Do boys and girls need different books? Certainly you see them in the bookstores: books with pink covers and princesses, packaged with necklaces, in one corner, and over in another the trucks and dinosaurs and monsters. Jon Sciezska, wearing his "Guys Read" hat in the Horn Book magazine some months ago, claimed that boys want to read about things and girls want to read about relationships. He seemed, in other words, to be calling for more monster-truck books to keep boys reading. I recently attended a conference on fantasy literature where some women writers, bemoaning the plethora of princesses, called for more "kick-ass" heroines for girls to read about. I know they thought they were taking a feminist line, calling for active heroines instead of the passive ones implied by the pink-covered princess books I've been seeing in the stores. But both Sciezska and the anti-princess folks make me just a little uncomfortable in their easy assumptions about what boys and girls will and won't read.
My son Nick is ten now, and he's not limiting his reading to monster or truck (or monster-truck) stories at all. In fact, we've just finished reading a story together about a nine-year-old girl, Tiffany Aching, protagonist of Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men. True, the eponymous men of the title are also in evidence, and their skills are drinking, stealing, and fighting, so I guess we're getting a bit of the "boy stuff" in there as well. But Tiffany, the main character, while indubitably a girl, is a thoughtful, imaginative, interesting child who is, I believe, equally appealing to boys and girls. She appealed to Nick in part, I think, because in an early scene in the novel she uses a frying pan (why not?) as a weapon. He clearly identified with her. It would be a shame if she made it onto the "kick-ass" heroine lists, only to be lost to boy readers at the same time.
In an earlier book by Pratchett, Truckers (a monster-truck story if there ever was one), both things and relationships turn out to be central to how the main characters (both male and female) make their escape from the department store (yes, you read that right!) that imprisons them. Both books are also centrally concerned with the importance of story-making to life: Tiffany reads in order to understand herself better, and the "nomes" who populate Truckers live their lives by a sacred text. The problem is that they have only one text, however, and it doesn't prepare them for their changing world. Tiffany does better, as she reads omnivorously, though her options are limited (she's living on a sheep farm and her family owns only three books). She doesn't stop to think about whether she's reading a "girl" book or a "boy" one, about relationships or things: she devours stories and they both teach and empower her.
When I was in the tenth grade our English class took on "coming of age" novels. We read The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, and (one of my favorite, though still under-read, boarding school novels) Good Times/Bad Times. All three are set in single-sex boys' boarding schools, and there are few women or girls in them. My (male) teacher, I remember, told us we should be able to "identify" with these characters because they were teenagers like us.
Did I mention that this was an all-girl class? Did I even notice, at the time, that we had read not one novel about a girl?
I did not. And reading those books stretched me, moved me to think about what boys thought about when they wanted to hold hands with a girl, or have an intimate friendship, or avoid or enter a war.
Reading about boys--whether or not I could "identify" with them -- taught me something about the men and boys in my own life. And about the girls and women.
Of course, girls have done this for years -- read books and plays and poems from the man's point of view because the woman's was unavailable or thought to be inconsequential. But while they were doing that, they were getting a glimpse of a world that might otherwise be opaque or inaccessible to them: the world of men. Boys, on the other hand, got little of the world of women in their reading. (This has, incidentally, been true for as long as there have been books for children; "boy" books got their start much earlier in the nineteenth century than "girl" books because there was no stigma attached to girls reading things for boys, while the reverse was, of course, the case.) Feminist scholars have worked for years to integrate literary canons, expanding the range of works taught in college and high school and on down the line, and their labors have not been in vain. Their goal, it seems to me, was mostly to give girls and women a glimpse of themselves, an opportunity to "identify" with a heroine instead of desiring a hero, but I think it's worked even better than that, broadening the range of books for boys as well. When I ask my college students what they read in tenth grade, they still list The Catcher in the Rye but also The Bluest Eye, A Separate Peace but also I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And that's all to the good -- in some ways my experience resonates more fully with Salinger than Morrison, and in other ways Morrison speaks to me more profoundly than Salinger, and it should be that way for everyone.
The books I read with Nick have never been particularly gendered. He went through a period of wanting only animal stories, and another of wanting what we called "fact" books (non-narrative non-fiction, which is a tough sell for me, but I did my best). Lately he's on a big fantasy kick, and there are plenty of heroines in contemporary fantasy literature (and, yes, they're mostly pretty kick-ass). I recently read him A Wrinkle in Time, a book from my own past, and I was pleased to see that Meg Murray interested him as much as Calvin O'Keefe -- maybe more, since, like Meg, Nick's good at math. On his own, he's just finished The True Meaning of Smekday and Skulduggery Pleasant, two of the most inventive fantasy novels I've read in the last year -- both, again, with female protagonists. (It is true, however, that Skulduggery co-stars a skeleton who at least appears to have been a man, not a woman, when he was still enfleshed. Eww!) The Name of this Book is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch (sure to appeal to fans of the Lemony Snicket books), features both a boy and a girl in the central roles. And after seeing "The Golden Compass," Nick read his way through Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy with the same obsessive attention he gave to Harry Potter last summer. Nick's not immune to the gender ideologies that so permeate kid culture -- he's still likely to pick up a stick and think of it as a weapon, which is something I don't recall ever doing. And he's unlikely to choose a book with a pink cover. But the books he has read have opened up worlds to him, telling him stories that provide both things and relationships, monster trucks and kick-ass heroines (and a couple of heroes, too). It may be that fantasy literature does this better than realism, these days, but I hope the vision these books provide, of equally inventive and active heroes and heroines, isn't just a fantasy to him.