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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
- 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
- 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:
- the fear of being shamed
- 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.