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!