Today, I would like to talk about the gender issue in YA literature. I read a few interesting articles and chapters from among my secondary sources relating to these issues, but nothing drives the point home quite like contemporary articles on the subject.
Let's talk first about Maureen Johnson. I love Maureen, even though I have never read a single one of her books (yet. I own Name of the Star and can't wait until I have that mythical "free time" with which to read it.). I found her about two years ago, while she was guest vlogging for John Green on the vlogbrothers youtube channel, and since then I have added her on facebook, twitter and tumblr. Needless to say, I can not seem to get enough of her. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that she likes dramaturgy, or simply the fact that she is awesome. She often links to important issues, articles having to do with the YA world, and other interesting things, and recently she linked to an article about an elementary school in Missouri that has created what is essentially a "boys only" reading section.
The article explains how the section, called "The Cave", was created to encourage young boys to read. The boys were given a sense of ownership early on when they were encouraged to volunteer in the actual build of this area. While girls are not expressly banned from the area, the books found within it are affixed with a label that reads "It's a Guy Thing!".
At first glance, I figured this article would make me really happy. It has always (apparently) been more difficult to get boys to read than it has been to convince girls; although you would not know that based how my friends and I read. It should stand to reason that any steps taken towards evening out the ratio of boy--girl readers should be a step in the right direction, but reason has taken a seat on this one. There are some good things happening at this elementary school; for instance the librarians have used thousands of dollars in grants to build up their collection of "boy-oriented"--which translates to fantasy, adventure, and "gross" (Getting to Know Your Toilet)-- titles. However, the books were then placed in this Cave area which is, for lack of a better word, a discriminatory space which may encourage the boys to sit and read, but simultaneously sending a not-so-subtle message to girls.
While everyone is welcome in the cave, there is a latent message sent that by reading books from this section, girls are doing something outside their prescribed gender role. No one is going to stop them from reading Eragon, but in order to do so they must carry around a copy proclaiming that the book was not intended for them. The aforementioned label ("It's a Guys Thing!") extends this idea of deviance beyond the space itself, forcing whatever girl is daring enough to venture into the Cave to continually announce that she is reading a book which was, on some level, not intended for her.
The final paragraph of the article is what bothers me the most:
"Up next? Perhaps a girl's area, Haynes says, but with some reservations. 'It's not that girls aren't involved now,' she says. 'And part of my concern is that girls will check out books from a boys' area, but I'm not sure how many boys will check out books from a girls' area. We don't want to restrict books.'"
The fact that this is an actual quote from an actual paraprofessional librarian is actually disturbing to me. This is the kind of advice that librarians are being given. Somewhere, someone has already given up on getting boys to read and in order to change that they would rather put girls at risk of feeling uncomfortable than work towards getting rid of the gender divide all together. If the problem in the first place is that boys won't read because it's a girl thing... THEN WHY NOT TAKE GENDER OUT OF THE EQUATION ALL TOGETHER?
In another article tweeted by Maureen, Hilary Rappaport explains the problem with the gender divide when presenting books to children: "There is no need to reinforce the ideas of differences between the sexes. Those ideas are still widespread and deeply ingrained in our culture. There are, however, serious reasons to protect those in the minority and serious dangers in encouraging people, particularly children, to believe that they belong to a somehow 'deviant' group." In her article, Rappaport was considering children's books at large, and the way that these gender roles are passed down a long line of tradition--one that she and I both believe needs to be derailed and quickly.
True, this is a story about an elementary school, making the target readers "too young" for YA, but the ideas extend way beyond fifth grade. Life-long readers often start their reading habits young--I was reading before I even got to school--and if kids are told that they should only be reading a certain type of book or that there just aren't books for them, then their likelihood of reading at all will be severely diminished. For that matter, if we took the gender issue out of the reading-prescription process, then young readers would be exposed to different perspectives from early on in their reading lives. This could start a pattern of empathetic reading, and by the time readers arrive at the YA section, it would not matter WHO the narrator or main character was, so long as they were believably written. This would not only open up possibilities for reading, but it would translate into real-life situations, making empathetic readers into empathetic people who relate on a deep level rather than dismissing what they don't understand as a "guy" or "girl" thing, or a "gay-straight-white-black-nonamerican" thing. What I am suggesting is not to eradicate the idea of difference within children's and young adult literature, but an eradication of difference in how we market these books. You don't have to be a holocaust survivor to understand Anne Frank, or an orphaned wizard to struggle along with Harry Potter; you just have to be a reader.