air. It was taking in the smell of goats.
The pink monster put out a clawed hand to stop it.
“ROOAARR!” it said.
That meant, “No goat hunting today, my slimy friend. Things are awkward up there. It’s the Princess in Black’s birthday, you see. I wouldn’t dare go up without a gift.”
The slimy monster said, “ROOAAARRR.”
That meant, “Thank you for the warning. You have been most helpful.”
The slimy monster turned away from the hole. It went home.
It wrapped a gift.
Hopefully the Princess in Black liked toenail clippings.
DON'T ASSUME MY GENDER
My fourteen-year-old, green-haired, artist of a daughter is dressing as a gender-bending Spock for Halloween. There are no Spock dresses; she is sewing it herself. This is a surprise to no one. Sometimes my kid dresses like a “boy.” Sometimes she dresses at a “girl.” She sees gender as a spectrum and sexuality as fluid, and isn’t afraid to tell you either of those things.
These ideas did not come from me, though I embrace them. My daughter is part of what I think of as the Tumblr generation, a universe of middle schoolers who are growing up in constant communication with each other, and who define themselves in terms of specific fandoms and individual self-expressions, particular memes and re-imagined cosplay themes.
In my daughter’s world, gender rules are different. In one of her favorite popular fandoms, Steven Universe has three de-facto “moms,” and Gems like Steven can combine and re-combine into powerful partnerships regardless of their gender.
Even my daughter’s language is different. She wants to “marry” both Foggy and Matt Murdock from Daredevil, and isn’t afraid to tell you that, in the same way she isn’t afraid to try out “boy” eyebrows in brown eyeliner on her face. On the first day of school this year—at an admittedly arty, liberal private school in an urban environment—she wrote DON’T ASSUME MY GENDER on her arm in Sharpie. Nobody bullied her; in fact, one of the senior girls told her she thought she was cool.
She is cool, but so is the kid that could say that. Why can’t we all be that cool? Our world changes every day. Why can’t we let it? Why can’t we admit it? All we have left to do, as parents and teachers and educators and grown-ups, is to follow our children’s lead.
Why should a bookshelf be more rigid than reality?
Sometimes I want to borrow my daughter’s Sharpie and write DON’T ASSUME MY GENDER on every book in the Middle Grade or Young Adult shelves. Books shouldn’t be less gender-fluid than the kids who read them. Growing up, even I identified with Holden Caulfield, Ponyboy, and both Murray siblings, Charles Wallace and Meg. When Pam Ling and Tessa Roper and I held our Dark is Rising fan club under the steps of the classroom bungalow in third grade, we all wanted to be the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, what Susan Cooper considered the most powerful of her magical race of ancient Old Ones. It never even occurred to me that there would be a gender issue there, because we were Will Stanton, all of us. We knew what it was like to be him, because we had been him, for as long as we’d read the books.
My latest book, BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED, out this week, has three main characters and three POV’s. Two are female and one is male. Is it 2/3 a girl book? Or 1/3 a boy book? How do we define either one of those labels? All three characters are equally heroic. All three kick major butt. All three write their own destiny, star in their own story arc, rescue themselves and each other on any given page.
At YALLFEST and YALLWEST, two book festivals I work with, Veronica Roth invented a panel called “STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS UGH!” In other words, it’s the WHY DO WE STILL NEED TO HAVE THIS PANEL PANEL. In the same way, when Shannon asked me to contribute to this week of posting, I thought -- books are for everyone. Of course they are. Why do we still need to write a post about that?
DON’T ASSUME A BOOK’S GENDER.
Maybe I can’t write that on all the books, so I’ll try to write it into your brain. Because my kid may not be the norm but the truth she is trying to articulate is far bigger than just one Vulcan in a dress.
She’s a person.
People are people.
Books are books.
Readers are readers.
Stories are everyone.
Margaret Stohl is the #1 New York Times Bestselling co-author of the BEAUTIFUL CREATURES Novels and DANGEROUS CREATURES novels, as well as the author of BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED (Marvel YA), and the ICONS Novels. Prior to becoming an author, Margaret worked in the video game industry as a writer and lead designer for sixteen years. She is also the co-founder of YALLFEST (Charleston, SC) and YALLWEST (Santa Monica, CA), two of the biggest kid/teen book festivals in the country. An alumnus of Amherst College, Stanford University, and Yale University, Margaret lives in Santa Monica with her family, two rescue cats, and two bad beagles.
There’s a feeling I get in the pit of my stomach whenever I see a message from my editor in my inbox with a subject line that says, Cover. I take deep breaths before I click the email open because I know that in many cases, the cover sells the book. The cover is a marketing tool. One image is supposed to convey the essence of the entire novel, while also being aesthetically pleasing, while also whispering to readers, “This book is for you.” And then of course, there are my own feelings. I want to be proud of the cover. That image will be side by side with me on book tours, on posters and flyers for events. I need to like it, want to love it.
I’m sure all authors have some degree of anxiety over the cover. I’m going to assume that female authors who write stories where the main character is a girl might have even more anxiety because we know that books with girls on the cover get put in the “For Girls Only” category. I know many authors have experienced doing author visits to girl-only audiences because the school thought their male students wouldn’t relate to the author, to her book. What this teaches young people is that stories by and about females are less than stories by and about men. It teaches young boys to silence the female voice, to disregard it, to give it less weight than their own.
As an author who is black and female, who writes stories about young black girls, I know that many librarians and teachers will only recommend my book to black girls. And let me say, that I want black teenaged girls to read my work. I hope they see their experiences mirrored in the pages. But I also hope my work opens up the world a bit for readers who are not black, not female. That they learn new perspectives, that they find ways to relate with the characters who maybe seemed so different from them. Most importantly, I want books by and about women, stories by and about people of color, to be made available for all readers. Because our stories matter. Because the young people sitting in our classrooms, coming to our libraries, will soon be adult citizens who will need the life skill of empathy and the ability to understand and analyze themselves, their society, and contribute in a positive way. They will need to understand the importance of valuing many viewpoints.
I am thankful for the educators, librarians, and parents who have shared my work with young people regardless of their ethnicity or gender. These gatekeepers know that themes of loss, change, resilience, love, and redemption are universal. These gatekeepers are committed to pushing against the norm and asking themselves, What if we recommended books to young readers based on the quality of the story, not if the cover has a girl or boy on it? What if we were intentional about making sure young readers have a variety of stories to choose from where protagonists may or not look like them or come from places similar to the place they live? What if the cover of a book that looked “different” or “too girly,” or “too ethnic” was seen not as a deterrent but an invitation to step outside of oneself? What if stories were for everyone?
Renée Watson is the author of This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015), which was nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Her picture book, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House 2012), received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Renée is on the Council of Writers for the National Writing Project and is a team member of We Need Diverse Books. She currently teaches courses on writing for children at University of New Haven and Pine Manor College.
Shannon’s idea of Stories For All is absolutely fantastic … and absolutely vital.
Fifteen years after founding Guys Read (a web-based literacy initiative for boys at www.guysread.com) in response to the dismal underachievement of boys in reading, I still get questions that let me know we have a long way to go in understanding the role gender might play in reading. And a long way to go in using this understanding to help kids become real readers.
I get questions like:
1. “Why do you have women authors in the Guys Read story collections?”
2. “What should I put in a book if I want to write for boys?”
3. “Why don’t you like girls?”
One of the primary goals of Guys Read is to promote a discussion of gender and reading – how gender might effect reading, how our assumptions about gender might effect reading. Maybe the answers I try to give to these questions can help add to our Stories For All discussion.
1. The Guys Read story collections are original short stories, grouped by genre, by some of the best writers in kids’ books. So OF COURSE they would have women authors.
Boys can, and should read writing by men and women.
Check out this amazing bunch of authors who have contributed to the first six volumes: Kate DiCamillo, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Gennifer Choldenko, Jackie Woodson, Anne Ursu, Shannon Hale, Rebecca Stead, Candace Fleming, Sy Montgomery, Elizabeth Partridge, Thanhha Lai, Lisa Brown, Adele Griffin, Claire Legrand, Rita Williams-Garcia, Kelly Barnhill, and Nikki Lofton.
Who wouldn’t want to read those authors?
And yes, girls can read the Guys Read books too.
2. No one should be writing for boys. Or writing for girls. Please don’t do that.
Our job as authors is to write the best stories we can, and maybe help those stories find their best readers.
If that reader happens to be a boy – great!
If that reader happens to be a girl – great!
3. Efforts to help boys are not efforts to hurt girls.
Literacy is not a zero-sum proposition. Good things we do for boys can make a better reading world for girls.
The more literate any citizen is, the better off we all are.
While working as our first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, my platform was “Reaching Reluctant Readers”. Visiting schools, speaking at conventions, presenting at libraries, I quickly found that what we had learned about reaching reluctant boy readers applies to every reader. Here are some tips and strategies we can all try. For every reader.
– expand the definition of “reading” to include non-fiction, graphic novels, or genres like sci-fi, even if you personally don't particularly enjoy them
– allow readers a chance for choice. Their choice.
– treat every reader as an individual.
And most importantly
– raise awareness about gender issues and reading.
Suspend quick judgment and blame, and have a discussion.
What I love most about Stories For All is Shannon’s call to hear from the experts – teachers, librarians, booksellers, moms, dads, and the kids themselves. This is not a test with a simple right answer or a wrong answer. It’s a discussion, a process, a chance to make a change for better reading for all.
Jon Scieszka is the award-winning and bestselling author of a boatload of books, including The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!, The Stinky Cheese Man, the Time Warp Trio series, the Trucktown series, and the Frank Einstein series. He was the USA's first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and is the founder of Guys Read. Jon lives in Brooklyn with his wife. They have two children.
A few years ago, I had sold my first novel, The Clockwork Three, and begun to work, very tentatively, on my second book. I had started writing it after reading a novel by a friend of mine, Rebecca Barnhouse. That book is called The Coming of the Dragon, and retells a part of the great epic Beowulf, and it is wonderful. So because of this book I had Vikings raiding the shores of my thoughts, and invading my dreams, and one night I dreamt of a girl named Solveig. She had a story to tell me. Many stories, in fact. And she quietly, but very firmly, demanded that I listen.
I did listen, and then I sat down to write Icefall. The first 10 pages of the novel remain almost exactly as I wrote them the first time through. Solveig was ready, but I worried that I was not. I worried that I wasn’t a good enough writer to do her justice. I worried about getting it wrong. Solveig was a Viking princess (a word I have been reluctant to use in the past—princess, that is, not Viking—but more on that later), and I am neither a Viking nor a princess.
But with the advice of my agent I wrote Icefall, anyway, and I nervously sent it to my editor fully expecting her to pass on it. But she didn’t, and to this day, it is usually the book of mine that readers speak with the most passion about. But there are some other people without whom I simply could never have written it, and that is not an exaggeration.
The first is Mary Lennox, about whose secret garden my mom read to me and my siblings, a little bit each night. Mary was followed by Sara Crewe, against whose miseries at the hands of Miss Minchin I raged. I next owe a thank you to Anne Shirley, a fellow writer, and a force of nature. Ramona Quimby, who I found hilarious, and who made me laugh out loud at a book. Kit Tyler transported me to another place and time, instilling in me a love of history. I thrilled with Aerin as she took up the Blue Sword and became the hero and queen of her people. I walked with Tenar as she literally and figuratively stepped out of the darkness of the Tombs of Atuan and into the light. All of these stories, I experienced as a young boy, but there are so many more I didn’t read until I was an adult. Charlotte Doyle. Lyra Silvertongue. Miri of the Princess Academy.
Richard Peck has said that we write by the light of every book we’ve ever read, and when I wrote Icefall, I was doing so by the combined, blinding wattage of all these amazing characters and so many others I can’t possibly name. You have probably noticed that the books I’ve just listed all have one thing in common. They feature female protagonists, and have even been labeled “girl books.”
There’s a question I am frequently asked about Icefall, and it never ceases to confound me. It takes several forms, but usually comes back to this: Why did you choose to write the story from the perspective of a girl?
To be honest, I don’t know how the hell to answer that question. It’s got a couple of major problems with it. The first is that it proceeds from a false premise. It presumes a choice when I never made one. It never for a moment occurred to me that Solveig would be anyone but herself. The second, larger problem with that question is that it implies a default male narrative, and that it would be a choice for me to deviate from that. To put it another way, I haven’t had a single person ask me why I wrote The Lost Kingdom from the perspective of a boy. Perhaps this happens because I’m a male writer, but I don’t think that’s the entirety of it. The reason goes back to that word I mentioned earlier.
For a long time, too long, I wouldn’t use that word if I was talking to a boy about Icefall. Instead, I’d talk about Vikings, and Thor, and the violence, and the body count. Even then, I kinda judged myself for it, but that didn’t stop me. I had on some level bought into the false dichotomy of boy books and girl books, almost without realizing it.
We each carry around a suitcase full of assumptions and biases that go unpacked, unchecked, and unchallenged. Things we take for granted as self-evident. (“Boys don’t like books about princesses.” or worse, “Boys shouldn’t like books about princesses.”) When we humans are faced with something that confronts our biases, we typically react in one of two ways. We sound the alarm, raise the defenses, and prepare for war. Or, we do the truly brave thing, open the gates of our minds, and let a strange new idea come in to sit at the dinner table. To get to know it better. We examine it. We interrogate it. Maybe we learn from it. Perhaps we even let it stay.
This recently happened to me when I learned of something that happened to Shannon Hale. Many of you are probably already aware of it, so I won’t go into great detail, but succinctly, she spoke at a school where half the students were not allowed to hear her. The boys simply weren’t allowed to go to her assembly, and this has actually happened to her before. I had never even stopped to consider that this kind of thing could happen. I’ve never once worried that when I go to speak at a school I’ll get up on stage and face an audience of only my gender, because that would likely never happen to me. I’m a male writer, and I’ve enjoyed a privilege of which I wasn’t aware. I’ve taken something for granted that I never earned. But with Shannon, it was assumed that boys would have no interest. That Shannon would have nothing of value to say to them. Because princesses.
I find this appalling. Shannon is brilliant, and those boys missed out on what she might have taught them.
Shannon recently told this story to a group of librarians. One of them, Margaret Millward, is a co-worker of mine, and she came back to work determined to do something about this issue. She began an experiment that took the form of a reading challenge in which she asked her students to read a book that they assumed to be for the opposite gender. She’s writing her own piece for #StoriesForAll, and I encourage you to check it out.
Now, I’m not claiming that boys and girls are the same. There are gender differences. But I think even more importantly, there are individual differences. So how much of this girl book versus boy book comes down to what boys and girls just like, and how much is the result of what their parents and their society have shaped them to like? Margaret’s experiment touched on this question.
Not every kid enjoyed the book he or she had chosen, but when Margaret asked them why, it wasn’t for reasons related to gender, but rather for the sorts of reasons any of us might not like a book. Didn’t like the plot. Didn’t like the setting. Didn’t like the writing. These are individual preferences, and perfectly fine. But the wonderful thing, the inspiring thing, that many of the kids said, in basically these words, was this: “I look at the library differently now,” as if a whole new world had opened up to them. Or more accurately, they had bravely opened up to it.
But here is the hard truth. A few of the boys brought their books back unread. Not because they didn’t like them. But because their fathers and mothers didn’t want them reading a girl book. Biases challenged, walls up, NO PRINCESSES ALLOWED. The boys weren’t the only ones who struggled, either. There were a pair of girls convinced that anything the boys liked was “stupid”. Though it must be said that no parents objected to their girls reading boy books, which speaks to the idea of a default male narrative.
So the experiment was not a universal success. But I believe it did a lot of good. It’s impossible to know just how much, yet. Those kids are still growing, and the books they’re reading now are still becoming a part of who they will eventually become.
We now understand, in a pretty hard-science way, that reading gives us a powerful empathetic experience. As we read, our minds create a mental simulation of what we are reading about, so on a neurological level, what happens in a book is real to us. TV and video games do not do this. Books and reading do this, and how extraordinary that is. I believe empathy is what makes us human. Perhaps not biologically or genetically, but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. And books are empathy bombs with the gigatons necessary to blow apart our biases and defenses. They show us people, and places, and experiences that are not ours, but which become ours as we read about them. That’s why some frightened people believe they are dangerous. That’s why some people even want them banned, or at the very least, don’t want their boys reading books with the word princess on their covers.
When I talk about Icefall now, I don’t shy away from that word anymore. It is a story about a Viking princess who saves her family and her father’s kingdom. I write what I write, and I am who I am, in part because of the books I read as a young boy, especially those that expanded my view of the world. I was lucky enough to be raised in a home where I could read any book I wanted. Nothing was banned. Instead, we talked. I hope the current conversation going on in our community about gender and diversity in children’s literature will continue. I believe the notion of boy books and girl books sets up a false dichotomy. There are only books, and there are readers for those books, and we do a grave disservice to children if we make assumptions about what they will or won’t like based on their gender, or worse, shame them for their interest and enjoyment. I hope we can all follow Margaret Millford’s example and find ways to address this in our own ways. I hope as we engage with this subject, we will all have the courage to let down our defenses in spite of our fears, to question even our deepest assumptions, and to embrace the possibility of new ideas, so that perhaps one day, people will stop asking me why I wrote a book from the perspective of a girl.
Matthew J. Kirby is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of the middle grade novels The Clockwork Three, Icefall, The Lost Kingdom, Infinity Ring Book 5: Cave of Wonders, and The Quantum League series. He was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start; he has won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, the PEN Center USA award for Children’s Literature, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award; and he has been named to the New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing and the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults lists. He is a school psychologist and lives in Utah with his wife and three step-kids.
It was fun to reimagine an iconic adult male character as a teenage girl. The best part is that not much had to change about the character to make it work. The Robin Hood legend and character have been reimagined numerous times over the years–why not reimagine him in this particular way? The archetype is a playful, good-hearted, yet mischievous character, who rights the wrongs of a society by robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Traditionally Robin is represented as a child of privilege turned marginal person who uses his power to help the working class and the poor, all those whose livelihood and survival is threatened by the whims and greed of the ruling class. But these economic struggles are ageless, and the individuals who fight for justice historically come from all corners of society, and inhabit all kinds of identities.
My Robyn Hoodlum is a twelve year old girl whose parents have disappeared, after which she finds herself on the run for her life. She takes cover in the struggling neighborhood of Sherwood, where she gathers a band of misfit teens and fellow outlaws to confront the dictator and bring equality back to her people. I especially love the idea of a girl Robyn Hood because, while boys are often rewarded for being strong, independent, rebellious, and leaders, girls are typically encouraged to fall in line and follow the rules. Flipping the script on those cultural norms and expectations is a great deal of fun!
Kekla Magoon is the author of Shadows of Sherwood, How It Went Down, Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River, for which she received the ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination. Raised in a biracial family in the Midwest, Kekla now teaches writing in New York City, conducts school and library visits nationwide, and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. Kekla holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Miss Young, my kindergarten teacher, chose Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary as our story time book on the first day of school. Ramona Quimby hooked me on reading and on finding adventure in the ordinary. I could not wait to read the book on my own and I felt great delight when I discovered that there was an entire series about the kids on Klickitat Street. Beezus, Henry and Ribsy, Ellen and Otis, and Runaway Ralph became my world.
I was so obsessed that I barely noticed the sideways glances or even the overt teasing from my peers as I checked Ramona Quimby Age 8 for the second or third time. I eventually moved on to…drum roll…Nancy Drew.
Nancy Drew was amazing as she boldly went through out New England solving crime, driving her boyfriend around and hanging out with her quintessentially butch cousin George. As I walked around reading every book in sequential order with my favorite girl detective, the teasing from school mates and the lectures from librarians, teachers, and my friends' parents was so overt that I felt forced to read the Hardy Boys too, since I discovered they were originally written by the same person thus giving a rationalization as to why I would read a book with a girl on the cover.
However, nothing would stop me from getting to book 64, which was the latest book in her series. Seriously, nothing could stop the centrifugal force of me getting from book 60 to book 64, not even my first Deer Hunting trip with my Dad and his friends. Nancy Drew did stop my having to participate in the annual Deer Hunt after I was discovered reading Nancy Drew and the Swami’s Ring instead of being the lookout for the herds of deer walking past me. My gratitude for Nancy and the she shift she created in my life experience has never ebbed.
My reading was happily never curtailed by peers, grown ups or anyone that felt I should be reading something else or something more appropriate for boys. Today I still read across genres and look for strong characters—male, female, transgendered (read Real Man Adventures by T Cooper, a book that speaks of the trans experience from such an intimate, honest and humorous perspective.)
I am glad that I didn’t listen to “what I should be reading” as a boy, and I know I am a better man for having been able to read books that appealed to me, because they are well written with intriguing characters and not because of my gender.
Calvin Crosby has worked in the book industry for the past twenty years, both as a bookseller and as the sales and marketing director for McSweeney's. He is the new Executive Director of NCIBA. He lives in San Fransisco bay area.
Changing the Narrative
The video clip depicts two young men hiding, recently having escaped abduction by a rebel army. They have lost everything, their home, their parents, and their older brother. Their heads in their hands, they cry.
The victims’ suffering fills the classroom. I am careful to give my students time to process what they’ve seen before turning on the light and initiating a discussion.
“What did you see? How are you feeling about what you saw?”
The students move from their internal dialogues and begin publicly sharing their thoughts.
“It’s really sad. I feel bad for those boys,” one student begins.
“Something should be done, no one should have to live like that,” another student adds.
“I feel embarrassed,” one young man shares. An uncertain silence follows his statement.
“What do you mean, ‘embarrassed’,” I inquire.
“Well, they were crying. I mean, they were crying a lot. I think it was weird to see guys cry like that. It’s embarrassing.”
As a seasoned teacher, this is not the first time I have encountered students, male or female, who are uncomfortable with “guys” exhibiting human emotions that are often culturally ascribed to females.
In this case, a fellow young man interjects, “No. This crying is okay, because their parents and brother died. It’s not girly crying.”
Standing in front of this group of students I am struck by how limiting life will be for them if they persist in believing that the full range of human emotions should not be shared and expressed across genders. Even worse, by assigning crying as a “girly” quality, both the emotion and females are denigrated in a single shot.
This conversation reflects what I experience daily in my high school classroom. It demonstrates how fragile young men and women are in their relationship to gender. By the time teens reach my classroom there is often a very narrow and entrenched idea of what it means to be male and what it means to be female. If not addressed, these ideas can lead to a lifelong struggle with one’s identity.
Books are one of the greatest tools available to teachers in the fight against this type of constricted thinking. In my ten years working with teens, I have seen the transformative power of novels. Books provide a safe and distanced space for adolescents to engage with characters, settings, and events that challenge their confining views of maleness and femaleness.
Just this month my students have been discussing how power is negotiated and navigated in novels like Speak, Thirteen Reasons Why, Rapunzel’s Revenge, Goose Girl, The Power of One, American Born Chinese, and Maus (just to name a few). Students are given choice to select books that appeal to them, but during their reading the class pauses and discusses in small groups how the characters, settings, and events in the novels reflect existing gender norms and how they push against them. Further, through critical thinking we develop personal opinions about what that means in our lives.
Here are a few notes I have saved from student book discussions.
A freshmen male student wrote: “I’m stuck. In [Speak] the girl gets raped. But she was drunk. Before I read this book I would have said that if a girl is drinking and gets raped, it’s all her fault. But now I am not sure. I mean, she was stupid for drinking. But Andy shouldn’t have done that, no matter what.”
A junior female student wrote: “I am reading American Born Chinese. Ms. R asked me if being Asian changes the way Danny feels about fitting in with the other guys at school. I never thought about that. I guess it’s like if you are small, people think you aren’t strong or maybe you feel self-conscious for being weak. Maybe some people think this about Chinese people, but I don’t.”
These are just two examples from students who felt safe allowing me to share their work. What they demonstrate is the powerful capacity books possess to get students to think outside of the social bubbles they inhabit. In turn, readers begin to expand their understanding of self as it relates to the world around them.
A book provides a vast landscape of exploration. Copious studies demonstrate how one positive interaction with a perceived “other” can change racist, sexist, and dangerously closed thinking. A single novel provides individuals with hundreds of these types of interactions. Consequently, further research suggests that avid readers have greater empathy and a superior capacity to deal with nuanced thinking. In short, navigating stories in which characters both reflect and defy one’s world develops stronger thinking.
Studying to be a Language Arts teacher, I was required to take instructional reading courses. In more than one of the classes I was given a list of Boy’s Books and a list of Girl’s Books. The intention of the lists was to help teachers get reluctant readers into a book. The thinking: people will like reading about what they know and students will engage better with the familiar.
While there may be some initial truth to this thinking, the unfortunate reality is that in the long run, prescribed gender-reading limits, rather than expands, readers. Students stop reading once they have exhausted all the novels where they see themselves as the character. Worse, all that remarkable cognitive development gets lost.
I am tasked with developing students’ critical thinking skills, analysis skills, and their capacity to evaluate the world around them. This is not possible when students are allowed to persist in dogma that leads them to believe that a crying boy is embarrassing and crying girl is a reflection of her innate weakness. That’s why in my classroom we read across gender, across culture, and across genre. We read to understand the “other”, to build empathy, to appreciate nuance, and to actively participate in the greater world. There is no single book, for a single gender, that can do all that heavy lifting.
Rebecca Richardson teaches Language Arts in the English Department at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah to both native and non-native English speakers. She has served as ESL Department Chair for four years, has created and runs several after-school college-readiness and community programs. She received a Masters in Education from Westminster College and was named the 2014 University of Utah Outstanding Public School Teacher. None of these details can remotely convey the passion she has for education, the love she has for her students, and the work she puts into helping her students have a voice and recognize their own greatness.
Another Wonderful Story about My Awesome Dad
By Melissa de la Cruz
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about in the topic “Stories for All” and advocating the end of gender-based book assignments. There are no “girl” books and no “boy” books, but I didn’t know what to say other than that, which seemed obvious.
So I decided to write about my dad. My friends always tell me that my stories about my dad, who passed away almost seven years ago, are my best stories, so I will tell one of those.
When I was growing up, I never thought of myself primarily as someone who was defined first by my gender. I mean, I knew I was a girl, I knew girls and boys were “different”, blah blah blah. But mostly, I grew up thinking of myself as a person first. Like, what did I like to do? What did I like to read? I wasn’t fond of sports and I ate whatever I wanted without feeling guilty or weird about it, I cracked jokes, I was clumsy, I was goofy, I read a lot of books, and my parents bought me any book I wanted to read.
I read Jack London and Hardy Boys and Kipling and Roald Dahl and I read Little Women and Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables. I did notice that while I read both Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, some of my friends who were boys only read Hardy Boys. Even back then, at nine years old, I thought that was a shame.
Okay? So what is the Pop story? I’m getting to it. When my sister and I were both students at our fancy Ivy League colleges, I overhead my dad talking to a bunch of his friends during dinner. They were all Filipino men in their 50s and 60s, with children the same age as me and my sis. “How did you do it?” They asked my dad. “How did you raise such accomplished girls?”
My dad loved being famous for being a Great Dad. It was one of his proudest achievements and he loved giving people advice on how to raise their children. He told his friends, “I didn’t raise ‘girls’. I raised people. Accomplished people. There’s no difference. Why would I raise my girls any different from how I’m raising my son?” (In our family we would say the only difference is that our little brother was the most spoiled. Heh.)
Gender mattered very little to my parents, their opinions on the difference between men and women mostly rested around the iron clad belief that husbands should always take out the trash and fill up the family car. (I never saw my mom fill the tank once when my dad was alive.) They believed in manners and chivalry and equal pay for equal work, and that even if the wife was the breadwinner, it didn’t mean it was emasculating for the husband.
My dad would be insulted when provincial relatives would admire him for investing in our educations, that it was somehow special, and he would bristle at the notion that girls didn’t deserve the same expectations asked of boys, that girls “weren’t worth it” or somehow, subtly, lesser.
The practice of separating books by gender is part of this subtle communication to our girls that their stories don’t matter as much as boys’ stories do, and that boys should have no interest in learning about girls. So um, let’s stop doing that.
My dad knew his kids—his daughters and son weren’t perfect, and our family had our own issues. But looking back, I am amazed at how embarrassingly functional my family was. My parents were happily married and we children were loved and felt safe. We were allowed to be whoever we were, and our genders were the least important thing about us. And we were allowed to read whatever we wanted. No boy books. No girl books. Just books, and lots of them.
Melissa de la Cruz is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels for teens and adults, including The Au Pairs series, the Blue Bloods series, the Witches of East End series, and the Descendants novel, Isle of the Lost. Melissa grew up in Manila and San Francisco and currently lives with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
I’ll admit, I’m quite proud of the paperback design of my book. My publishers did a fantastic job. I believe the color scheme is really fun, the description is intriguing, and my name is in a funky font that I wish I could use all the time.
But my name is Maya.
And my book is pink.
And for these stupid, irrelevant reasons, boys get teased for carrying Popular around at school. They hide it under their desks or have their sisters check it out for them at the library. My own brother read it at night so his classmates wouldn’t see him with it. This seems to be a recurring theme.
When Popular came out in the UK, I traveled to London for a three-day publicity tour. I was asked to be on BBC Channel Four news. At the last minute they brought in a well-known journalist to discuss her take on my book after only skimming the synopsis. Her only complaint was that there should be a self-help book directed toward young boys and not just girls. I was fifteen at the time, and terrified to be on television, so I stammered some response about how I hoped my book had messages for everyone who wanted to read it.
It was only after the cameras stopped rolling that I really thought about what she’d said. And I wished I’d given a different response. I wished I would’ve asked her why.
Why does there have to be an entirely different book devoted to boys when a lot of the advice I gave was convertible if not universal for both genders? Why can’t a boy read a book written by and about a girl when all my childhood I read books written by and about boys? Oliver Twist and The Hobbit weren’t overflowing with female characters, but that didn’t mean I didn’t fall in love with the stories, learn from the male protagonists, enjoy the adventures. Why can’t boys feel confident picking up copies of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? by Judy Blume or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson? If girls can learn things from these books surely boys could too, right? And vice versa! Why is it that there are whole articles devoted to listing “Best Boy Books” and “Best Girl Books” instead of just “Best Books”? Girls can love Lord of the Flies. Boys can be obsessed with Nancy Drew. Why is it such a big deal?
And maybe it’s good that I didn’t say all of this in the television segment, because unfortunately I don’t think there’s an easy answer to any of if, at least nothing that could be resolved in my allotted three minutes. The upsetting thing is that it’s a conundrum with an incredibly simple solution. Let people read what they want to read. That’s it.
But then again, I was blessed with great parents and open-minded librarians who never told me “That book is not for you” and handed me something “more appropriate for a girl.” So I never felt limited in my literary options. I could read stories about princesses or monsters or both! And I loved every second of it. But unfortunately that isn’t the case for every kid.
So for all the girls whose backpacks are full of sports novels and scouting adventures, for all the boys who read Popular and any book with pink on the cover, don’t let anyone convince you that what you want to read wasn’t written for you. Because as an author, I can tell you that we write for whoever pulls that book off the shelf. And young or old, girl or boy, we’ll always be happy you enjoyed it. Promise.
Maya Van Wagenen is seventeen years old. At age 15 she published Popular, her New York Times bestselling memoir of her 8th grade year. Maya was named one of Time Magazines most influential teenagers. She currently lives with her parents and two siblings in rural Georgia.