Shannon Hale is the award-winning, bestselling author of 40 books for beginning readers, middle graders, teens, and adults. Her titles include the graphic novel memoir True friends, Best friendsand Friends forever, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, and The Princess in Black chapter book series, co-written with her husband Dean Hale and also illustrated by Pham. Here Hale discusses the need to overcome our own gender biases when sharing books with young readers.
For nearly two decades, I have been speaking about the ways adult guardians encourage girls to read books about boys, but discourage, prevent, or even shame boys from reading about girls. A couple of years ago, a helpful industry professional let me know that gender reading was no longer an issue. “We’re past that, you don’t need to keep talking about it.”
I had heard that before, always from those who live in the big coastal cities. I can’t say if those parts of our country have evolved beyond that, but I live in a flyover state, and earlier that week, five women had come into my home office one by one to work on a non-editorial project. . They were all mothers who had at least one son and one daughter, and since there were copies of my books in the room, I offered to sign some for their children as a thank you. They all asked me to sign them for their daughter. When I found out that her children were also the target age for the books, I asked if I could sign one for them as well. It was almost comical how identical their reactions were. Uncomfortable. Confused. More than one even uttered those words: “But… it’s a girl’s book.”
So I gave my spiel: how we assume boys won’t want to read about girls, but that’s our own bias. How children do not search for books by genre but by genre and interest. How children should definitely be encouraged to read books about other children, all children deserve to see themselves reflected, but denying children the opportunity to read from another point of view as well is doing them a disservice, because understanding and developing empathy for more than a half. the human race can only help them as they navigate their lives, and so on. I could go on for hours. I promise, I try not to!
I don’t know if I convinced them, but they took the books and, weeks later, one of the women informed me, in shocked tones—that her son had read the books and really liked them!
And so goes the effort. Little by little we try to change things, one parent, one book, one child at a time. It feels like the old teaspoon and the ocean, and sometimes I worry that nothing will get better. When I hear how many people in my own industry don’t believe the problem exists at all, that concern turns to despair.
I wonder if the very people who believe gendered reading is extinct are surprised to witness the aggressive book ban campaign that soared last year, primarily targeting books by BIPOC and LGBTQ authors. Those looking to limit the books kids and teens can read know that books are powerful or they wouldn’t bother. They know that reading is an extraordinary exercise in empathy and they want to limit who children and adolescents learn to empathize with in order to maintain current power structures. There is a very real objective, racist and intolerant.
But I would say that most of the gender reading biases I have found are not fueled by malicious intent. it’s ignorance. Ideologies work best when they feel “natural,” as in “That’s the way it is.” And our cultural ideology has taught us for so long that “girls will read about boys, but boys won’t read about girls” feels like the truth. That statement is putting an innocuous mask on this fundamental belief: girls should (and for their own survival, have to) learn to understand boys, but it is demeaning for boys to understand girls. He reveals that we have created a hierarchy out of the binary opposites of male and female, stating that masculine is aspirational and feminine is demeaning. And completely excluding non-binary people.
When my husband and I first came up with the idea for The Princess in Black series, we wanted to write it specifically for audiences mostly before third grade, in part because third grade is the age when kids have already absorbed that ideology. and it is much more difficult. to unpack. But if, from a young age, boys have read and loved books about girls, the ideology will have a harder time infiltrating their brains.
Here is the advice I received from many people at the time: Children will never willingly read about a princess. If you want boys to read about a girl, you should hide that the book is about a girl.
But that is the point! The book has “Princess” in the title! And a princess on the cover! There is no denying that it is about a girl, and boys will still read it and like it. That’s an experience your third-grade brain won’t be able to erase. And that will show the naysayers!
Eight years later, I’m pleased to report that the naysayers have shown up. Unfortunately, they keep saying no. Especially on Twitter.
Sometimes I get desperate. But then other times I talk to an elementary school teacher who heard me give a talk years ago and she says that it affected the way she chooses books to read aloud. Or a librarian, who noticed how she had been recommending books by genre. Or parents and grandparents, who hadn’t even realized they were only buying children’s books for their kids and started offering the occasional book about a girl or a non-binary character as well. And my hope is sustained enough to keep talking.
When I talk to young children about this topic, I do not mention ideologies or hierarchical binary opposites. (What a fascinating elementary school assembly that would be! Maybe with puppets!) But I continue to approach the subject with openness and honesty, and it was these conversations that inspired my picture book. This book is not for you!
“If a book is about robots, does that mean only robots can read it?”
“NO!” (Kids love to yell no. I love giving them a chance to yell no.)
“If a book is about cats, can only cats read it?”
“If a book is about a child, can only children read it?”
“What if it’s a girl?”
It is very simple logic. The lie of ideology is exposed. The children understand it. And adults too, eventually. Only many teaspoons are needed.