Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Why do we believe these things? - John Dougherty

Image © LostMedia
Ever since the beginning of my involvement with the publishing industry, I’ve had the suspicion that its thinking is full of ‘accepted truths’ that are, in fact, not true. My suspicions are growing.

One of these so-called accepted truths - shall we call them SCATs for short? - is the idea that “boys won’t read books with a girl as the central character”. I was involved in a conversation recently where this was asserted as fact.

- Hmmm, I said; but is that true? After all, boys read Mr Gum, and the hero of those books is a girl.
- Yes, came the reply, but it’s sold on Mr Gum himself.
- The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? It’s Lucy’s story, really. If there’s a central character, it’s her.
- Yes, but there’s Peter and Edmund and Susan, too, so it’s a gender-balanced story.
- Northern Lights?
- Yes, but Pullman’s exceptional, isn’t he?
- The Hunger Games?
- Well, sometimes a book comes along that just breaks all the rules.

…and so on. 

Interestingly, the person who most strongly made such statements also quite blithely said that their company does no marketplace research; they just trust in instinct & experience.

This is not to denigrate anyone involved in the conversation; they’re all good people who have achieved much in the world of publishing, and it was a privilege to talk to them. But it did get me wondering - is there in fact any real evidence to support the idea that boys won’t read books about girls? Or is it simply an unfounded myth that has gained traction and now won’t let go?

On the same day, I responded to a tweet from the inestimable Let Toys Be Toys campaign about their Let Books Be Books initiative. They’re building a gallery - which is here and growing; do take a look - to challenge this idea. Examples there, and others I’ve spotted or thought of since, include:

  • Alice in Wonderland 
  • The Silver Chair
  • Matilda
  • the Sophie stories
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • A Face Like Glass
  • Peter Pan & Wendy (interesting, isn’t it, that since Disney the title has been shortened to Peter Pan, when really it’s Wendy’s story?)
  • The BFG
  • Mr Stink
  • the Tiffany Aching books
  • The Story of Tracy Beaker
  • Sabriel
  • Fever Crumb

And there are more. Does anyone honestly think boys won’t read Geraldine McCaughrean’s wonderful The White Darkness or Not The End of the World? Is Tony Ross’s Little Princess really rejected by half the toddler population? Does the possession of external genitalia truly impede enjoyment of The Secret Garden?

Then I started thinking about my own childhood reading. I was a very insecure boy, bullied by my classmates, and gender-shaming was one of their weapons. I learned early on that anything that marked me out as insufficiently masculine was to be avoided. So did that mean I didn’t read “girls’ books?” Nope. I just read them in secret. I rather enjoyed Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl and St Clare’s series, for instance, and Pollyanna; and truth to tell if gender wasn’t signified on the cover in some way then it didn’t even occur to me to ask if the central character was a boy. The two things that sometimes stopped me from reading books about girls - or being seen to read them - were:

  1. the fear of being shamed
  2. being given the message in some way that these books were not for me

In other words, there was nothing about either me or the book that made us a poor match. It was external pressure that got between me and those stories. And despite what my classmates would have had you believe, I don’t think I was a weirdo.

This isn’t the only SCAT that restricts young readers and the adults who write for them. Malorie Blackman recently challenged the idea that white children won’t read books starring characters from minority backgrounds. And where did we get the idea that children won’t read about adult characters? Have we forgotten how successful Professor Branestawn was in his day - or that children are happy to read about King Arthur’s knights, or Heracles, or Superman? 

Do we really believe that children are so closed-minded as to only want to read about characters like themselves? Do we honestly think so little of them? And if we think it true that children need characters to be like them even in age, colour and gender before they can identify with them, why are we happy to give them stories about rabbits and hedgehogs and guinea-pigs, about water-rats and moles and toads and badgers? Is there any sense at all in the assertion that a boy will identify with a different species more readily than with the opposite sex? That a white child will happily imagine himself to be a dog or a pig, but balk at imagining himself as black? 

We need to challenge these SCATs. They’re bad for books; they’re bad for readers; they’re bad for our society. So thank goodness for Let Books Be Books. Thank goodness for Malorie Blackman. Thank goodness for those people who are prepared to say, “Is there any actual evidence for that?” - and let’s agree to be those people ourselves.

And if we ever feel unsure of our ground, and wonder if maybe the SCATs are right, let’s remember a film industry SCAT recently reported by Lauren Child. Let’s remember that she was told a Ruby Redfort film was out of the question, because a female lead in a kids’ film is box-office poison.

And let’s remember that the highest-grossing animation of all time is now Disney’s female-led Frozen.


John's latest book is Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers (OUP)


Heather Dyer said...

Fascinating John - and very uplifting. I hadn't realized myself how many of those books have female protagonists. How nice to think we might not be as narrow minded as we think we are!

Sue Purkiss said...

Here's to getting rid of SCATs! Pesky nuisances, all of them - and a really interesting post, John.

Nick Green said...

Always love your posts, John. (Which is astonishing when you think about it, as I'm English and I don't play the guitar).

That people in the industry are peddling these SCATs fuels my growing suspicion that too many of them don't actually have a clue about their product or their market, and are in it only for the free lunches.

I have thought on more than one occasion: did these people ever actually READ a book as a child? Or have they only ever read in their professional capacity?

I know it can't really be true... but it's a really tough suspicion to shake, sometimes.

Sue Bursztynski said...

As a matter of fact, the ONLY students who read Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen in my library are the boys. :-) Not sure why. Both sexes read and love the Hunger Games and His Dark Materials. I have had both reading Felicity Pulman's Janna mediaeval mysteries. Michael Pryor's Laws of Magic series had a male lead, but were full of strong female characters, including the hero's love interest, and boys and girls alike loved them.

It seems to me that those people simply refused to believe what they didn't want to believe. Don't worry about them.

Nick Green said...

P.S. Another comment in that piece that really bugs me: "The Hunger Games breaks all the rules."

I take issue with the SCAT that The Hunger Games is this game-changing work of staggering originality. I admit, I haven't read it, that is, I haven't read the whole thing... I tried, I got about a third of the way in.

So it has a heroine who can actually fight? So did Xena, Warrior Princess. So have countless other works of fiction. The kick-ass heroine is nothing new, in fact it's already slipping dangerously close to cliche.

What's far less common is a 'strong' heroine who doesn't depend on her ability to deal out physical violence to express this strength of character. A good example would be Nest in Katherine Langrish's book Dark Angels (The Shadow Hunt in the US) who is emphatically 'feminine' while still being utterly indomitable. Now that's 'original', if you like. Though it really shouldn't be.

caroljchristie said...

I always ask in school visits who likes reading books with boys as main characters and who with girls, and am usually heartened to see a pretty even balance for both. Your secret Enid Blyton reading made me think of when my dad and I would read the same books, when I was a kid. It was fine when it was Watership Down or Lord of the Rings, but he did get some funny looks reading Chalet School books on the Glasgow-London shuttle. Which makes me think of the equally thorny issue of character gender and reading habits of adults as well as children...

Lucy Coats said...

I had a most illuminating conversation with a children's bookseller the other day, whose greatest wish was that publishers should come and talk to the 'people on the ground' - ie the ones who actually SELL the books to kids - rather than relying on their marketing people, who, she reckoned, knew very little about what kids actually want. It seems to me that those people are exactly the ones who perpetuate the SCATS myths, John. Somehow the end user (to use ghastly marketing speak) has been forgotten and ignored. It makes me very cross when I hear these sweeping generalisations given out as unchallengable truths. My kids read books by Malorie, Jamila Gavin and many more, and my son's favourite character was Alanna in Song of the Lioness. I'd like to see more talking to readers, booksellers and librarians and much less pontificating! Great piece, John. Off to share it now.

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post, John (ooh, and thanks, Nick!) I would add Joan Aiken's Dido Twite to the list. And I utterly also agree that children WILL read books about adult characters. Biggles?

Tortie said...

Hurray, what a good post, John. Well done for saying what I've suspected but never had the courage to say because I'm relatively new to the wonderful world of writing (and then trying to sell) books. In my case it's pony books.
Within the past forty years, someone somewhere has decided that ponies are for girls, not boys, and therefore books with ponies in should be pink and sparkly with few, if any, male characters unless a villain is required.
Horses are different, for some reason. Boys are allowed to read books with 'Horse' in the title - especially when it's preceded by 'War'!

Richard said...

Great post John. I read Mallory Towers, but rather because I needed something to read and I'd read everything else in the house. I enjoyed it though. As for not reading books about adults, I was reading Alistair MacLean when I was eight.

I find a lot of fault with YA dystopia in general, and The Hunger Games is no exception. Dystopia is a long-standing trope in SF, where it requires meticulous backstory. In YA it is often more akin to a badly painted backdrop.

As for strong women, do I have to mention Halo Jones again? ;-)

C.J.Busby said...

Totally agree with this - and can we maybe write an open letter to the publishing industry, saying: boys WILL read books about girl characters, but you are making it near on impossible for them when you make those books pink and glittery?!

Savita Kalhan said...

I think SCATs need to be outed and discussed. When they're shown to be unacceptable lies, we can actually really begin to understand what's happening with books and children's reading habits. Great post, John.

C.J.Busby said...

Funnily, I noticed recently that the Sophie books have been repackaged as pink, and I thought, that's a lot of little girls going to be in tears when they read the bit where Sophie destroys Dawn's My Little Pony toy! My eldest, a girl, about 4 at the time, wouldn't read the rest of the book after that, she thought Sophie was horrible! But my boy adored it!! (She came round to it once she hit the 6-7 age and decided glittery ponies were too babyish).

Jess said...

These lazy assumptions are nasty and harmful because they gradually become true through enough repetition. Similar is the 'boys won't read books with girls on the cover' belief, as used by Scholastic in defence of the packaging for this particular horror:

“It is a fairly established part of children’s publishing that covers featuring girls are not appealing to boys, so we went with the image that gave the best opportunity to the book in the market”

You have to wonder, if it's true that boys are so reluctant to associate themselves with anything feminine that they *won't even touch a book with a girl ON it* what on earth are they learning about girls and how they should regard them? And is it acceptable for the publishing industry to reinforce and perpetuate those attitudes?

Jess said...

Great post btw. More info on Let Books Be Books

Stroppy Author said...

Great post, John - and good point, Jess about the unacceptability of the publishing industry endorsing and perpetuating any such prejudice in boys (if it exists).

Perhaps one way to tackle this is to demand an amendment to that contractual clause that says the publisher has full control over the jacket and appearance of the book and say that we reject any gender stereotyping or significant misrepresentation of the book? They won't delete the clause, because they will be scared that we will start objecting to the font, or the colour of the dog, or whatever.

Another thing would be to ask Let Books be Books to endorse books that aren't gendered. Stickers, perhaps, that publishers or booksellers could slap on approved books? Make it a positive thing in marketing terms.

D.J. Kirkby said...

This was a very interesting post John. I read everything I could get my hands on as a child (and still do as an adult) but I was bullied for so much that they didn't need to bother themselves with what I was reading as I hid in the school library at break times. I think Stroppy Author's idea of stickers for approved books is a good one because it may give younger readers permission' to read them.

Tanya said...

Your comment is fascinating! I have worked as a children's bookseller for 18 years and one recent year as the assistant to a literary agent representing VERY big names in the kid's book world. As a bookseller, I was able to talk to kids and observe their interests every day. Of course, the kids could only be interested in what was put in front of them, which is chosen by the corporate buyer for the chain I work for, and, as you note, this in turn is influenced by the marketing department at publishing houses who choose what manuscripts to publish. During my year as an assistant, I was amazed by the fact that the agent I worked for and many of his clients seemed to have minimal interaction with children. The creative process seemed to be, "This is what we think children (and the market) will want," rather than, "This is what the kids I have been reading books to tell me they want." Another observation I made is the fact that, if the formula for one book works, then every publisher wants their version of it, x 10. It would be great if someone could write THE bestselling book with a girl protagonist that broke all the molds. Then publishers would want many more just like it and all the creative brains would shift their focus to books that break the stereotypes.

Tanya said...

I also wanted to add to the conversation that, in most cases, boys are willing to read books with girl protagonists up to a certain age - roughly 10 - 12. The books you noted that have girl protagonists and appeal to boys, for the most part, are of the fantasy genre, which attracts more accepting readers (of books with girl protagonists) across the board. Also, characters like Katniss (Hunger Games) and Lyra (His Dark Materials) exhibit stereotypically masculine traits such as fighting and bravery in the face of imminent danger, giving them mass appeal. I think that it is natural for all human beings to want to read a book with a character that they can relate to and see themselves in, making divisions along gender lines to be expected to a certain degree. Where I think we need to shift our attentions as adults, parents and the gatekeepers of the bookshelves, is creating an environment where children, while reading about characters like themselves, will also be excited to read about characters who are not like themselves. In America, where I live, we need to make empathy and compassion a core value of our culture, and perhaps encouraging our children to read this way is a small step toward that.

J Freese said...

Thank you for this post,and as my ten year old boy is running low on reading material, thank you for providing me with some suggestions.