At a recent school visit a boy at the back of the room asked, ‘Is it a boy book or a girl book?’
I was pleased his question came at the end of my talk and that he hadn’t already made up his own mind but I hesitated when it came to the answer. I should probably have said ‘girl’ – after all, my books have not one but two heroines. I mean, who am I trying to kid? But I knew many boys had enjoyed reading about Opal Moonbaby and Martha, and I didn’t want to be discouraging.
If you look at the way Opal Moonbaby is marketed you would say at once that these are girl books – one of them is pink, for heaven’s sake! They are dubbed suitable for 7+ girls who like to read about friendship. And they are. But does that make books like mine solely suitable for girls? I really hope not. Yes, the girls are the main characters but friendship is a universal theme, and fantasy characters and adventures can be enjoyed by both sexes.
And anyway, don’t we want boys to read about girls sometimes? What better way could there be of getting to know and understand the opposite sex, especially for only children or families where the children are all of one gender? Where else but from a book are we going to find out how the other 50% of the world really think?
This seems especially important to me in an age where children are constantly subjected to images of the opposite sex, not all of which are designed to help them make deep and meaningful relationships with them. I don’t want to get too heavy here, but for many boys, the sight of inappropriate images of girls on the Internet and elsewhere may be just around the corner. Someone who has read about what girls are really like, from the get-go, will more than likely be able to rise above all that stuff and see beyond it.
I’m sure books used not to be marketed in this way but I can see why it’s happened. There are so many books out there and people choosing are so often short of time, it’s tempting to help them by categorising. But think of the books we might have missed if we’d done this in the past. Would boys have read books with female protagonists? Charlotte’s Web, ‘The Borrowers’ or ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’? Would girls have read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’? Would I have known and loved ‘Little Pete’ if it hadn’t been on my brother’s bookshelf?
I put it to you that the best men read ‘girl’ books as well as ‘boy’ books. Here’s my evidence. My husband grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ stories. Admittedly he may be something of an exception, but I can definitely vouch for his ability to empathise with females!
Boys and girls are different and those differences need celebrating, but let’s not turn them apart from one another at the very beginning of their reading lives. What great books might they miss?