Howdy! I'm feeling very grateful to be posting today from my solo mini-getaway in Truth or Consequences, NM. As a result, I think it's time to lay down some truth about something that has been on my mind as a bookseller and educator, and the consequences I've observed as a result: The phenomenon of "girl books" and "boy books".
I am a children's book buyer for an independent bookstore. Therefore, much of my day is spent "boots on the ground", helping customers (an array of parents, kids, educators, and gift-buyers) in the children's section. When adult customers ask for book recommendations for children, it inevitably goes like this:
“I’m looking for a book for a (insert age) year-old (insert gender).”
If I’m lucky, the kid in question will be there in the store and I can strike up a conversation with her about what kinds of books she’s liked in the past and what she is interested in. This is the information (rather than age and gender) that can help me steer a kid toward a book that will not only work for their reading level, but also their personality, and will keep them on that all-important path toward a lifelong love of reading.
If not, I’ll try to glean this information from the adult, but they often look at me like I’ve just asked them to repeat themselves. “Well, he’s a nine-year-old boy. He likes… boy stuff.”
I then let out an internal sigh and start blindly recommending things that could work for a kid that age that I know nothing about, all the while trying to gather information about the kiddo to tailor my recommendation as much as possible, based on the adult's reaction to each book I show them. It's all part of the job, but I can't help but wonder why we have collectively decided to put kids in these boxes as though they don't have interests, preferences, or a personality outside of their gender. Imagine an adult customer coming in, stating their age and gender, and demanding a book perfectly suited to their reading tastes. This would obviously be absurd, but we still expect the this from our young readers.
Earlier this year, the Let Books Be Books campaign was launched on the back of the fantastic Let Toys Be Toys in the UK. I certainly applaud this effort, and many publishers and media outlets followed suit, with Usborne and others vowing to remove gender-specific titles, and Katy Guest of The Independent discontinuing the review of “any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys”. While this is a great start, these efforts are geared toward titles that are VERY explicitly geared toward one gender, usually coloring books or sticker books that come in boy/girl versions. I think the problem goes a little deeper.
During the last few years, lots of well-intentioned adults in the kid-lit world- authors, editors, retailers, and even educators, have called for two kinds of books that they've seen lacking in the market: those with strong female characters that don't conform to gender stereotypes (e.g. the "powerful princess"), and books with high boy appeal (lots of action and cool male characters or goofy gross-out humor). On the surface, this is great, right? Girls do need more strong female protagonists in their books, and we do need more high-interest books that appeal to boys, so what's the problem?
Although I'm always happy to see new types of books written and new types of characters represented in kid lit, these two categories (being heavily pushed by all of us grown-ups who know what's best) are still being presented as for boys and for girls. To me, this defeats the purpose. Adult book lovers know that much of the joy in reading comes from peering into another world and living another person's story. Why do we want to deny our young readers this joy by assuming that they only want to read books with characters that are just like them? Why shouldn't boys be able to read about kick-ass female protagonists? Why do we think that girls don't like action or humor? Even without the glittery/rugged covers, I see these new categories pushing "girl" and "boy" books even further apart.
The current push for "boy books" in publishing right now operates on the assumption that boys are naturally reluctant readers, and that girls are naturally great readers. In my years as an educator and bookseller, I've yet to see a correlation between love of books and gender. Where does this leave the girl who hasn't found a pink covered book that works for her and therefore thinks she doesn't like to read? And what about the boy who does want to read the book with the pink cover? What about the kid who doesn't identify with their assigned gender? Books should be a way to learn and escape, not another opportunity for exclusion or bullying.
As a retailer, I have to admit that the gendered book model does sell books. Customers ask for them, and therefore editors demand more of them from writers. However, I've seen time and time again that kids, like anyone, are drawn to good stories with great characters and topics that interest them. As the content creators and purveyors (writers, marketers, retailers, etc.), how much should we buy into the boy/girl model? And how will things change if we do?
Like most people, I have an inner monster. He hollers and howls and refuses to leave me for long. He screeches and taunts and tries to keep me from doing what I love.
Maybe you know him too.
I’m certain that all writers have at least met him.
My monster is the demon of self-doubt.
He’s the voice that tells me I’m not talented enough to be a writer, not clever enough to be a writer, not-even-close-to-brilliant-enough to be a writer. He has scared me into holding back, into tip-toeing at the edge of the pool, unwilling to jump in and risk being devoured completely.
We’ve all had those moments when we want to give up, or when we just don’t feel we measure up. So today, I’m going to share some tips on how to conquer self-doubt (or at least keep it at bay).
Tip #1: Join a group (or lots of them). SCBWI, writers groups, critique groups, facebook groups, or any other band of misfit writers. Surround yourself with other people who write. Soon you’ll find that everyone struggles with self-doubt (or at least has at some point). And you’ll have a whole group of peers to guide you and cheer you on. They’ll tell you it’s okay when you stumble, and applaud the loudest when you do something well.
Tip #2: Never stop learning. Enroll in classes (might I suggest the Children’s Book Academy?). READ as many books as you can in the genres you are writing. Go to conferences. Read books on writing. Read blogs on writing. Doing these things will bring the confidence to take risks with your writing. And the more you learn and practice and take risks, the more able you are to write something spectacular (bonus).
Tip #3: Own your passion. At the first SCBWI conference I attended, I mentioned to a woman at lunch that I wasn’t really a writer, just a hobbyist. I was too embarrassed to call myself a writer since I was just starting out and hadn’t been published (I’m still not). She asked me to tell her more about myself, which I did, and then she said simply, “You’re a writer.”
Writing is more about desire and determination than it is about where you are on your road to publication at any given moment. She helped me to see that. I have learned so much since then, and have so much more to learn, but from that day, I’ve owned it. I’m a writer. So are you.
Tip #4: BE YOURSELF. Everyone has something to give. But it can be easy to believe that you don’t. It can also be easy to take everything you’ve learned and try to write something that is not, well – you. If your stories don’t make YOU laugh, or cry, or feel all of the wonderful things you feel when you read a really great book, then take some time to tune into your inner child, and write something that YOU would love! It’s easy to lose your voice in the many rounds of feedback and critique. But allowing yourself to just be you is wonderfully liberating. In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, “Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”
Tip #5: Just keep writing. When all else fails, write. And do it for yourself. Even if you know it’s something that no one else will ever read. Write new things, write funny things, write sad things. And don’t get too caught up on a project that isn’t working. If something isn’t clicking, put it away, start something fresh, and go back to it when it feels right. But keep writing!
Writing is courageous work. It requires great effort to push that self-doubt aside and keep your pen to paper (or fingers to keys). But keep it up, and together, we can slay that monster.
Maria Oka is a mother of three very busy girls whose reading and writing spans from books for the very young to older picture books. Besides being interested in rollicking laugh-aloud books with her girls, Maria is also interested in children's books with a spiritual element. She reads, writes, and tries to juggle dinnertime, school schedules, and doing the dishes one-handed in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and munchkins.
Even if you read every book in the library about how to write a good story and every blog on the internet, it wouldn't teach you what story to tell or how exactly to tell it. That’s because the stories you write bubble up from your heart, mind, spirit, and sense of play. They come from the experiences you’ve stored up, living on the planet. Every word, every phrase of your story is drawn to you by who you are, the thoughts you think, and how you choose to live your life.
The need to “store up” is one reason some authors take months or years to write their manuscripts. They may have the basic concept and the main character down, yet still be unsure how to wrap everything together into the beautiful package it has the potential to become. Perhaps their stores are depleted or were never filled to the level needed to write such a piece. So they wait. They live their lives, read their books, and go on their adventures. Some day, along the way, they find the missing piece, the shaft of wheat that fills the larder to overflowing and makes their story complete.
High on the list of “what to do if you want to write a picture book” is to read other authors’ picture books: the Caldecott winners, the classics, the new books on the library and bookstore shelves. But to be able to choose from many wondrous possibilities, it’s best to have a plentiful larder. That means reading beyond picture books in order to write picture books.
Read poetry, everything from Caedmon to William Butler Yeats to Mary Oliver. Read the classics and old folktales from Milton to Dickens to Tolkien. Read non-fiction, to learn about the plants and animals we share the earth with, to understand history, to experience new ideas, including 21st century issues. Currently, I’m reading two books that revolve around today’s world and children: ten ways to destroy the imagination of your child and Parenting Well in a Media Age. There are wonderful tidbits here and more than a little wisdom.
Even more important than reading is stepping out into the world. Walk not just in nature. Walk with nature. Whether you travel to Africa to be among elephants, cheetahs, and giraffes or travel down the sidewalk among persistent weeds in cracks, a window box of fragrant rosemary, or the crunch of autumn leaves, marvels will appear.
Fill your larder with grand adventures and little adventures. Walk into museums, aquariums, cafes, and bus stops.
Recently, I stopped for two quick adventures on the way home from my son’s wedding. One morning my family experienced the culture of Charleston’s historic French Quarter, another, the wild beauty of Okefenokee Swamp. I was stocking my cupboard.
Such rare and beautiful experiences help us more easily form our writing goal, our mission statement. My mission is to write stories that give fun without meanness, quietness without boredom, serious thought without despair, playfulness without frivolity, and hope, always hope.
What do you want your stories to give?
It’s true our work of writing for children is joyful and fulfilling, but it is also a solemn “job” in what some mistakenly consider a silly field. In the end our most important work is not to write stories that fill a common core need or missing subject in the library. It’s not even to write stories that win a prize or make the NY Times Best Sellers List. It’s to write stories that feed spirits, ours and our readers’. And to do that, we must constantly be filling our larder.
Marsha Diane Arnold is an award-winning picture book author with eleven traditional books, two digital apps, and an e-book to her credit. Represented by Red Fox Literary, in 2013 and 2014 she sold four picture book manuscripts to Neal Porter Books, Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin, and Random House UK and two board books to Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Marsha grew up on a Kansas farm and for decades created imaginative worlds and wacky characters in northern California. She’s now creating those worlds in southwest Florida.
Her Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books course has helped many published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters. You may read about her books, school visits, and life at www.marshadianearnold.com
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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