So, the very last volume of The Books of Elsewhere is currently being illustrated, designed, and prepped for its July release. (Here’s what it sounds like inside my head right now: Eeeeeeeeee!!!!!) Until now, my protagonist, Olive, has had the covers all to herself, but with Volume Five: Still Life (eeeeee!!!), my publisher is planning to feature Morton, one of the books’ boy characters, on the cover at last.
I’m excited about this. Morton is a pivotal character, and he’s more than worthy of a little cover glory.
And, of course, his inclusion will help to signify to boy readers that this book is for them.
Prevailing wisdom says that boys won’t read a book with a girl protagonist, written by a woman/grown-up girl, with a girl on the cover. Conversely, girls will read books that are obviously for boys—look at Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or anything by Rick Riordan—and therefore, prevailing wisdom continues, we need to market books to boys in order to keep them reading, because everyone is currently very afraid they’ll stop, and besides, books that are aimed at boys will draw in both genders at once.
Lots of people don’t buy this argument at all, but many others do. (Visit here and here and here and here for some perspectives from either side.) I’ve had adults—booksellers, writers, people who should know—tell me to my face that boys simply want to read about other boys, not about girls. Some even think that there aren’t enough good MG/YA books being marketed to boy readers. Some have told me that a boy who carries a book with a girl on the cover is in danger of being excluded, mocked, or worse.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone’s experience will match mine, but I happen to be a grown-up girl who writes a series of books about a girl who appears in all her obvious girl-ness on my books’ covers. And here’s what I’ve found:
When a class or school uses my book as a read-aloud, I hear from as many boys as girls. When I visit a school where my books have been promoted by teachers and librarians to all students, with no mention of whether it’s boys or girls who should like them, the boys are just as excited as the girls–sometimes more. I’ve heard from many, many parents who have given my books to their sons, or used them as bedtime stories, or read them aloud on road trips. And I’ve been told more than once that it was my series that helped a reluctant young (male) reader to fall in love with books, which is about the nicest thing a writer can ever hear. Not once have I had a boy reader suggest to me, in even the subtlest way, that he couldn’t really get into these stories because the protagonist is a girl.
So the problem clearly isn’t one of empathy. Not only can boy readers grow to care about Olive, but they can put themselves right in her (girl-sized) shoes. And that right there—that ability to see the world from the point of view of someone very different from you—can change the world.
The real problem is a much shallower one. And it’s our problem, not our kids’ problem. It’s that we, as a culture, decide certain things are for either boys or girls, and we divide, market, and enforce this from infancy onward. (Just look at what we do with things like color. For babies. Who don’t even know what colors are.) We do it in subtle ways, and we do it in glaringly obvious ways.
When it comes to books, all it seems to take is someone—a teacher, librarian, family member, or bookseller—helping kids to see straight past that gendered cultural packaging into the heart of a story. And the same story is there to be discovered by any reader, whatever his or her gender.
Unfortunately, not all of us are lucky enough to have that magic-door-opening person who doesn’t judge what we’re reading by its cover–or judge us for reading it.
…In those cases, a cover with a girl and a boy on it might help.