Gendered Reading: Why Do We Still Insist on Gendering Books?

Over the past few months and years, I have been following online discussions about the way people gender reading – not only the act of reading, as a pursuit that girls are said to prefer, but the books we give younger children and what we expect of them as they grow and how they develop their reading tastes. Trends in publishing for children and young adults, but especially children, at that age of discovering independent reading and what they enjoy for themselves, can be gendered – targeted stories about princesses being saved for girls, and boys playing sports for boys, for example, are the two extremes. Girls are frilly and passive, boys are dirty and active. It sometimes seems that there is no in between, and children are often presented with books chosen by adults, the ones who buy the books – which, when you only know a few brief facts about a child, can be hard, because what if you buy the wrong book? Understandably, people like to play it safe, and that is where gendered reading can come in.

 

AWW-2018-badge-roseYesterday, I followed Word of Mouth TV and Jacqueline Harvey on Twitter as they tweeted and chatted about and at the Colin Simpson Memorial Lecture, with the Australian Society of Authors and the Children’s Book Council of Australia, on the issue of gendered books and reading, and how adults in the lives of children – whether implicitly or explicitly, in schools and libraries, guide children towards books “for girls” or “for boys”. Which brings me to the question – just what are boy books versus girl books? Well, apparently, if you’ve been following the discussions, a few things boys won’t read, or are said to be discouraged from reading:

 

– a book with love in the title

– a book with a girl on the cover

– a novel (boys apparently prefer comic books)

– a girl in the title

– a female author.

 

However, as adults, parents, teachers, booksellers and librarians, we encourage girls to read widely, but still within what is seen as “acceptable” for girls: no crime, no violence, passive princesses! LOVE! As a girl reader who has read widely since the age of six, war and crime have never been a deterrent. Spies? GREAT, I love Kensy and Max, and so do many other boys and girls when I read the reviews – and adults. Yet, Jacqueline Harvey has only had the chance to present to one or two groups of just boys – rather than mixed groups or just girls, and George Ivanoff pointed out that he saw that the boys in the mixed group were just as enthralled as the girls – excellent news for Kensy and Max, Alice- Miranda and Clementine-Rose. In my view, anyone can read anything they desire, and that they feel ready for – readers should be free to explore the world around them, so whenever I see people asking for “boy books” or “girl books”, I often feel the desire to point out that books do not have a gender, they are just books. Kensy is exactly the kind of girl character I would have enjoyed as a kid – because she was so different and refused to be overly girly.

 

So why do we encourage these reading habits? Is it because we associate reading with characters in popular culture like Hermione Granger and Rory Gilmore (By the way, two of my favourite characters), or even Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds? The lack of male characters who enjoy reading, and who aren’t broody and sullen like Jess Mariano, also of Gilmore Girls? Girls as readers seem to have a few role models to look up to when it comes to reading and seeing themselves as readers but also as people who have interests beyond reading. Boys, it seems, are always shown as the hero, or the nerd (Spencer, but he’s an adorable nerd, and a positive reading role model), or Jess, who often faced unfair comparisons with certain literary men, like Holden Caulfield, whilst Rory, and indeed girls, have many to be compared to. Supporting characters can be readers if they are boys – Percy Weasley, but often, they fade into the background, and so, it feels, does reading as a pleasurable activity for our boys.

 

Of these characters I know of, Spencer, Rory and Hermione are the three whose reading is prominently and positively portrayed – to the point where other characters don’t blink. And when the other male characters in these books and shows – Derek Morgan, Harry and Ron, Dean or Logan – are shown as sporty and brave, or disinterested in reading (Ron), or a someone who would rather disrupt learning than learn (Logan), we don’t blink either. My point is these, whilst exceptionally well written characters, and ones I can either love or hate in varying degrees, are characteristic of how we portray what it means to be a boy or a girl, and therefore, what activities and indeed, books we desire them to read. And perhaps this is why we are seeing a trend in books aimed at both boys and girls by authors like Kate Forsyth and Jacqueline Harvey, and George Ivanoff, and a trend in reimagined fairy tales for girls who dare to not be a passive princess – gone are the days of the prince saving the day, Rapunzel can save herself now!

 

And books aimed at both boys and girls that tell stories of men and women, across a diverse group of people, who have dared to be different to what their respective societies, cultures, nations and times in history expected of them, and why Disney movies are starting to pull back on ending it with the marriage of the main male and female characters. There are quite a few to name that have done this over the years, but the three recent ones that stand out to me are Frozen, Brave and Moana, where it was love of family that saved the day. Sure, Anna might have ended up with Kristoff (I had Hans picked as the villain from the start – if they look too good to be true, they probably are), but it was the love she had for Elsa, and Elsa’s love for her – their acts of true love, that drove the movie and the idea that love does not have to be romantic to be powerful. It is the same love we see in Kensy and Max, and in the Other Worlds series, especially in book two, Beast World, narrated by a girl, Xandra, who is also disabled. George Ivanoff wrote her really well and made sure she was represented as a disabled girl in a way that wasn’t demeaning. In our Twitter conversation, he said he had written books one and three with a male protagonist, and two and four with a female protagonist, and hoped boys reading them would continue with the female characters.

 

Unpacking gendered reading and representation of this in film and other media is not going to be resolved in this one post. It requires self-reflection, and asking ourselves why do we hope boys will begin a series with a boy and continue reading the books narrated by a girl? Why do we assume boys are naturally more interested in comics, sports and certain male-coded things rather than fairy tales or girl spies, or anything that girls are supposed to inherently be drawn to? We assume, we don’t ask, unless we think the child is old enough to decide for themselves – and at what age do we start this? Before they start school? When they’re learning to read? Somewhere in between, or only once they hit age ten? My own reading experiences are varied. I read Narnia at age nine, and books like The Wind in the Willows, The Neverending Story and a few others that might have been deemed “boy books”. I also read what are likely deemed “girl books”: The Babysitters Club, Seven Little Australians, Little Women (many, many times), and The Secret Garden, amongst many others. These days, I read whatever I can, and whenever I can. I read books by women, by men, by both, by people with various identities, and books aimed at boy, girls and everyone in between. I laugh with Bridget, I spy with Kensy and Max, I paint with Rowly, and explore all avenues of history with Kate Forsyth. I traverse London with Charles Dickens, and solve crimes with Phryne, and so many others that I cannot list, otherwise this will become an exegesis rather than a blog post.

 

 

During this blog post, I have worked in the binary because many discussions I read do. This is a whole other level that needs unpacking, the inclusion of all genders, and perhaps a really good reason why we should refrain from using the terms “boy books” and “girl books” – and just go with books so we can all feel included, and all find our way to characters we identify with. This layer is something I do not have enough of an understanding about yet, and will leave to those who do to comment on and write about – and leave it at we need to stop gendering our books and reading habits. Just Read.

 

A list of books that we can all enjoy, whatever our gender:

Kate Forsyth

Chain of Charms series

The Gypsy Crown

The Silver Horse

The Herb of Grace

The Cat’s Eye Shell

The Lightning Bolt

The Butterfly in Amber

Jacqueline Harvey:

Kensy and Max series

Kensy and Max: Breaking News

Kensy and Max: Disappearing Act

George Ivanoff

Other Worlds series

Other Worlds: Perfect World

Other Worlds: Beast World

Other Worlds: Game World

Other Worlds: Dark World

frogkisser

 

Garth Nix

Frogkisser!

Garth Nix and Sean Williams

Have Sword, Will Travel series

Have Sword, Will Travel

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie

Jessica Townsend

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow

Comment with your books that you’d recommend to anyone regardless of gender – I have based this on what I have read!

 

Have Sword, Will Travel by Garth Nix and Sean Williams

have sword, will travel.jpgTitle: Have Sword, Will Travel

Author: Garth Nix and Sean Williams

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 29th October 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: From New York Times bestselling authors Garth Nix and Sean Williams, comes this hilarious, action-packed adventure featuring a very unlikely knight, an admirably stubborn girl and a sword with attitude.

When Odo and Eleanor stumble upon an ancient sword in a river outside their village, something very unexpected happens … the sword starts to talk! Much to Odo’s dismay he discovers that he’s awoken a famous enchanted blade called Biter, and thus has instantly become a knight. Eleanor would love to become a knight – but she’s not the one with the sword. Unearthing Biter is only the start of their troubles; soon boy, girl and sword must depart on a noble quest to save their kingdom from threats – in both human and dragon form.

~*~

In a new series that started last year, Garth Nix has teamed up with Sean Williams to create a medieval-esque world, filled with knights and dragons, and dark creatures threatening to take over the kingdom, as well as enchanted swords that talk back to those who wield them. What could be more fun? Well, a world where girls have as much of a chance to become a knight as the boys do! In the beginning, we meet Odo and Eleanor as they are undertaking daily tasks for their family and village, looked after by Sir Halfdan, and often teased by twin brothers, Aaric and Addyson. During these tasks, they discover a sword lying in a pool of water, and pull it out, thinking it belongs to Sir Halfdan. When it begins to talk after Odo’s blood awakens it, and introduces itself (or himself, as it turns out), as  Hildebrand Shining Foebiter, Scourge of Scourger, Daragonslayer, and becomes known as Biter the Dragonslayer, or Biter, for short, by Eleanor and Odo, who are on a quest to supposedly save the people of their country from a devastating dragon known as Quenwolf, who is feared throughout the land. Biter knights Odo before the quest, where they come across a female knight known as Sir Saskia, and another magical sword known as Runnel – Biter’s sister.

But all is not as it seems with the dragon, the quest, or Sir Saskia – and Odo and Eleanor must journey across the lands and meet Quenwolf, to find out what is happening before they can return home.

In the few Garth Nix books I have read, the female hero is front and centre, and breaking the mould of what a princess or female fantasy character is expected to do. She is daring, and eager, yet not perfect. She longs for adventure and becoming a knight, whereas Odo, knighted by Biter, would rather stay home in safety, and is a rather reluctant knight, but with Biter and Eleanor’s help – which he doesn’t always want – will become braver, but still desires to return home.

In this story, we have everything: a gutsy girl, a reluctant hero, a kingdom under attack, spies, dragons, magic, dark creatures, and of course, magical, talking swords that don’t shy away from being snarky or sarcastic when it is called for. It is a world that is in many ways, familiar – a low-tech world with magic, dragons and knights, yet with a newness that carries the story in leaps and bounds as Odo and Eleanor travel across the country, to keep out of harm’s way, and save their village and the kingdom from the dark forces that threaten to take over and who start seeking to hunt them down as the story settles into a flow that will continue into the next book, Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, which will hopefully be reviewed during the week, as I am, at the time of writing this post, nearly finished it.

I’ve got a few Garth Nix books to read in my many stacks of books and will eventually be getting to them to see what other spectacular characters he has written for all readers to enjoy and relate to. A great start to a new series for younger readers – well, readers of all ages if I am being honest. I’m now looking forward to what, if anything, follows Let Sleeping Dragons Lie.

Booktopia

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie (Have Sword, Will Travel #2) by Garth Nix and Sean Williams

let sleeping dragons lieTitle: Let Sleeping Dragons Lie (Have Sword, Will Travel #2)

Author: Garth Nix and Sean Williams

Genre: Fantasy/YA

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 24th October 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 288

Price: $14.99

Synopsis:From New York Times bestselling authors Garth Nix and Sean Williams comes this funny, exciting fantasy adventure about two friends and a couple of swords with attitude.

Odo and Eleanor are excited to be knights. Only … they’re stuck at home waiting for something bigger to come along. That ‘something bigger’ comes to them in the form of an old man named Egda, a warrior named Hundred and an ancient legend about a sleeping dragon.

Odo, Eleanor, and their trusty and talkative swords, Biter and Runnel, are plunged into a quest that will take them (as all good quests must) to unfamiliar lands, where they will fight unseen enemies and unlock unbelievable secrets in order to prevent an unbearable impostor from taking the crown.

Also, they will need to keep an eye out for dragons.

As they did with Have Sword, Will Travel, fantasy masters Garth Nix and Sean Williams have crafted a tale full of fire, laughs and twists for adventurous readers of all ages.

~*~

Sir Odo and Sir Eleanor return in a new adventure. In Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, they are off on another adventure, much to Eleanor’s joy and enthusiasm, which is in contrast to Odo, who’d rather head back home to work in the family mill. Instead, they embark on another quest to save the kingdom, and find the rightful king, and battles with bile wolves, that their stroppy swords lead them into. Remember, Runnel and Biter are no ordinary swords – they are enchanted, sentient swords, who desire battle and bravery, much to Odo’s chagrin. In the midst of the dangerous battle, they are swept to safety by blind Egda, and the warrior, Hundred.

What follows is another dangerous quest, to find an all-powerful dragon, and stop an imposter taking the throne. To do so, they must risk, their lives, the lives of many villagers along the way, and the lives of Egda and Hundred to awaken an ancient, mythical dragon who can restore order to their world. However, is it worth the risk, or should they let sleeping dragons lie and find another way?

In the second in the series, Odo and Eleanor are back, this time with an entourage and secret identities as they traverse the kingdom to stop the imposter on the throne. Far from the threat of the false knight of Have Sword, Will Travel, Sir Saskia, Odo and Eleanor dodge thieves and people trying to stop them, fight bravely – Eleanor, and reluctantly on Odo’s part. The continuing theme of the reluctant hero in Odo, and Eleanor’s eagerness to partake in the quest and become the best night she can is threaded throughout the novel.

The presence of female characters like Eleanor, Hundred and Saskia, as well as the mystical dragons like Quenwolf shows that female power in these books is an integral part in the story, and drives it forwards just as much as Odo and the male characters, showing that boys and girls can take on, and enjoy roles that traditionally, might not be assigned to them in fantasy novel. It is refreshing to see these roles more and more, and to have good books aimed at readers of all ages and genders, and not at a specific demographic – it allows all readers to imagine themselves as Odo or Eleanor – or even both if they feel like it, and not feel as though they are identifying with the wrong character. For girls to imagine themselves a knight is one of the reasons I have fallen in love with this series.

It has fairy tale elements of a quest, and the magical swords pulled from the stone, or presented by a lake, in a similar manner to Excalibur and King Arthur, to the motifs of the reluctant hero, thrust into a world they do no understand. However, Odo has a supportive family, who encourage him to go on the quest and help him prepare, whereas other motifs involve an orphan thrust into the world. In this world, Odo and Eleanor mentor each other, but are also mentored by their swords, Biter and Runnel – which makes it a very unique and fun series to read.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this new series, and look forward to what happens next, as I am sure there are characters that we have not heard the last of.