Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Place for Gender-Specific Books

A new campaign called "Let Books Be Books" is afoot. Their rallying cry? Books shouldn't be earmarked specifically for boys or for girls, but should rather be encouraged to fall into a unisex category. A good book for a boy is a good book for a girl, too. It is merely "a good book."

At first glance, I agree with the premise. The mark of a truly great book is one which crosses all categorical audiences, one which appeals to children and adults, boys and girls, men and women. I would have to say there are certainly those kind of books out there. I want a world where books have such a widespread appeal that simply everyone is talking about them.

But, then again. I don't want that to be the only way books are marketed. As much as I love the books which knock it out of the park for everyone, I also feel there is a place for gender-specific books. The world is made up of categories. Even if you blur the categories, they still exist.

There are books which would not be marketed to young children. Take, for instance, The Hunger Games. I loved the series. I devoured each book with relish. But, I wouldn't encourage my seven-year-old son to tackle those books, despite his advanced reading ability. He might be able to read the words and make sense of them, but developmentally he is not ready to consider the concept of sending a young child off to almost certain death in a gladiatoresque-arena.  I seek out age-appropriate literature for him.

In the same way, I also wouldn't encourage my nine-year-old son to read Jasper Jones, an outstanding young adult title with great boy appeal. I'm not a young adult, yet I loved that book, despite the violence, the constant cursing, and other tawdry aspects which would usually earn my derision. There will come a time when I allow him to read it, and even encourage discussion about the book because although it is outstanding, it presents a very nihilistic worldview, a worldview I don't share. It will provide an excellent opportunity to discuss such things and help him iron out where he stands. But he is not ready for that yet.

I would not want my child to wander the stacks of adult books and come home with a book of erotica because "a book is a book," no specifications allowed. That is a category of book for a specific age and type of person. I understand the category and I steer myself away from it because, in my opinion, it is a classification of book I have no desire to delve into. In such cases, a book is not simply a book.

Books are pegged for specific age ranges. It is a practical function which helps the reader determine the appropriateness of the selection. No one is clamoring for children to be encouraged to read books clearly intended for adults.

So, if the age categorization isn't a problem, why is it suddenly a problem to market a book directly to boys or girls? I understand the outcry. People want there to be neutrality in their children. They want their child to be allowed to determine what things they are drawn to, without being hung up by gender stereotypes.

My nephew went through a stage where he was obsessed with Polly Pockets. He loved their minute size. He loved being able to create a small world with those little dolls. My sister was levelheaded enough to allow him to play with the toy, despite the categorical marketing of Polly Pockets toward girls, and I commend her for that.

But I am not bringing home dolls to my sons in an effort to turn them gender-neutral. I don't believe such a world would be the blessing others perceive it to be. I believe there is a reason for separate genders and a place for a man and a woman in this world. While I don't want my sons to grow up thinking housework and cooking are merely the domain of the wife (which thankfully, in my case, they understand that Dad is a far better cook than Mom), I also don't want them to grow up without a clear vision of the purpose God had when He chose to design them as a male. I want them to be providers, protectors, and warriors for their families. I want them to cherish their wives and treat them like princesses.

If I were to adopt a child from another country, everyone would encourage me to raise the child with an understanding of his/her cultural heritage. It would be in the best interest of the child. It would help affirm who they are in the world. There are many races and they are different, with different cultural backgrounds and tendencies. I love the variety God chose to place on our magnificent earth. If I were to adopt such a child, I would hope to find books specifically targeted to the cultural background of my child.

In the same way, I want my sons to be able to identify books which serve their particular persuasion. I want gender-specific books out there encouraging my boys to embrace their masculinity. Two of my sons are typical reluctant readers. Gender-specific books, like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Jake Drake series, clearly appeal to them more and I am all about finding and selecting books they identify with strongly. (For suggestions for high-quality boy books try Ann Voskamp's son's list or Jennifer Murray's reader's survey list.)

Having said that, I don't want all books to be categorized as gender-specific. The books with crossover appeal should certainly be marketed with crossover appeal. Some of my sons' favorite books have been series which feature a strong female protagonist but, in a wonderful way, appeal equally to my boyish boys: the Junie B. Jones series, the Clarice Bean series, and the Ivy and Bean series, to name a few. If those books had pink covers, it might dissuade my boys from selecting them. I encouraged them to read them anyway. I didn't need a special campaign to tell me they were good books, despite bearing certain appeal to girls.

I feel it is my role as a parent to steer my child toward the books I desire, be they girl-centric or boy-centric. If a book like Pippi Longstocking has general appeal, I want it to be marketed equally to boys and girls. But, if my boys are looking for tales of adventure, I'm all for steering them toward series which are targeted at the boy craving adventure. If I had a daughter, I'm sure I would cradle her in my arms while I read the adventure series to my sons and she might grow into an equal love of the books targeted outside of her gender.

I merely feel there is a place for gender-specific books. There are different genders. There are different audiences for books. Let's not throw out the possibility of gender-specific books in our desire to create a world where there are no lines and no categories and no stereotypes to hold a reader back. I want those dynamic books with across-the-board appeal. I just don't want to throw out the possibility of finding books which cater to my sons and their masculine persuasion. Isn't there room in our world for gender-specific books in addition to those with general appeal? I sincerely hope publishing companies continue to encourage boys to read by helping them select books with boy appeal. In the meantime, I'll continue to seek out the very best literature I can find to open up my sons' horizons to the wonderful world out there, a world full of boys and girls, young and old, black and white.

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