Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Boys Won't Read About Girls, Will They? - Ellen Renner

This post is prompted by an incident earlier this month at the North East Book Award. A boy of about ten or eleven came and stood silently to one side of my signing queue. He waited patiently, studying the showcards of my two books covers. (City of Thieves is the sequel to Castle of Shadows.) When things were drawing to a close, he finally spoke up. 'I don't think your publishers did a good job with the cover,' he said, pointing to the showcard for Castle. 'Oh, why is that?' I asked. 'Because ...' His face expressed serious offence having been taken. '...it looks like a girl's book. And it isn't!'

I asked him if he liked the cover for City of Thieves, and he said it was great. We chatted a bit, and I assured him I'd pass his comment onto Orchard's design team. Now, there was no mistaking the hurt that boy felt. Here was a book he'd really liked (once forced to read it for an award). And he felt cheated by the cover.

His reaction, I fear, is probably more more to do the social attitudes of boys than the book's cover. I agree there are more ivy tendrils than necessary, but the cover is blue and yellow, not pink. What I think that young man objected to, without realising it, was the image of a girl on the cover. So no girls allowed at all? Difficult to get round that one.

When I got back from the NEBA (which I'm pleased to report Castle of Shadows won, despite the main character Charlie's misfortune in being a girl), I decided to have a trawl through my collection of children's books, gathered from years of visiting second hand book shops. I remembered those books from the 70s and 80s as much less gendered, to be addressing boys and girls equally with the covers. Pink was not an issue. Was I right?



The obvious place to start seems E. Nesbit. The Railway Children and The Treasure Seekers, here in their Puffin covers, present the classic gang of kids having adventures story which is a never-dying perennial to this day, in the hands of someone like Ali Sparkes. Assorted boys and girls on the covers, with or without dogs and grown-ups in attendance.



Moving forward, we come to one of my favourite writers, and a fellow Devon resident: Gene Kemp. Kemp was a teacher as well as a writer, and knew all about boys and their reluctance to read about girls. I can't help feeling she had a great time pulling the wool over their eyes and giving them the shock of their lives with the excellent The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. But it's Juniper I love best. An almost lost classic with one of the best heroines in middle-grade fiction. Seek it out! That's Juniper in the lead on this cover. No apologies needed for her: she's a girl, she only has one hand, and she's totally brilliant.



Now here are two absolutely classic 70s covers: Diana Wynne Jones The Ogre Downstairs, and Madeleine L'Engle's A wrinkle in Time. Girls and boys floating in air. Magic and adventure. No gender-specific marketing in sight.











One way to get around the issue of gender on covers is to leave the kids off totally. Easier if you have magic/fantasy elements, as in these two classics from the late sixties/early seventies: The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon, and Susan Cooper's iconic The Dark is Rising series.








In these days when marketing likes gender division because it's seen as easy to sell, and anything with a girl protagonist runs a gauntlet of pink and glitter, some publishers manage to still try to address the fact that there's a need for books which are for boys and girls both. Two recent examples of gender-less adventure books are Frances Hardinge's Verdigris Deep, which is a lovely cover but avoids the issue by the abstraction of the figures.

A more interesting example is ABBA's own Nick Green's The Cat Kin. The first cover, in the Faber edition, is totally genderless. You can't tell that one of those running children is in fact named Tiffany. But the Strident cover, which I prefer, addressed the issue head on and in gung-ho fashion. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.






I want to end with three covers of a Newberry Medal winning book from the seventies, which has undergone numerous incarnations: Bridge to Terabithia. I think the covers speak for themselves, but I find the latest one the most worrying. Here, the girl has been eradicated totally.












That's certainly one strategy for getting boys to read these books where girls are characters. And it's important they do so: what better way to learn to empathise with the other half of the human race? But I don't think that erasing girls from the picture is the answer.

18 comments:

John Dougherty said...

Great post, Ellen. I suspect it's a vicious circle - the more publishers withdraw girls from the covers of adventurous books, the more boys will identify covers which feature girls as "girls' books".

I think - I hope! - Random House see my Bansi O'Hara books as for boys and girls both, but they've had no qualms about depicting Bansi (a female character) on the front. If more publishers did the same, perhaps we'd see more of a shift here.

Oh, and congratulations on the award!

Ellen Renner said...

Thanks, John. Bansi sounds like my kind of girl: must get to know her. I'm glad RH are being sensible.

Apologies generally for the lateness of this post: struggling with Blogger and image posting all morning.Had to switch computers half-way through. Still white spaces which I can't irradicate.

Charlie Butler said...

I agree, Ellen, things have got a lot more segregated over the last generation - why, I'm not sure.

I quite agree about Bridge to Terabithia and the latest cover. Looking at the earliest copy of Paterson's book, though, I think Leslie has if anything been made too obviously a girl: in the book she was rather androgynous in appearance, iirc.

At least the latest editions of the Sleepover Club books, for all their hearts, don't actually have the words "Definitely Not For Boys!" emblazoned on the cover, as they did when I first read them. A few things change for the better, then, but the tide is definitely running the other way.

James Mayhew said...

Such an interesting post. I think the way books are marketted now DOES create more of a divide. I also think boys are more aware of the need to be "cool". But a good story is a good story. As a kid I loved Anne of Green Gables and the Railway Children (E Nesbit generally in fact). I'm interested, though, in why picture books are not explored: this is surely when the gender specific "rules" are laid down. Funnily enough, I am often challanged to explain why most of my books are about girls (Katie's Picture Show; Ella Bella ballerina; Miranda the Castaway). The reason is simple though: I grew up with an older sister and no brothers...

Nick Green said...

It's weird, isn't it? I can never recall reading with any gender bias as a child. It must be a recent ingenious invention by publishers to try and sell fewer (sic) books.

What about that all-time classic 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'? The main character is Lucy and I don't know of anyone who ever wished Lucy had been a boy.

And I agree with you entirely on the Cat Kin covers. Tiffany will hunt down anyone who tries to edit her out.

John Dougherty said...

"I can never recall reading with any gender bias as a child."

Don't know about that, Nick. I was careful that nobody saw me reading Jill Has Two Ponies; and I always read the St Clares and Naughtiest Girl in the School books in a detached and ironic manner...

Girl Friday said...

OMG, thank you SO MUCH for reminding me about Tyke Tiler, I had completely forgotten about that book and it was one of my absolute favourites. Am rushing off to dig it up now!

And great post, some very interesting points. I have to say it's not just boys, as a child who was a complete tomboy I wouldn't have been caught dead with dolls or any overly 'girly' books... so sometimes it's just a matter of taste.

Ellen Renner said...

@Girl Friday,
Tyke is a great book. I never saw it coming. But do look out Juniper too. If you love the one, you're bound to like it too. I think it's Kemp's masterpiece.

Wendy Meddour said...

Hmmm. Interesting stuff. I'm doing a hen and a cat on the front covers for my series Cinnamon Grove. I'd like to say this was a clever tactical move in response to the gender specific publishing climate that Ellen has identified. Truth is, I'm rubbish at faces but I do a mean chicken.

Keren David said...

I found this post so interesting, so I thought I'd try out the cover of Castle of Shadows on my son, who is 11. He said that the figure of the girl wouldn't deter boys - 'but it's a bit flowery and that might put them off.' I read him the blurb and he said 'I'd definitely be interested in reading that.'(note to self: buy him a copy!) He also wanted to point out that Hermione being a girl didn't stop any boy from reading the Harry Potter books. He says it doesn't matter whether the main character is a girl or boy, as long as the story is interesting.

Nick Cross said...

Great post Ellen and managed without an image of a single pink cover! I think you can't possibly hope to satisfy all of the people all of the time, and young readers already have very clear prejudices about the kind of books they will and won't pick up. Maybe it's time for publishers to do alternative covers for some titles?

eleanorpatrick said...

Loved this post. It's so topical and such a difficult things to get right. I was reliably informed by boys I was working with today (11-12) that pink is an "in" colour for boys now - they detailed various clothes they had and loved the shade of pink (one was painting a pink clay bowl at the time, which engendered the topic).

I grew up with Malcolm Saville's books which always had both boys and girls in the story and on the cover. And judging by the members of the Malcolm Saville club these days, they were enjoyed equally by both sexes and by their now-grow-up children too.

madwippitt said...

Never mind girl or boy appeal - that third cover of Terabithia is so utterly uninspiring (and lazy) I shouldn't imagine it would appeal to anyone of either gender ...

Ms. Yingling said...

Pink covers can be a problem, and anything with a huge picture of a girl. It's not that the readers don't want to read about girls (at least with ages 11-14), but they don't want their friends to think they are reading about girls. I have a lot of boys reading Pierce's Alanna, and I try to encourage my students to read about people who are not necessarily just like them. Every February, I host a "boys read pink" event, and the boys read all kinds of "girl" books!

Supergirl said...

This is a very interesting topic - thanks Ellen. I was a real tomboy when I was a child and though an avid reader would have been put off by certain covers. While I loved books that had strong female protagonists, I wouldn't have picked up book that was 'too girly' (flowery, pink, lovehearts).

Generally, I think that if the cover reflects the tone and content of the book that it will appeal to its target market.

Not all story lines will appeal to all people, but it would be a great shame if a story with general appeal was lost to either gender because of a poorly designed cover.

Linda Newbery said...

Great post, Ellen. But it's NEWBERY, not NEWBERRY. And I should know ...

Celia Rees said...

I've had my share of stick for having girls on the covers of my Bloosbury books, although it did not even occur to me that having a picture of a girl would 'put boys off'. My all time pet peeve is when publishers try to disguise the gender of the writer by using initials, lest a woman's name 'puts boys off'. Maybe it is time to tell boys to get over themselves.

Lee said...

Celia, pet peeve or not, it's not just about publishers. I prefer to remain as anonymous as possible, though I haven't always succeeded - or been consistent. It's not about me; it's about my fiction.