Shannon Hale is the bestselling, award-winning author of 40 books for early readers, middle graders, teens, and adults. Her titles include the graphic novel memoirs Real Friends, Best Friends, and 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 gatekeepers 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 gendered reading wasn’t an issue anymore. “We’ve moved past that, you don’t need to keep talking about it.”
I’d heard that before, always from those who live in large coastal cities. I can’t say if those parts of our country have evolved beyond it, but I live in a flyover state, and that very same week, five women had come into my home office one by one to work on a non-publishing project. All were mothers who had at least one son and one daughter, and as copies of my books were in the room, I offered to sign some for their kids as a thank you. Every single one asked me to sign them to their daughter. When I learned their sons were also the target age of 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 spoke those words: “But… it’s a girl book.”
So I gave my spiel: how we assume that boys won’t want to read about girls, but that’s our own bias. How kids don’t look for books based on gender but by genre and interest. How boys should definitely be encouraged to read books about other boys—all kids deserve to see themselves reflected—but that denying boys the opportunity to also read from another point of view is doing them a disservice, because understanding and developing empathy for more than half the human race can only help them as they navigate their lives, and so on and on. I could go on for hours. I promise, I try not to!
I didn’t know if I convinced them, but they did take the books, and weeks later one of the women reported to me—in shocked tones—that her son had read the books and actually liked them!
And this is how the effort goes. We slowly try to change things, one parent, one book, one kid at a time. It feels like the ol’ teaspoon and the ocean, and sometimes I worry that nothing really gets better. When I hear how many people in my own industry don’t think the problem exists at all, that worry dips toward despair.
I wonder if the same people who believe gendered reading is extinct are surprised to witness the aggressive campaign of book banning that has soared in the past year, primarily targeting books by BIPOC and LGBTQ authors. Those who seek to limit what 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 kids and teens learn to empathize with in order to maintain the current power structures. There is a very real, racist, bigoted objective.
But I would say most of the gendered reading bias I’ve encountered is not fueled by bad intent. It’s ignorance. Ideologies work their sneaky best when they feel “natural,” as in, “That’s just the way things are.” And our cultural ideology has for so long taught us “girls will read about boys, but boys won’t read about girls” that it feels like truth. That statement is putting an innocuous mask on this foundational belief: girls should (and for their own survival, must) learn to understand boys, but it’s demeaning for boys to understand girls. It reveals that we’ve created a hierarchy out of the binary opposites of male and female, asserting that the masculine is aspirational and the feminine is degrading. And excluding non-binary individuals entirely.
When my husband and I first had the idea for The Princess in Black series, we wanted to write it specifically for the mostly pre-third grade audience, partly because third grade is the age when kids have already absorbed that ideology and it’s so much harder 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 got from many people at the time: boys are never going to willingly read about a princess. If you want boys to read about a girl, you need to disguise that the book is about a girl.
But that’s the whole point! The book has “Princess” in the title! And a princess on the cover! There is no denying it’s about a girl—and the boys will still read it and like it. That’s an experience their third-grade brain won’t be able to erase. And that will show the naysayers!
Eight years later, I am happy to report that the naysayers have been shown. Alas, they continue saying nay. Especially on Twitter.
Sometimes I despair. But then other times, I talk to an elementary school teacher who heard me give a talk years ago and says it affected how she chooses books for read aloud. Or a librarian, who noticed how he’d been recommending books by gender. Or parents and grandparents, who hadn’t even realized that they only bought books about boys for their boys and started offering the occasional book about a girl or non-binary character too. And my hope is sustained enough for me to keep speaking up.
When I talk to young kids about this topic, I don’t bring up hierarchal binary opposites or ideologies. (What a riveting lower elementary assembly that would make! Perhaps with puppets!!!) But I still address the topic frankly and honestly, 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 shouting no. I love to give them opportunities to shout no.)
“If a book is about cats, can only cats read it?”
“If a book is about a boy, can only boys read it?”
“What if it’s about a girl?”
It’s very simply logic. The lie of the ideology is exposed. The kids get it. And so do the adults, eventually. It just takes a lot of teaspoons.