Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, NY, shares her thoughts on #StoriesForAll!
Customer: "Hi, I'm looking for a book for a 3rd grade girl."
Bookseller: "Sure! Has she read the Humphrey series by Betty Birney? It's about a classroom hamster who has lots of adventures and gets to go home with a different student every weekend."
Customer: "Um, no. That's a boy book."
Bookseller: "Well, the hamster is a boy, but the kids in the classroom are a mix of boys and girls."
Customer: "No, I want a girl book. How about this book about fairy unicorns?"
This happens ALL THE TIME in our bookstore. Last week, one of our booksellers had a customer turn down a board book about an owl because obviously owls are only in boy books.
As booksellers, we want our customers to go home with the perfect book for their child, but we also feel a responsibility to expand kids' minds and expose them to stories about a broad range of experiences. The books you read as a kid help shape who you will be as an adult. How can you become an empathetic, well-rounded person when you've only read about people just like you?
We make a concerted effort to stock books for all readers across the gender spectrum and strongly believe there is no such thing as a "boy" or "girl" book. Unfortunately, there are times when it's not that simple.
There is definitely more pushback when trying to sell a book with a girl protagonist to a parent of a boy than vice versa. Actually, many boys are happy to read books about girls, but their parents can be hesitant to buy these books for them. I try to find creative ways to handsell "girl books" to the parents of boys. Instead of describing the book as being about a "girl," I will say it's about a "kid." I'm sure my gender neutral word doesn't fool them once they've picked up the book, but it does seem to have some subliminal impact.
Handselling YA books is harder, because so often their covers look intensely feminine or masculine, which can really impact the appeal to certain readers. I do see this getting slightly better as I am buying publishers' 2016 lists - there seems to be a shift toward covers that are more about typeface and bold design choices and less about girls in big ballgowns.
Of course there are books that transcend the gender of their characters to become massively popular among kids of all stripes (thank you, Rick Riordan, Raina Telgemeier, & Marie Lu!) but these are the exceptions, not the rules. Luckily these books act as touchstones for parents, and can be used to persuade them to buy something outside their comfort zone. Oh, your son loves Percy Jackson? Has he read the Pegasus series?
Progress is slowly being made, and in the meantime I'll just keep selling El Deafo to every 11-year-old kid who walks through our doors, regardless of their gender. Just you try and stop me.
Suzanna Hermans is a second generation bookseller and co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton & Rhinebeck, NY. She was recently completed her term as President of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, and serves on the Advisory Council of American Booksellers for Free Expression. Follow her on Twitter: @oblongirl.