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!

 

Book Bingo Twenty – A Book by an Australian Woman, A book that’s more than 500 pages and a foreign translated novel.

Book bingo take 2

It’s that time of the fortnight, when Book Bingo Saturday with Amanda Barrett of Mrs B’s Book Reviews and Theresa Smith of Theresa Smith Writes has rolled around. As this is my second go around, and after this week and next fortnight, I still have ten squares left, there will be a few posts where two or more squares are included, and where books used from last time will appear in a different square, to ensure complete coverage should I not be able to read something new for any square. As the year rushes towards the final months, I’ve got many books that will potentially fill each of the remaining squares in November and December.

This week sees three books – two by Australian Women, which gives me a bit of a double bingo for that square, and a bingo in a down row – Row Four, as seen below:

Book bingo take 2 .jpg

Row #1 down

 A book set more than 100 years ago: The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth (Chain of Charms #1) – AWW2018

A book with a yellow cover:

A book written by an Australian woman:  Disappearing Act by Jacqueline Harvey (Kensy and Max #2) – AWW2018, The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton – AWW2018

A forgotten classic:

A book that became a movie:

Row #4 -BINGO (down)

 

A book more than 500 pages: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton – AWW2018,

A collection of short stories: Fairy Tales for Feisty Girls by Susannah McFarlane – AWW2018

A book that scares you: What the Woods Keep by Katya de Becerra – AWW2018

A funny book: Archibald, the Naughtiest Elf in the World Goes to the Zoo by Skye Davidson, Illustrated by Ágnes Rokiczky -AWW2018

A book written by someone under thirty: The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady – AWW2018

Across:

Row #3:  –

 A book written by an Australian woman: Disappearing Act by Jacqueline Harvey (Kensy and Max #2) – AWW2018, The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton – AWW2018

A book written by an Australian man: Captain Cook’s Apprentice by Anthony Hill

A prize-winning book:

A book that scares you: What the Woods Keep by Katya de Becerra – AWW2018*

A book with a mystery: The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes (Mitford Murders #1)

Row #1 – –

 A book set more than 100 years ago: The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth (Chain of Charms #1) – AWW2018

A book written more than ten years ago:

A memoir: No Country Woman by Zoya Patel – AWW2018

A book more than 500 pages: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton – AWW2018

A Foreign translated novel: The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti

cherry tree

First off. a foreign translated novel – The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti. The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree is the story of nine-year-old Mafalda, who has a genetic condition known as Stargardt disease, affecting her vision that will eventually result in complete blindness, exploring a world of disability not often seen in books, and in a realistic, and touching way, using personal experiences to do so.

It is one of those rare books that allows disabled children and readers to see themselves in it, and to see that there are other disabled people out there, not just them. It makes these readers feel less alone, knowing other people live with disability whether it is the same one, or different ones. It is also about finding connections, and people who will stick by you throughout life, and help, and the reality of life and the ups and downs that affect us all. My longer review is linked here.

the clockmakers daughter

The next two books are by Australian women, and both fit into the square for A book by an Australian woman, and one fits into a book over five hundred pages. The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton. Published on the twelfth of September, The Clockmaker’s Daughter weaves in and out of time and space, between decades and centuries, and throughout generations of people all connected in some way to Birchwood Manor. The focus is on the 1860s, and the Magenta Brotherhood – an artistic guild that hints at Pre-Raphaelite influences, and dips into the early decades of the twentieth century, and hints at a character researching and reading about Birchwood Manor, whose story bookends those f the others, and reaches a conclusion that is a little ambiguous but at the same time, delightfully executed in a way that the stands of ambiguity are what makes the overall mystery work – not everything is straightforward or clean-cut, and not every answer will be uncovered, nor will any sense of justice necessarily be dealt out – or does it need to be? Was an honest mistake made, did people just not realise? It is these unanswered questions, that, even though the mystery of Birdie’s fate is solved in a way, nobody will ever know, and in this instance, it worked out really well.

Kensy and Max 2My third book fills the book by an Australian woman square as well – Kensy and Max: Disappearing Act by Jacqueline Harvey. In the second book in the Kensy and Max series, the twins are in training to be spies at Pharos, and the headquarters called Alexandria during their Christmas break with their friends and teachers – who are also spies. After Christmas, they will set off to Rome with other classmates who are none-the-wiser to the spy training going on around them. Whilst in Rome, Kensy and Max receive more coded messages from their parents and are caught up in their first mission to save the Prime Minister’s son – but is one of their classmates somehow linked to the disappearance of the boy, or is it merely her family they need to be suspicious of? And which student does everyone need to look out for and avoid? Together with their new friends, Kensy and Max will solve the case – the first of many and keep hot on the trail of their missing parents. Will Kensy and Max finally be reunited with their parents?

Kensy and Max is a series for all readers – regardless of age and gender. They defy gender roles and are heroes for children today, where there are many books coming out where male and female characters defy stereotypes and take on their own identity rather than the stereotypes perpetuated by earlier works, which of course, drew on the world that inspired them. Kensy is the kind of girl hero I needed growing up, to have alongside Matilda Wormwood and Hermione Granger, the kind of character who isn’t what she seems and who stands up for herself and her beliefs and doesn’t let people define her – especially those who don’t like her. She is heroic yet at the same time, can be vulnerable and needs grounding – but threaten those she cares about, like her brother, and I reckon you’d be sorry! I adore this series and I cannot wait for future books to see where Kensy and Max take us next.

Thus ends my twentieth book bingo post of the year. Post twenty-one will be up in two weeks time.

Booktopia

Kensy and Max #2: Disappearing Act by Jacqueline Harvey

Kensy and Max 2.jpgTitle: Disappearing Act (Kensy and Max #2)

Author: Jacqueline Harvey

Genre: Spy stories, children’s fiction

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Published: 3rd September 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: Kensy and Max are now agents-in-training at Pharos, a covert international spy network. Christmas break sees the twins back at Alexandria for training and a celebration like no other, but where are their parents and why can’t they come home?

Thankfully, a school trip to Rome provides a welcome distraction. Amid the history and culture of Italy’s capital, they discover a runaway boy and whisperings of Mafia involvement. It looks like Kensy and Max’s harmless excursion may just turn into their very first mission.

~*~

The second instalment of the Kensy and Max series sees the twins in training with the fellow Pharos agents in training, who are also their school friends from the Central London School and their teachers.  After rigorous training and a spectacular Christmas, Kensy and Max head off on a school trip to Rome with their classmates and teachers – most of whom are involved in Pharos. Whilst there, they receive more coded messages from their parents, and the Prime Minister’s son goes missing. Kensy, Max and their friends become embroiled in a mission to save him and stop a plot to undermine the prime minister.

But Kensy and Max miss their parents and Fitz, and are wondering where they are, and why they haven’t made contact since the last coded messages hinting at their whereabouts. As the teachers try to keep a modicum of control, one of the children, Misha Thornhill, has another, ongoing assignment related to Lola Lemmler, the school bully who seems determined to ruin the trip for as many people as possible.

AWW-2018-badge-rose

Travelling through Rome, Kensy and Max spend more time on ciphers and the mystery of the missing boy, than taking in the art, history and architecture of Rome, despite their teachers’ best attempts to ensure they stick with their groups and don’t reveal the existence of Pharos to the few students on the trip not part of the organisation.

As twins go in literature, these days Kensy and Max are definitely my favourites, and this is probably something I would have enjoyed as a child – fun, interesting and filled with adventure, travel and a cipher to unravel. It is exciting and engaging, and the loyalty that Kensy and Max display towards each other and their friends is one of my favourite things about the book and series.

This time, the Pigpen Cipher is used for the chapter headings, and readers of all ages will enjoy the challenge of unscrambling these to discover what each chapter is called.

I am now eagerly awaiting the third instalment to see where Kensy and Max head off next!

Australian Women Writer’s Check-in three: thirty-one to forty-five

AWW-2018-badge-rose

My next fifteen takes me to book 45 of the challenge – The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell. In this set, I read a wide array of fiction – all by authors I had never read before, from contemporary fiction, to historical fiction, literary fiction, and kids’ books that delved into the world of spies, and one of my favourite periods of antiquity, the Minoans and the explosion of Akrotiri on Thera. I read a non-fiction book by Kitty Flanagan, which was more like an extended comedy routine, to mysteries and family legacies.

From World War Two seen through the lens of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, to book illumination in the middle ages, and the melding of various mythologies and histories to create unique characters and voices that stretch out across the decades and centuries to tell stories of war, family, fear and mystery, and the fun of child spies and wildlife adventures.

These next fifteen were recently completed and, the last fifteen will take me to the start of August. Just over half way done for the year, I have read four times what I pledged, and hope to read many more in the months to come, adding to my ever growing list.

Books thirty-one to forty-five

  1. The Jady Lily by Kirsty Manning
  2. The Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader
  3. Burning Bridges and Other Hobbies by Kitty Flanagan
  4. Bluebottle by Belinda Castles
  5. The Upside of Over by J.D. Barrett and Interview
  6. P is for Pearl by Eliza Henry Jones
  7. Into the Night by Sarah Bailey
  8. The Yellow House by Emily O’Grady
  9. Ella and Olivia: A Wild Adventure by Yvette Poshoglian
  10. Kensy and Max: Breaking News by Jacqueline Harvey
  11. Swallow’s Dance by Wendy Orr
  12. We See the Stars by Kate van Hooft.
  13. The Far Back Country by Kate Lyons
  14. Beneath the Mother Tree by D.M. Cameron
  15. The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell

So far I haven’t mentioned favourites on any lists, because there have been so many on the others, but on this one, The Jade Lily, Kensy and Max, Swallow’s Dance and The Peacock Summer are the ones that stood out for me and that I enjoyed the most for various reasons, all stated in my reviews on these books.

Kensy and Max #1: Breaking News by Jacqueline Harvey

kensy and max 1Title: Kensy and Max #1: Breaking News

Author: Jacqueline Harvey

Genre: Kid’s Fiction, Spies

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Published: 26th February 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: What would you do if you woke up in a strange place? If your whole life changed in the blink of an eye and you had no idea what was going on?

Twins Kensy and Max Grey’s lives are turned upside down when they are whisked off to London, and discover their parents are missing. As the situation unfolds, so many things don’t add up: their strange new school, the bizarre grannies on their street, the coded messages they keep finding and the feeling that, all around them, adults are keeping secrets . . .

Things can never go back to the way they were, but the twins are determined to uncover the truth!

~*~

Eleven-year-old twins, Kensy and Max are spirited away to safety in England while their parents mysteriously disappear. All they know is that their parents were in Africa running an aid program when they went missing. Now, in a mysterious house, where they, and their carer, Fitz, are staying before they go to London, secrets are kept, and they begin to find mysterious signs that indicate the people they are with knew they were coming and know them, have perhaps known them for years. Upon moving to London, they are again met with perfectly fitting clothes they have never seen, bedrooms that are exactly what they want, and shelves filled with all their favourite books – and new watches that hint to strange events yet to come. And then there’s school – where everyone seems to know more than they do, and where their friends act strangely. What is going on? The coded messages they start getting bring even more confusion and secrets, and it seems that even the people they thought they could trust are keeping something from them. Nothing will stop these determined twins from uncovering the truth and finding out what is going on.

AWW-2018-badge-roseKensy and Max is a series that features strong characters that will appeal to all readers. Kensy loves taking things apart to see how they work, and can put them back properly, and is rather feisty, where her brother is the calm to her storm, and has a photographic memory. Both are clever enough to work out things aren’t quite right at times. It is quite a journey, and when Kensy and Max start to figure things out, the fast pace of the story moves along with a lot more excitement and intrigue, up until the reveal at the end, which leads into the next book in the series, due out later this year.

I really enjoyed Kensy and Max, and it is a promising start to a series that is aimed at all readers, and not a specific readership. It was a fun and quick read, and using the Caesar Cipher at the back, I was able to unscramble the chapter titles, although sometimes I got so into the story, I didn’t manage to do them all, but the ones that I did do were a lot of fun.

I must say that I am now hooked on Kensy and Max, and can’t wait to read more about them and their adventures in London and beyond!

Booktopia