Girls like Boogers, Boys like Romance: Let’s Get Beyond Gender in Children’s Books Already, People!

“Lunch Walks Among Us” the first book in the Mad Scientist series by Franny K. Stein

By Sayantani DasGupta

Back in September 2010, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) sent cyberspace into a tizzy with the article How to Raise Boys who Read. Hint: It’s not with gross-out books and video game bribes.

I don’t think the article is really that controversial. The writer, Thomas Spence, rants a little about Captain Underpants and the ubiquitousness of boogers and other bodily fluids in recent books aimed at boy readers. But the important part of his (okay, slightly old fashioned ‘pro-classical education’ flavored) message seems to be for parents to raise readers by turning off electronics and (*shocker*) having a lot of interesting books around.

But the cybernetic furor among parents was palpable. The Scholastic blogging team at On-Our Minds (OOM) posted an also very reasonable response to the WSJ essay entitled Boys Should be Allowed to Read Books They Choose. The Facebook posting of this article garnered 70+ comments within an hour or two – most of them to the tune of “Fart and poop jokes saved my son from a life of illiteracy — God Bless Captain Underpants.” (Okay, not exactly that, but something along those lines.)

The problem I have with both essays is as follows – neither challenges the assumption that there is something called a “boy book” and a “girl book.” Call me an idealist (or just a mother of both a boy and a girl), but I think girls – if given the opportunity – like a good fart joke as much as the next XY chromosome. And my big reader boy can’t get enough of ‘girl’ titles like the Betsy-Tacey books, the teensy-bit racist Little House series (as I blather about here), and lots of series that happen to have girl protagonists like Judy Moody, Ramona Quimby, and that annoying Junie B. Jones (boy, am I glad that phase is over). Of course, he also gobbles up Harry Potter, Septimus Heap, and Percy Jackson with just as much alacrity.

What’s the big deal, y’all? Are we really that ridiculous?

Because, the other day, we went to a nine-year-old boy’s house, where there happened to be a lot of Ramona Quimby covers in plain sight. To be friendly, I asked him, “Oh, do you like the Ramona books?” (thinking he and my son could talk about them). The boy (who doesn’t have a sister to blame) looks abashed – like he’d been caught in some criminal activity, and shook his head. Then his dad smoothly stepped in, saying “Oh, he loves the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and (yeah, you guessed it) Captain Underpants books.”

Say what? Are we so fixed on boy books and girl books nowadays that big tough dads of schoolboys are ashamed if their sons read a little Beverly Cleary? What, are books with girl heroines too woosy to read or something? Because I clearly missed that parenting memo.

My son and I love the Franny K. Stein books – a girl who doesn’t want to be a ballerina or a princess but a mad scientist with spiders and bats and zombies and stuff. How cool is that? I’m planning on handing my six-year-old daughter the whole set when she gets up to reading them.

And right now, I’m writing a YA fantasy with a lot of boogers. And a princess. Who gets covered in boogers. In fact, I’d like to see more books about, say, farting butterfly fairies or zombie mermaids who fight evil (hm… evil fighting zombie mermaids…let me make a note of that idea).

And let me tell you, my potty-joke and tri-wizard tournament loving son also loved it when Almonzo and Laura courted. Loved it. Big f-n deal, people.

I think the most important lesson I learned from following this cybernetic controversy was that shared by a fellow comment poster on the OOM site. This poster brought the WSJ article to task for failing to recommend what I think is the one of the strongest predictors of raising book-loving boys and girls – which is for families to enjoy books together. (In fact, a while ago, I called for a nationwide reading streak where parents and kids read together at least 10 minutes a day. There were, like crickets chirping in cyberspace after that one…)

I don’t think that we have to get our boys to wear cravats while they read, nor do I think we should limit them to doo-doo based literature because of some false fear of de-masculinizing them. Nor should our daughters only hold that bratty Pinkalicious or the fabulous yet uber-feminine Fancy Nancy as their only role models.

Boys like romance. Girls like boogers.

Let’s stop segregating their books, already.

(Oh, and turn off the TV, take away their video games, and read together as a family while we’re at it.)

End of rant. Bow, bow. Clap, clap.

Originally posted at Sayantani’s blog Stories are Good Medicine. Cross-posted with permission. 

Related Content:

The LEGO Disconnect on Gender

The Pink and Blue Guise of Gender Roles

Can Asian Teen Narratives Get Beyond Tiger Moms and Rebellious Kids?

Should We Ban “Little House” for Racism? 


7 thoughts on “Girls like Boogers, Boys like Romance: Let’s Get Beyond Gender in Children’s Books Already, People!

  1. I loved captain underpants when I was a young girl! And I enjoy male protagonist books like Harry Potter, Eragon and I’ve even read the Percy Jackson series. It’s such a double standard that I can read these ‘male’ books with pride but it’s not the same way for boys and men to read ‘girl’ books. Double Standards suck! It’s exactly why JK Rowling wanted to be JK Rowling and not Joan Rowling. She wanted boys to be able to read and enjoy the books despite the fact that a women wrote it!

  2. I’m the only girl (and oldest child) with three younger brothers, and we’ve all loved reading since the day we could string words together!
    I’ve always been an avid fan of fairy tales, from the classic Grimm stories to the ‘twisted’ re-writes found today; but I also found the Captain Underpants to be absolutely hilarious. I have read a huge variety of ‘girl books’ (of the kick-ass heroine variety; the Gossip Girls et al. series that fill the shelves today are simply nauseating and, quite frankly, teach girls how to be selfish, lying narcissists and take pride in it), as well as ‘boy books’ (Star Wars, Captain Underpants, The Animorphs, etc.).

    My brothers tend to be a little more restricted in their tastes, but I’ve often managed to convince them to at least take a peek at some ‘girl books’ which I knew they’d enjoy (Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series, for example).

    Parents should definitely be encouraging their kids to explore all types of books, of all different genres. Your sons won’t be social outcasts if they read about princesses who become knights, and your daughters won’t be rejected by boys if they read about the great Jedi Masters.

  3. I love this article. I am a girl who LOVES all kinds of books, except for Twighlight, The Hunger Games, and almost every popular book out there. I seem to be the only person ON THE PLANET my age who has not read The Hunger Games, and I often feel left out. But that’s not the kind of book that I like, and I have to stick by that.

  4. My daughter, now 10, always hated what she calls ‘pink princessy stuff’, but rejected books targeted at boys too. Largely because both sets of books were boring, and because she could not identify with any of it. She always loved reading though, so between the ages of 5 and 8, it was ver, very difficult to find suitable books. Fortunately, through being an avid reader of anything we did find, her reading ability quickly allowed her to read YA books. By following her interest in dragons, we discovered a treasure trove of brilliant books in the fantasy genre, where admittedly some books are gender stereo-typical, but quite a few are not. I wonder how many children of any gender are turned off reading at the earlier age, because gender binaries are ubiquitous and really just dreadfully boring. Honestly, how many books about pretty princesses or farts can anyone be bothered to read?

  5. Good article! I don’t really have anything particularly interesting to say other than that I liked it, so thanks!

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