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My first published book was a sci-fi thriller from the sole, first-person point of view of an 18-year-old boy.
It was surprisingly easy to slide into that perspective, even as a 40-something woman, particularly in that genre. Most of the thrillers I'd read—and the thriller movies I'd seen—were from a man's point of view. As novelist Sally Koslow was quoted in an article in The Atlantic about authors writing different genders, "By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex, because our whole lives we've been reading vast amounts of literature written by men."
But that discussion, along with the further issues of non-binary gender and perspective, are for another day. Here, I want to talk about how kids' books are so often categorized into two camps—for boys and for girls—and thought about and marketed that way. Or worse, the books with a male main character are targeted for both groups and "girl" books are restricted, intentionally or unintentionally, to girls only.
I've seen it. My third published book was a fantasy about the Nutcracker ballet, from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl.
The books are with different publishers, and I have no complaints about how either book was marketed. But I saw a definite difference in tactics, and response.
My first book was profiled in "The Big Thrill," a magazine for thriller writers. It was on blog tours, and a promotional email from the publisher. It was also featured in Justine magazine, which is targeted at young teen girls, even though it had a male MC. The book was reviewed by men and women, teens of every identity. I went on a 19-city tour, and my audiences were mixed, and all ages.
With my middle-grade book, the marketing was primarily Christmas-themed, and targeted at ballet markets. The cover is green with holly and ivy. The only overt signal that it was about a girl was the image of a female ballet dancer on the front, and the use of the word "she" in the flap copy.
But even among real-life friends, to my knowledge it was only purchased for girls. Every adult who had me inscribe it as a present told me it was for a girl: a niece, a daughter, a granddaughter. I did 12 events: almost all of the attendees were girls and their parents. Sometimes boys would wander by, get interested, and stay to listen…but they didn't buy books, and they didn't come on purpose. When I sat at a table in a bookstore, people would be interested in the plot, but the excuse was "Oh, I would, but I don't have any girls that age to buy for."
But it has football too, I'd say. But her partner-in-adventure is a boy. Why is it only for girls?
Because as Shannon Hale pointed out in an earlier #kidlitwomen post, we have a problem. Boys are not encouraged to read books with female main characters, because it's believed they won't identify with them (even though girls read books about everyone). There are certain triggers that turn adults off giving a book to a boy—ballet is one of them, apparently. Pink and princesses are other obvious triggers. It'll be interesting to see next year how my Neverland middle-grade does, with equal brother and sister points of view.
So we know the problem. What can we do to address it?
The first point is for each of us to make a conscious effort to be aware of our own biases, notice other biases around us, and correct them where possible. I still find myself looking at pink books and thinking "girl." I need to stop that. I need to expand my thinking as to who books are for, and remove labels. What do non-binary kids think when they are faced with these strict categorizations? They shouldn't have to deal with that. We all need to expand our thinking.
When adults ask us for book recommendations for kids, or teens ask us for recommendations for themselves, we need to purposely step outside expectations. Don’t frame books as gender-based. Recommend thrillers, romances, fantasies, mysteries, science fiction to readers without putting labels on them. Make sure to include diverse books in other ways too: books by people of color, books by LGBTQIA authors, books by authors with disabilities. Don't assume that white straight boys only want to read about white straight boys. Don't assume at all. And if gatekeepers give you grief, challenge them about it to the extent you can.
The second point is to look more carefully at marketing plans, and how events are framed. If you as the author have any input, make sure your marketing is not gender-based, that your events are welcoming to all. Take off labels wherever you can.
We need to make a world where kids can read all books without feeling shame or pressure, and be encouraged to do so.