Books for Boys—Where are the Girls?

Originally written in February, 2011, some of the references are dated. In fact, many of the booklists no longer exist, but the numbers were accurate at the time. I re-published this post because I have a feeling book recommendations for boys haven’t changed much since 2011, despite the popularity of female literary heroes like Katniss Everdeen of  The Hunger Games. 

Image of Books from Creative Commons
Image from Creative Commons.

One of the topics I tackle in my book is male dominance in children’s popular culture. I note in the book that “…the culture that surrounds boys and the mythology that emerges from it are distinctly male. From Ben 10 to Star Wars and from Cars to Toy Story, male achievement is the focal point of children’s popular culture and the female experience is, for the most part, entirely absent.”

Books are another area of children’s popular culture where boys are shown a world dominated by males. It’s not that good stories about girls do not exist. There are plenty of books that show girls as intelligent, inquisitive, and capable of playing and working productively with boys. The Magic Tree House and Judy Moody series are two examples, as are the books of Robert Munsch.

In the case of books, it is not so much a lack of balanced materials, but a focus on pushing boys away from them that is the problem.

The issue of boys’ literacy is a sensitive one. For years now, studies from around the world have shown that boys’ literacy scores are significantly lower than girls’. To combat this decline, there is a trend in classrooms and parenting guides to direct reluctant male readers toward genres and formats that boys tend to like: non-fiction, magazines, series, stories with humour, science fiction, and fantasy. Yet, if we are to believe the creators of recommended reading lists for boys, books that feature girls are not relevant to male children.

In my book I did some cursory research into recommended reading lists for boys. For this post, I expanded that research and looked at a wider range of online recommended book lists for boys. Sources include a few public libraries, a site called Family Education, the Guys Read site, and Oprah’s book club.

What I found is a tremendous bias against female protagonists and even dual protagonists (books like the Magic Tree House that feature a male/female duo as protagonist.)

I used a simple method to calculate the percentage of male protagonists in these book lists. I looked at the total number of books, subtracting any without an identifiable protagonist, like Go Dog Go or Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. From that new total, I tallied the number of books with a male lead, a female lead, and a dual lead. I was then able to arrive at the following percentages of books with a male lead:

  • Family Education: 95%
  • Oprah’s Book Club: 93%
  • St. Charles Public Library, St. Charles IL: 94%
  • City of Loveland Library, Loveland, CO: 88% in their “Books for Boys Who Don’t Love to Read” category
  • Salt Lake City Library, UT: 94%
  • Barrie Public Library, Barrie ON: 83%
  • Burlington Public Library, Burlington, ON: 91%
  • Milton Public Library, Milton, ON: 95%
  • Boys into Books, School Library Association, UK: 100% in their “Shorter Books” category and 83% in their “Longer Books” category
  • Sure Shot Books for Boys from Read Kiddo Read: 100%
  • Boston Public Library: 75% in their “Good Series for Younger Boys” category

The Guys Read site by children’s book author Jon Scieszka is divided into several large categories of books. I focused on areas where I thought females might be more likely to appear: “Historical Figures” and “For Little Guys”. The former contained several non-fiction books, but none about women. The latter category was a little better—of 56 books, 5 had female protagonists. When books with dual protagonists are factored in, the Guys Read list for little guys comes in at about the middle of the pack with 85% male characters.

I was not expecting to find a 50/50 split in male and female protagonists on these lists, but to see so many of them at more than 90% male was surprising. Or maybe not, when you consider the introductions to the boys’ and girls’ reading lists in Oprah’s Book Club:

  • “If you’ve got your hands full with a little boy, try reading one of these books to help him learn about the adventures of other boys his age.”
  • “Pretty in pink or deep in the dirt, this book list has a selection for little girls of all interests and personalities.”

Gender stereotypes like these are the reason that there are so few female characters on recommended reading lists for boys. According to Ms. Winfrey and others, it seems boys need adventure in their reading materials, but adventure can only be provided by stories about other boys.

Jump starting boys’ interest in reading with books about male characters may be a great idea initially, but at some point boys need to be taught to value stories in general, not just stories about boys.

By having their scope of interest narrowed, even with the best of intentions, boys will continue to believe that stories about women and girls are less interesting and less relevant to them, simply because they are about the opposite sex.

If we ever hope to achieve sexual equality, we need to teach boys from a young age to value girls and women. Denying them stories about females is definitely a step in the wrong direction.

I encourage parents of boys to expand their sons’ reading lists to include fictional and real women and girls.  I recommend the books of Robert Munsch (mentioned earlier) and non-fiction books about women. Female athletes are a good starting point in non-fiction, as are graphic novels and other non-fiction works about women like Jane Goodall, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller and others.

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