I've been doing school visits as part of my tour for PRINCESS ACADEMY: The Forgotten Sisters. All have been terrific--great kids, great librarians. But something happened at one I want to talk about. I'm not going to name the school or location because I don't think it's a problem with just one school; it's just one example of a much wider problem.
This was a small-ish school, and I spoke to the 3-8 grades. It wasn't until I was partway into my presentation that I realized that the back rows of the older grades were all girls.
Later a teacher told me, "The administration only gave permission to the middle school girls to leave class for your assembly. I have a boy student who is a huge fan of SPIRIT ANIMALS. I got special permission for him to come, but he was too embarrassed."
"Because the administration had already shown that they believed my presentation would only be for girls?"
"Yes," she said.
I tried not to explode in front of the children.
Let's be clear: I do not talk about "girl" stuff. I do not talk about body parts. I do not do a "Your Menstrual Cycle and You!" presentation. I talk about books and writing, reading, rejections and moving through them, how to come up with story ideas. But because I'm a woman, because some of my books have pictures of girls on the cover, because some of my books have "princess" in the title, I'm stamped as "for girls only." However, the male writers who have boys on their covers speak to the entire school.
This has happened a few times before. I don't believe it's ever happened in an elementary school--just middle school or high school.
I remember one middle school 2-3 years ago that I was going to visit while on tour. I heard in advance that they planned to pull the girls out of class for my assembly but not the boys. I'd dealt with that in the past and didn't want to be a part of perpetuating the myth that women only have things of interest to say to girls while men's voices are universally important. I told the publicist that this was something I wasn't comfortable with and to please ask them to invite the boys as well as girls. I thought it was taken care of. When I got there, the administration told me with shrugs that they'd heard I didn't want a segregated audience but that's just how it was going to be. Should I have refused? Embarrassed the bookstore, let down the girls who had been looking forward to my visit? I did the presentation. But I felt sick to my stomach. Later I asked what other authors had visited. They'd had a male writer. For his assembly, both boys and girls had been invited.
I think most people reading this will agree that leaving the boys behind is wrong. And yet--when giving books to boys, how often do we offer ones that have girls as protagonists? (Princesses even!) And if we do, do we qualify it: "Even though it's about a girl, I think you'll like it." Even though. We're telling them subtly, if not explicitly, that books about girls aren't for them. Even if a boy would never, ever like any book about any girl (highly unlikely) if we don't at least offer some, we're reinforcing the ideology.
I heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: "Boys, even though this is about a girl, you'll like it!" Even though. I never heard a single time, "Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you'll like it!"
The belief that boys won't like books with female protagonists, that they will refuse to read them, the shaming that happens (from peers, parents, teachers, often right in front of me) when they do, the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don't have to read about girls, that boys aren't expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world....this belief directly leads to rape culture. To a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn't matter how the girl feels, what she wants. You don't have to wonder. She is here to please you. She is here to do what you want. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.
At this recent school visit, near the end I left time for questions. Not one student had a question. In 12 years and 200-300 presentations, I've never had that happen. So I filled in the last 5 minutes reading them the first few chapters of The Princess in Black, showing them slides of the illustrations. BTW I've never met a boy who didn't like this book.
After the presentation, I signed books for the students who had pre-ordered my books (all girls), but one 3rd grade boy hung around.
"Did you want to ask her a question?" a teacher asked.
"Yes," he said nervously, "but not now. I'll wait till everyone is gone."
Once the other students were gone, three adults still remained. He was still clearly uncomfortable that we weren't alone but his question was also clearly important to him. So he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Do you have a copy of the black princess book?"
It broke my heart that he felt he had to whisper the question.
He wanted to read the rest of the book so badly and yet was so afraid what others would think of him. If he read a "girl" book. A book about a princess. Even a monster-fighting superhero ninja princess. He wasn't born ashamed. We made him ashamed. Ashamed to be interested in a book about a girl. About a princess--the most "girlie" of girls.
I wish I'd had a copy of The Princess in Black to give him right then. The bookstore told him they were going to donate a copy to his library. I hope he's brave enough to check it out. I hope he keeps reading. I hope he changes his own story. I hope all of us can change this story. I'm really rooting for a happy ending.