#KidlitWomen: My Sons’ Library
We’re celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter #kidlitwomen
(Image by Grace Lin)
Apologies in advance for the kind of long, sort of personal post—I’ve been thinking a lot about this!
Earlier this week, Holly Westlund wrote a great #KidlitWomen post about her daughter’s library, which I highly recommend reading. I’m going to spin off of hers by writing about the books my sons are reading – I wish I had the wherewithal to go through all the books we own to see what the male/female protagonist breakdown is, like she did, but my math-y husband estimates that we have about 3,000 children’s and YA books in our house, so…that’s not happening today! 😊 But I’ll share my other thoughts, at least. 😊
And please check out the #KidlitWomen Facebook page for posts from amazing people all month long! If you’re not on Facebook, artist/illustrator Mishka Jaeger is kindly collecting links to all of them in one place, too.
When I was younger, if I ever imagined myself as a mom, I’m pretty sure my vision went something like this: me snuggled up with my girls, reading Anne of Green Gables, the book that shaped my soul as a child.
So when I found out that we were having a second boy—that I was going to be the mom of two boys, zero girls—my first thought was But . . . who am I going to read Anne of Green Gables with?
Followed by: Do boys read? What do they read? If my kids don’t like to read, what are we ever going to talk about? How will they ever understand me? How will I ever understand them? HOW DO BRAINS WORK WITHOUT BEING FULL OF BOOKS? [Initiate spiral of new-mom anxiety with fun Tui twist!]
The lovely news is it turns out I didn’t need to find out the answer to that last question. My two thoroughly perfect, incandescently wonderful boys are as book-obsessed as I am. They love them, they live them, they write their own, they ask me to tell them about what I’m reading, and they tell me about what they’re reading. (Usually with absolutely no context, which is always hilarious. J: “Mom! Oscar was running away from a fire and he ran into this street gang and punched one of them in the nose!” Me: “Wait, WHAT? Oscar punched someone?” J: “Yeah! In the nose! Because he was going to steal Oscar’s shoes!” Me: “But where was his mom? I was just talking to her and she didn’t mention anything like that!” J (falling over laughing): “MOOOOOOM, not Oscar from SCHOOL, Oscar from my book!”) (He’s legit done this to me like three times. I’m just lucky he doesn’t have any actual friends named Calvin, so I can be sure all THOSE stories are about a fictional chaos demon child with a tiger.)
The other day, I said to one of my boys, “Make sure you bring a book because we might be sitting around for a while after school,” and he answered, “OK! I’ll bring a book, a backup book, and a backup backup book!” and I was like OMG I DID IT. I MADE A MINI-ME. PARENTING ACHIEVED! 😊
As with most parenting questions, I don’t know how much of this is genetic and how much is learned; whether they are born bookworms, or how much credit we can take for any of their wonderfulness. Of course I think it helps to read with your kids constantly, surround them with books, and let them see you read for fun yourself.
But the one thing I am 100% sure kids learn from someone else is the idea that there are “girl books” and “boy books.” They learn this from grown-ups, or from other kids who learned it from grown-ups, and it is so incredibly sad. Grown-ups! Stop doing this!
(Shannon Hale talks about this all the time in her wise and funny way—check out her opening #KidlitWomen post, or any of her previous blogs about it, or this School Library Journal article on the topic. I think she’s done so much to call out and battle this problem, and I appreciate her so much for it!)
My sons are eight and five right now. One of them has a heart like a compass and his head in the clouds. He knows what he loves and he never loses faith in his choices. Right now, he wouldn’t notice if other boys (or misguided grown-ups) scoffed at his books, and he certainly wouldn’t care; he’d say they were missing out on something awesome (and they are!). What does he love? The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel retellings by Raina Telgemeier. (Also literally everything by Raina Telgemeier.) El Deafo, by Cece Bell. Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson. Babymouse, by Jenni Holm. Real Friends, by Shannon Hale. Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson.
These are the books that open up our conversations about emotions, about everything I want him to know he can feel and express. How do you know who’s a real friend? What should you do when a friend treats you this way or this way? How should we treat people who are different from us? Who can we turn to for help when we need it? How do you be a real friend?
How could anyone argue that these questions and themes are only for girls? Don’t we want a world where boys are allowed to have more emotions than anger? Where they can talk about friendship and differences, and where they know that girls and boys are equally complex on the inside, and equally worthy of respect?
My bear knows these books are wonderful; he reads them over and over again. They’re on his shelf next to his action-packed, male-protagonist favorites: the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis and Galactic Hot Dogs by Max Brallier. He is perfectly confident in his love of all books, and his understanding that all books are for him, not just the ones with boys and space blasters. He’s eight now, so I know we’re just entering the ages of peer pressure; all I can do is hope he holds on to his sense of self and stays this way!
What I hope for, for him, is other readers who will love the same books along with him. I dream of a book club, boys and girls and moms and dads, reading When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi and The Lost Tribes by Christine Taylor-Butler together. I know these readers exist, these kind-hearted, loyal boys and dragon queen girls who share the books they love with each other, because I meet them at my author events all the time—sometimes bearing a tiny origami gold dragon or a handmade dragon-egg necklace, art they drew or stories they wrote or characters they created together. And every Wings of Fire reader I meet, I think how lucky I am, how lucky we all are that readers like them exist, and I think, I hope my bears have friends like this in their lives.
My other boy has a nonstop brain, a soul full of fireworks, and a heart I want to wrap in turtle shells. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune fly right past his brother, but wound my little one every time. I hope he eventually forgets them, since he was so little at the time, but I will never get over the boys in his preschool who made fun of his My Little Pony hat or his slippers that weren’t “boy enough.” “Come back to school tomorrow wearing BOY shoes, or we won’t play with you.” (The moment I discovered HOW MUCH RAGE I could feel toward a five-year-old! Why would anyone teach them this?)
This bear of mine is not so sure of the things he loves. Are sparkly shirts OK? Probably not, he worries, no matter how many times I tell him to be himself (how happy was I to be able to point to Adam Rippon and the other male figure skaters we watched together this year! sparkles GALORE!). He thinks it would definitely be cooler to hate Frozen, wouldn’t it? Just because isn’t that a thing other boys do? Quick, older boys are coming over, hide the purple mermaid doll so no one makes fun of it/me. Mommy, you can give away the castle that sings “Let It Go” . . . until he sees it in the giveaway box and shyly suggests we could maybe keep it a bit longer. Nobody DARE call him cute, but everybody sit down and watch his three-hour one-man talent show if you please.
But there is one thing he is sure of: he is a great reader who loves books. And just like his brother (which, by the way, thank goodness for his brother’s example), he knows that all books are for him. He would be fully outraged at the idea that half the library might be off-limits, or that girls would be allowed to read everything and he wouldn’t. (The other day he caught his dad singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and he shouted indignantly, “BOYS WANT TO HAVE FUN TOO, DADDY!”) 😊
He reads and rereads the Princess in Black books, by Shannon Hale. He goes looking for the Ling and Ting early readers by Grace Lin on our bookshelves, to ask me more questions about them. Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon is basically his brain in book form. His favorite bedtime book for the last several months has been Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (and now we’re reading the second one), a collection of mini biographies of amazing women throughout history. Talk about a conversation starter—I can’t imagine a better way to explain Harriet Tubman and Malala Yousafzai than with the help of a book like this.
His best friend in kindergarten is a kindred spirit girl who dressed up as Hermione Granger for Halloween – this is why we’re reading Harry Potter slightly earlier than I intended to with him! With LOTS of conversations about the awesomeness of Hermione, and how she is quite right all the time about everything. 😊
What I want for him is more books with kind boys in them—boys who like sparkles, boys who wear whatever they want no matter what anyone says, boys who support each other in being true to themselves. Boys who value girls, who know how to be friends with them, who take them seriously. Boys who would NEVER scoff at “girly” things or tease a friend for liking princesses.
And then there are the books we read all together, which I normally get to choose. My favorite so far, both for the story and the conversations we had about it, is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. It is so beautiful and funny and surprising and well-crafted, with a brave little heroine and a marvelous dragon in it, too. We got to talk about how stories are shaped and how friends make sacrifices for each other—it’s a book truly everyone should read.
We’ve also read a few of the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary – does any character FEEL all the injustice of the world quite as fiercely as Ramona Quimby? It was almost terrifying to watch my little one relate to the enormity of her emotions . . . but I hope it was also reassuring for him, to know that he’s not alone in feeling this way!
Like Holly, we also turn often to graphic novels, which is one of the best places to find brave, mighty girls and adventure and diversity all together. To her list, I’d add Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson; Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen and Noelle Stevenson; Princeless and its spinoff, Raven the Pirate Princess by Jeremy Whitley; and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare, illustrated by Natacha Bustos.
If you want to steer the boy readers in your life back toward what they might think of as “girl books” but think you’ll meet resistance, hand them any of those; I don’t think there’s a young reader on the planet who could resist them! And then slide them Real Friends and El Deafo, and Raina Telgemeier won’t be far behind…(yes, I believe graphic novels are the magic ingredient to reverse this curse!)
(Just a note that although my eight-year-old has been reading all of these for the last couple of years, a few of them are more teen-oriented, if you want to check them out first. This has led to the hilarious side effect that although he has never, to my knowledge, heard a swear word in our house, he regularly inserts “@$!%#!” into the comics he draws (WHAT must his teachers think?!). The other day he was describing a scene in his comic and he pointed to that list of symbols and observed thoughtfully, “I don’t actually know what that means. I think it’s a noise the bad guy makes when he’s mad, like ‘BLEAAAAAARGH GRRUARGH RRARRGH!!’” TOO AWESOME. I’m going to not correct him on that for a while! 😊)
What we need, and everyone needs: more diversity in our reading. (For us in particular, thinking about what’s missing on our shelves, I’d like to find more Jewish representation and more non-binary kid characters.) I feel like we sought it out in our picture books, and my middle-grade and YA shelves are well-stocked and waiting for them. But this 5-8 age range feels thinly populated, as Holly also pointed out.
There’s the marvelous Dyamonde Daniel series, by Nikki Grimes (which I’ve discovered we mysteriously don’t own; going to fix that right now!). We also loved the Anna Hibiscus books, by Atinuke, and the first Ruby Lu book, by Lenore Look. We just got the first Zoey and Sassafras book by Asia Citro, which looks awesome. Let’s all go to the We Need Diverse Books resources page and look for more together! 😊
All right, that’s probably enough from me for today. I hope you’ll keep reading along as #KidlitWomen talks about things like this all month, and keep talking about it afterwards, and think about which books you’re giving to which kids and why.
I’d like to close by saying that as a feminist, my original plan was to raise spunky fearless girls who would rule the world one day.
Instead, I hope I am lucky enough to raise fearless, kind, respectful, loving, curious, thoughtful boys who will totally vote for those girls, listen to those girls, take care of amazing children, read all the books, and make the world a more fair and safe place for all of us.
(And maybe also, along the way, read Anne of Green Gables with me.) 😊
Thank you for listening! Happy happy reading!
(P.S. I would obviously think my boys were wonderful even if they weren’t readers, and I feel like the luckiest mom in the world to have these particular two silly ruffians. Also, they would like you to know that they are awesome and totally rule (true facts) and one of them, at least, is still NOT CUTE! (less true fact, shhhh))
With the bears: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling