“Is it a girl book?”
It’s a question I have been asked more times than I can count in the six months since the publication of my first young adult novel, The Girl Who Fell, which my husband and I wrote under the pen name Violet Grace.
Revealingly, the question often comes from adults more than it does from the young adult readers at whom the book is targeted.
That comes as no surprise to international bestselling and award-winning children’s author Belinda Murrell.
Murrell, who speaks to thousands of children every year at schools around Australia, says the gender gatekeepers of books are often librarians, teachers and parents who make assumptions about which books are for girls and which books are for boys.
“Often schools prefer to book a male author as they assume that their books will appeal to both boys and girls, while they may choose not to book female authors as they assume their books will only appeal to girls,” says Murrell who has penned 32 books in her career.
It’s little wonder two-thirds of best-selling children’s books have male protagonists and even animals and inanimate objects such as crayons in children's books are 73 per cent more likely to be male than female.
While girls and women routinely read books with both male and female protagonists, boys and men typically only read books about boys and men. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that if Harry Potter was Harriet Potter it would not be the biggest selling book series in history.
With this in mind, when my husband, Christopher Scanlon, and I started writing our young adult fantasy series we debated making the protagonist male to increase the potential readership.
In the end we decided on a female protagonist, partly because that was the story we wanted to write, and partly because we are idealists.
We both passionately believe that the stories of girls and women are just as valid and worth telling as the stories of boys and men. We also hoped our fast-paced plot and universal message about finding your power and learning not to fear it would entice male readers to see beyond gender.
But our goal to bridge the gender divide was always going to be a challenge.
“Boys will not pick up this book, and they should. They’d enjoy it as much as girls,” said children’s bookseller LJ Lacey when she saw that the cover of The Girl Who Fell featured a picture of a girl.
A girl on the cover of a book, or simply “girl” colours such as pink, purple or pastels are often enough to deter a boy — or the person with the money — from even touching the book on the shelves, as if it could transmit “girl germs” on contact.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible to get boys to read “girl books”. It sometimes just requires getting around the gatekeeper.
In Belinda Murrell’s experience, just one conversation with young boys where she tells them about her books and explains that lots of other boys read them and love them can be enough to shatter their gender prejudice.
“I love how many boys decide to give my books a try and queue up to buy my books and have them signed,” says Murrell whose books range from fantasy such as The Sun Sword Trilogy aimed at teens to the Lulu Bell series aimed at younger readers.
Sadly, as these young boys with open minds grow into teens, their gender bias can become harder to shift.
Social commentator and bestselling author Jane Caro says she recently experienced open hostility from a group of senior boys attending her author talk for her historical fiction series about Queen Elizabeth I.
“The phalanx of year 12 private school boys with their legs wide and their arms crossed were an intimidating audience,” says Caro whose most recent young adult book Just Flesh and Blood was published last year. “Is this generation of young men better able to hear women tell their stories than their fathers and grandfathers were, as is claimed, or not? I came away unsure.”
When boys grow up believing stories about women are unimportant they lose far more than the opportunity to read great books.
For starters, half the world is female so these boys and men are effectively depriving themselves of half of the world’s ideas and culture.
They may also be crippling themselves socially and emotionally. Story is a powerful means by which we see and experience, to some extent at least, the world from another’s point of view. Men and boys who are never encouraged to even try to understand, relate and respect the experiences and stories of girls and women are missing out on those valuable lessons in empathy.
Books that present women as little more than side-kicks and decorations, rather than fully-formed agents, also help to create and maintain a culture where women are secondary to — and lesser than — men.
No doubt the gender gatekeepers for boys reading want what’s best for boys. But the sooner they forget about “girl books” and encourage boys to read, enjoy and learn from perspectives other than just their own, the better.
Kasey Edwards is the co-author of The Chess Raven Chronicles under the pen name Violet Grace.