Monday, June 9, 2008

Is this a boy book or a girl book?

It's that time of the year again, the time when reluctant readers are dragged kicking and screaming to their local libraries to get those required books for summer reading. This can be a painful process for librarians, teens, parents, and teachers because those least enthusiastic readers have mastered the art of the shrug with the downcast eyes and the muttered, "I dunno," when asked if they'd read and enjoyed any book in the past year. Over the years I've become pretty good at getting books for reluctant readers that they don't hate too much, but there is one question about summer reading books, usually asked by parents, that always makes me tense up a little.

"Is this a boy book or a girl book?"

There's no hiding the gender of the main character of a book, unless maybe you're reading Cycler or Freak Show. 99.95 percent of YA books have a main character who's definitely male or definitely female and that's it. And 99.95 percent of parents of boys are convinced that their child is not going to want to read a book with a female main character. They've bought into the media's idea that all YA books with female main characters are a theme and variation on Gossip Girl. And really, if they don't read YA otherwise, why would they think it wasn't?

One day in the stacks, I had a moment of genius. Holding a pile of books for a would-be reader and his mother who had obviously dragged him by the hair to the library (I'm being melodramatic here), I said, "There is no such thing as a boy book or a girl book. There are only books you like and books you don't like."

I was floored when the mother said, "You know, that's a good point." Not so much because I had a good point, but because she agreed.

It's clear to anyone with eyes that there are many YA titles obviously marketed to a female audience. I can't imagine most boys being interested in most of Meg Cabot's books for the covers, for example, because they're usually some combination of pink, purple, sparkly, or featuring a fashionably dressed woman. But there are many more books out there with covers that are less gender-specific, and those are not a difficult sell to boys. I haven't met a boy yet who's been able to resist my Heir Apparent booktalk. I think boys in Talk It Up! this summer will really enjoy Magic or Madness, which features magic, urban adventures, math, and a female protagonist. Through my work, I've become more and more convinced that it's about the writing and the characterization, not whether the main character is male or female. Prospective readers are willing to give you ten seconds to talk about the book. They're willing to hear what the story is about and if the concept of the book sounds interesting enough, boys won't have a problem going for a female protagonist.

A pink cover, on the other hand, is a little bit harder to work past.

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