Gender Preferences in Children’s Literature
Guest Author: Mary Lee Hahn, author of Reconsidering Read-Aloud (Stenhouse, 2002)

Several years ago, one of my fifth grade boys who had “discovered” the Hardy Boys picked out his favorite book in the series and told me that I just had to read it. I agreed to read his Hardy Boy favorite if he would read my Nancy Drew favorite. The look on his face spoke volumes. Clearly, it hadn't crossed his mind that I wouldn't want to read a “boy” book, and just as clearly, he couldn't backpedal fast enough to get out of a situation that might result in him reading a “girl” book. I eased his discomfort by posing the scenario to the class as a whole. I asked the girls, “Would you be willing to read a ‘boy' book?” They saw no problem with that. In fact, they did it all the time already. They could put themselves in the place of a boy main character with no hesitation. However, not a single boy in the class would be caught dead with a “girl” book. And the thought of putting themselves in the place of a girl main character? “EWWW! No way!”

There seem to be two ways of approaching gender in children's literature. One way is to make it an issue of equity—how many books have girl main characters versus how many have boy main characters. Those who count such things have found that there are more boy main characters. Not only that, but the boy main characters get active, adventurous roles where they have a chance to make a difference on their own, and girl main characters get passive roles where they depend on others to make a difference.

Another approach, the one I'll take here, is to acknowledge that since there are some books that more girls will read and some books that more boys will read, let's make sure that both kinds are of the highest quality. Let's find as many books as possible that appeal to both boys and girls, and let's do what we can to break down the stereotypes that keep boys from being able to imaginatively put themselves into the place of a female character so that our boys have access to as many great books as our girls do!

Classroom Connections

Create a Gender-Based Fairy Tale Unit

Traditional fairy tales generally encompass all the gender stereotypes you could ever imagine in a single piece of literature. We tolerate them because the tales are old, and therefore are glimpses of cultural history. Middle-grade readers might believe that reading fairy tales is way beneath them, unless you give them the task of dissecting the gender biases and debating whether or how much things have changed in our modern culture.

Once your students get reacquainted with traditional fairy tales, encourage them to read some alternative (a.k.a. feminist or “fractured”) fairy tales, such as “Prince Cinders” by Babette Cole, where the gender roles are reversed. Encourage them to read retellings of fairy tales from other cultures, such as the Chinese Little Red Riding Hood, “Lon Po Po,” by Ed Young. Then challenge them to rewrite a fairy tale in which they reverse or otherwise mix up the gender roles.

Use Literature Circles to Start Gender Discussions

Your classroom can be the safe place where boys and girls feel free to read books they would never be caught dead carrying through the halls of the school. Ask the girls to pick a great girl book that they think boys should read, and instruct the boys to do the same. You can negotiate with the groups about whether they will read and discuss the books in mixed groups, or in single-gender groups—they might feel they need the safety of their own gender group for the initial reading and discussion. You might need to attend the discussions to help the groups monitor their own gender biases and stereotypes.

Lead a Parent-Child Book Club

Another way I get students to try out books they wouldn't ordinarily read comes when the members of my parent-child book club (a voluntary group which meets one evening a month) choose what book to read next. Most years, there is a mix of genders in the club, and we pay close attention to alternating books with a strong male and a strong female protagonist. Some years, the club has been all girls, and we spend the year reading mostly books with strong female characters. Last year, the club was all boys and their moms. Frequently, the moms lobbied unsuccessfully for a book with a strong female character, and wound up reading that book as well as the one their sons chose!

A Few Great Books for Boys

Bloor, Edward. Tangerine. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
  It's about sports and sportsmanship, sibling rivalry, culture and socioeconomic class, and the destruction of the environment in Florida. You won't be able to put it down.
Paulsen, Gary. Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered. NY: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993.
  In my mind, this is the quintessential “boy book.”
Scieszka, Jon, ed. Guys Write For Guys Read. New York: Viking, 2005.
  Short-short pieces by male authors that will appeal to middle-grade male readers, and three-book bibliographies that will help guys who read (or those who are trying to get them to) find just the right books. This is a must-have resource!

A Few Great Books for Girls

Avi. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. New York: Viking, 1990.
  You have to be patient for exactly one half of the book for Charlotte to change from prissy to strong, but it's worth the wait.
Hale, Shannon. The Goose Girl. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Hale, Shannon. Enna Burning. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. (companion to The Goose Girl)
Hale, Shannon. Princess Academy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.
  Hale is currently my favorite children's author. Strong female characters and fabulous writing.
Wrede, Patricia. Dealing With Dragons. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
  The first of four books in which a princess chooses to live with dragons (strong, female dragons) as her way of escaping the intolerable princes who are trying to claim her for marriage.

A Few Great Books for Boys AND Girls

These books feature both a strong male AND a strong female protagonist. DuPrau and Snicket throw in a cute baby, as well.

Avi. The Book Without Words: A Fable of Medieval Magic. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2005.
DuPrau, Jeanne. The City of Ember. New York: Random House, 2003.

DuPrau, Jeanne. The People of Sparks. New York: Random House, 2004. (sequel to The City of Ember )

Snicket, Lemony.A Series of Unfortunate Events. HarperCollins.