Despite a huge chunk of both Smith’s fans and YA readers being female, some argued that Smith’s words and writing weren’t something to be worried about because girls weren’t his target audience. This is foolish for a few reasons: characters (girls or otherwise) should be fleshed out as a part of good writing, regardless of who the target audience is; and because a target audience happens to be of one gender doesn’t mean that representation of the other gender should lack. Some are also quick to point out the issues in YA that reflect poorly on and put pressure on boys, as if claims like that mean that sexism doesn’t exist. But sexism against women creates archetypes and tropes that put constructs on boys. To talk about that pressure without tracing back where it came from is to ignore the institute of sexism as a whole.
We expect 8yo girls to be entertained by/go along with stories about boys. We protect 8yo boys from stories about girls.
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) April 6, 2015
In a piece full of unsourced statistics and an underlying misogynistic tone, Robert Lipstye broadcasted his thoughts on why boys don’t read to the New York Times. Lipstye longed for the days of ladies who “wrote well about both genders” and stated the old argument that “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.”
The Mary Sue already raked Lipstye across the coals for the opinion piece, dismantling each argument with the expertise of a site long frustrated with the dismissal of lady-led narratives, but Lipstye isn’t the only one who views lady-led novels as something boys will not inherently read. It’s a belief that runs through the publishing industry, tainting the way books are marketed, the way covers are presented, the way that books as a form of media are engaged in.
And never once does Lipstye stop to wonder why it is that boys don’t want to read about girls.
“There’s a myth that books need to have characters young readers can ‘identify with,’ but the exact opposite is true: literature gives us a chance to view the world through another person’s eyes, to consider a perspective that is different from our own. This is vital because it teaches empathy,” Eastern Michigan University professor Annette Wannamaker told Graham Shelby in his Salon piece “Katniss is a hero for boys, too.”
If boys don’t want to read about girls, it’s because they’ve been taught that reading about a girl is wrong, that it’s something to be shamed for – something that girls never need learn, as reading about boys is perfectly okay. If boys don’t want to read about girls, it’s because they’ve been taught that acting like a girl is wrong, that it’s something to be shamed for – something that girls never need learn, as acting like or empathizing with a boy is perfectly okay.
Girls are expected – and encouraged – to read & enjoy books about boys. Suggesting that boys only read about themselves hurts everyone.
— Kate Messner (@KateMessner) August 17, 2015
“We do a huge disservice to our children and their ability to grow into compassionate, thoughtful, empathetic adults when we steer them away from things we think of as ‘belonging’ to the other gender,” wrote Elizabeth Bluemle for Publisher’s Weekly entitled “He Won’t Read Books About Girls.” “If The Hunger Games had featured Katniss on the cover instead of a gold medallion against a black background, sales to boys would have been fractional. This is a frustrating truth. And it’s our fault. We steer kids—no, we steer boys—away from stories they might respond to from a very early age.”
The idea that boys cannot read about girls is one that is taught to them from a young age and in convoluted ways. Booksellers deal with it on a regular basis – one noting that they could not sell a board book to a customer because owls “are only in boy books.” If boys don’t internalize biases from parents, they can pick up on it in other places, like school.
Shannon Hale reflected on the boys who do come to her signings in a separate post entitled “Why boys don’t read girls (sometimes),” noting the same things I do: that boys, if they don’t internalize biases from home, will internalize them at school. Many of the boys who proudly attend her events are homeschooled, with boys at school events often booing things in her presentation considered feminine or, if they do enjoy her work, are too embarrassed to come up to her (or, in at least one case, not allowed to come.) And if boys come with their sisters to her events and become interested in her work, Hale has seen – on more than one occasion – a parent turn down their son because her books are “girl” books.
I think the die-hard proponents of gendering books want to exclude boys who don’t fit their idea of what boys should be.
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) September 17, 2015
“I probably don’t have to explain to you that there is not a single element in Shannon Hale’s books—biological, social, intellectual, emotional—that eschews male participation, unless you simply believe that books about girls written by women are automatically of zero interest to a young boy and have zero value to his development,” wrote Jordan Brown in his post “On Curiosity” for Stacked. “Which, apparently, many people do.”
A librarian put my name forward to keynote a book festival, but a committee member said, “what about the boys?” so they chose a man instead.
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) March 25, 2015
“[I]f a boy wants action and adventure? And loves stories about spies, with some humor? And you tell them about a great series about teens who are in a secret spy school, learning how to be spies in their regular classes and going on missions, and using and inventing cool gadgets, and the only reason that boy says “no” to that series is because it’s author is a woman, the spies in question are teenage girls, and the covers show girls, then there is something wrong. The book has all the elements for the reading story that reader wants, and the reason for the “no” is based entirely on the main characters being girls,” wrote Elizabeth Burns for “Boy Books or Girl Books” for the School Library Journal’s blog. “If boys will read fantasies were the cast of characters is mice or cats, why not read ones with girls?”
Or, as Gayle Forman asked at the Gender Less panel of Reading Matters 2013, “Why is it acceptable for girls to go into the boys’ world, but not for the boys to go into the girls’ world?”