When my teacher assigned this book I was deeply unhappy. Despite growing up on a diet of picture books featuring both boys and girls, despite learning to read with the “Dick and Jane” primers, I was utterly certain that I’d hate this book. Why? Because the main character is a boy.
Boys. Ick. Cooties.
My reaction mystifies me to this day. I’ve been chasing boys since I learned to walk, and I’ve been a history freak just as long. When we moved out to Stony Brook, with its rich colonial history, I spent ages wandering around thinking “Oh, girls wearing mob caps walked here, right here where I am walking now! And men in breeches! Carrying flintlocks and churning their own butter.” Though not at the same time.
But there you have it. Children are perverse at the best of times, and I was no different. Thank goodness for my A-student mentality. The book was assigned and so the book was read, damnit. You can guess the punchline: I loved it! I couldn’t figure out what I’d been making such a fuss about. I cared intensely what happened to Johnny, and not a whit about his gender. I still remember the horrible accident that fused his thumb onto his hand, and the amazing operation that restored him to full opposable status once more.
And thus the world of literature opened its aperture for me, allowing all manner of wonderful to fly in without prejudice. Why, I even found myself loving White Fang, whose eponymous hero is a dog. A boy dog at that.
I started thinking about this because Katy Guest, books editor at the Independent on Sunday, just vowed that they would no longer review gender-specific children’s books. For the full explanation read: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/genderspecific-books-demean-all-our-children-so-the-independent-on-sunday-will-no-longer-review-anything-marketed-to-exclude-either-sex-9194694.html.
She’s absolutely right, a good read is a good read, and we do kids a disservice if we pander to the notion that girls only want to read about relationships and beauty treatments, while boys want action and adventure. When I fell in love with Nancy Drew it was as much for the way she zipped around town in a chic red roadster as for her sleuthing skills, and I had no time at all for her friend Bess, who was obsessed with “girly” pursuits.
By the time I was in Sixth Grade (so around 11 years old, or so?) I was team captain in the boys v girls feminist debate, which we won because I threatened the lone undecided voter (a boy) with GBH if he didn’t come down on the side of us feminists. (Yes, if rhetoric fails, go directly to violence. What a jolly child I was. Let’s blame the parents.) Yet only a year or two earlier I’d been repelled by the idea of reading about a male protagonist. Which just shows to go you that even a youngster with right on ideas about equality needs a nudge now and then. I can’t imagine what it’s like for today’s youth, given the rampant pink princess mentality. It feels to me as though things have worsened rather than improved.
The answer is promiscuity. Let’s encourage kids (and ourselves) to read voraciously and widely, dipping in and out of genres, choosing authors regardless of their sex or age. Mix things up. Don’t shy from a challenge, but don’t feel you have to ignore a comfortable, cozy text, either. My feeling is as long as we keep reading, we’re going to be all right.