I’ve been trying to write this post for along time now, and I haven’t found a good way to structure it, but it’s important so I wanted to talk about it anyway. As long as I’ve been blogging, there have been discussions about gendered reading, and the way we so often teach children that there are “boy” books and “girl” books. These posts aren’t going anywhere any time soon because we keep doing this in our culture. I’ve read so many (important) pieces on the subject, and I acknowledge that. It’s time we look at this critically, but I’m not really doing that today. I wanted to discuss my personal experience.
In our culture, we’ve decided pink and princesses are girl “things”, including in our books, and boys get the toy swords and Tonka trucks. This often crosses into our reading, when we talk about “books for boys”(the idea that boys are more often reluctant readers) and to a lesser extent, “books for girls”. There’s a bit of an underlying assumption too that girls can like boy things too, but boys can’t like girl things. However, even girls who like boy things can’t like boy things too much. They have to grow up and become lady-like at some point. This is a rather vague and generic look into how our culture treats these things, but you get the point.
I want to discuss my experience growing up with gendered reading. Now, I was the girl who liked to play with the “boy” toys growing up. I never quite fit into anyone’s label, because I wasn’t a tomboy in the way most people would describe a tomboy. I liked dresses just fine and I didn’t like climbing trees or roughhousing. But all my friends were boys, and I played more with toy dinosaurs and a Tonka truck than with my Barbies.
I also had a large imagination growing up, so I would often make my friends and I go on “adventures”. These adventures usually involved knights & dragons. And even then, at maybe six or seven, I remember feeling like I was suppose to be the princess in the tower to be rescued. I didn’t do that, by the way–I was as much of as knight as one of the boys. But I remember thinking that wasn’t how it’s suppose to go, that I was playing “wrong”.
What does this have to do with reading, you might wonder? Well, I’ve always been a voracious reader. And most of my childhood was spent reading the standards–the Boxcar children, the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, the Baby-Sitter’s club. My school did the Accelerated Reader program, or AR. Now, the merits of AR are hotly debated, but I didn’t know that at the time, of course. I just knew that meant I had to read at a certain reading level, and when I was in sixth grade, my reading level jumped up to one of the highest. That meant I was transitioning out of chapter books and middle grade books into older novels.
I had always loved the fantastical, so when my reading level went up I was immediately drawn to the fantasy books my school library had. I read The Lord of the Rings in sixth grade and loved it. I made my parents watch the movie several times, and from there I branched out to other fantasy books. I read The Sword of Shannara series and some others I don’t remember. I even tried a few science fiction titles, though I was less enthused about those.
I started visiting the science fiction & fantasy section at my public library too. I loved the thrills, the adventures, the look into a different world. I loved them, but I always felt weird for liking fantasy so much. And you know why?
I had internalized the message that adventure stories and fantasy were for boys.
I thought this all through Jr High. I have no idea where this message came from. NONE of my teachers ever said it. My parents NEVER said anything like that. I don’t remember my classmates making remarks of that sort. But I had learned as a child–adventures were for boys. I even remember thinking that it was okay for a bit because I was still young, but when I grew up I would have to stop reading fantasy.
I tried reading the books I thought I was suppose to read. I liked some and others I didn’t. I kept reading fantasy. But when I got to high school, I stopped. I knew, technically, that I still could, but fantasy and science fiction were genres for boys.
We can debate the WHYs and HOWs of this message for a long time. Was it because of the whole Princess-in-a-tower trope? Was it because I never found a fantasy with a female lead character? I don’t really know. For me, that’s not the point anymore personally(though I think it’s still important to talk about, of course).
It wasn’t until I got to college that I stopped caring about the fact somewhere along the way I had labelled adventure “for boys”. It’s only been in the past few years that I realized I could unabashedly love science fiction and fantasy AND love to wear dresses all the time.
This is why I’m so fascinated and grateful for the discussions about gendered reading for children. It clearly impacted me. I have friends who managed to mostly avoid this message or ignore it, so I know this pattern isn’t true for everyone. But it was for me.