“Isn’t that too girly?”
It’s one of the questions that bookseller L-J Lacey is asked if she suggests parents buy a book with a female protagonist for their boy.
But it’s not the boys who object to reading stories about girls, says Lacey, who owns Melbourne children’s bookstore Three Four Knock On The Door – it’s the parents. Boys tend to be far more interested in what the story is about than the gender of the protagonist.
“One of my book clubs just happens to be all 9 to 10-year-old boys. We have read several books which featured a female protagonist. The boys have never been bothered,” says Lacey.
“The last book we did was Magrit by Lee Battersby. No one complained that it was about a girl. Some loved the story, some struggled with the concept, but not one had an issues with the female protagonist.”
Lacey says it’s not good enough to just have female secondary characters such as Annabeth in Percy Jackson or Hermione in Harry Potter.
“We need to teach boys that girls are capable and equal. We need to teach them to respect girls,” says Lacey.
Lacey says that 90 per cent of the books she sells have a male protagonist, and customers almost never buy books for boys with a female hero.
In contrast, people buy books for girls with male protagonists all the time. My daughter’s bookshelf is full of Harry Potter, Geronimo Stilton, the Treehouse series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson… you get the idea.
The pattern of filtering out the stories of women from men’s lives carries on into adulthood. It’s well known in the publishing industry that men do not buy books written by women or about women.
Even President Obama’s reading list is a sausage fest. And it’s hard to imagine that Harry Potter would be such a sensation if the books were about a girl witch or published under the name of “Joanne” instead of “J.K.”.
Who cares what a president reads on his holiday or what little Johnny reads before he goes to bed each night? What’s a boy’s reading habits got to do with anything?
Aside from enjoyment, fiction creates space for empathy. Books open up children’s small worlds so they can think about what life might be like for other people – kids who do not enjoy the privileges that come with being white, straight, middle class and male.
Stories about girls teach boys that girls are not just objects or cheerleaders existing only for the support and pleasure of men; that women have skills, ambitions, feelings, and value.
When boys only read stories about boys or men, they’re given the implicit message that stories focusing on people who are different and whose experiences are different from their own are not worth bothering about.
When we encourage boys to disregard the voices of girls in books, is it little wonder so many of them grow up to do the same in business, government, and the media?
Lacey says that censoring boy’s reading so that it only includes stories about boys is damaging to boys as well as girls.
“If a boy is taught that he shouldn’t be reading anything which is considered ‘girly'”, says Lacey, “then we are defining him, we are creating the walls that will box him into a square. We are limiting his potential.”
I am just as guilty as other adults of only buying books for boys with male protagonists. In fact, it had never even occurred to me to buy a boy a book about a girl.
Without even realising it, I’ve been helping to teach boys that, while girls should be interested in their experiences, they need not reciprocate.
The next time I buy a book as a present for a boy, I’m going to make sure it’s about a girl. He can make up his own mind about what he likes.