Boy Book? Or Girl Book?

“Is this a book for girls?” asks a young man, one day when I’m volunteering at the school library.  It’s Raina Telgemeier’s excellent graphic novel, Drama.  The party line, of course, is that there’s no such thing as boy books and girl books.  I have a feeling, though, if I say that, he’ll think I’m a fool.


The publishing industry has certain conventional wisdoms about what boys and girls will and will not read.  Boys will not read books by women, although girls will read books by men, and that’s why Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling.  Similarly, conventional wisdom says boys will only read about boys, while girls will read about boys or girls.  Some series neatly split the audiences – think The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, or for non-fiction, The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls.  Kids can suss out these intentions in varying degrees, but instead of helping them find books they like, what if certain covers cause kids to feel as though some books are off-limits?  Or worse, cause adults like me to steer kids away from books we fear will cause alienation from peers.


My first instinct, I’m embarrassed to say, is to protect the boy from being teased.  The book has a purple cover and a girl with a heart drawn over her head.  But then I gin up enough presence of mind to put it back on him.  I tell him, “It’s about a girl who likes a boy.  What do you think?”  The boy shrugs and checks out the book.  I wonder if I’ve done right by him or not with my answer.

When I related this story to the class teacher, she fumed.  “I hate it when the kids say there are boy books and girl books,” she said.  “Last year, I saw the boys peeking at Dork Diaries, but refuse to check them out, so one day, I just started reading it to the class.  Then they started checking the books out.”

She then revealed that my own daughter had a similar reaction to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book we were reading together as part of the series.  That this book might be considered a boy book never occurred to me, in spite of, duh, the title and the picture on the cover.   “I thought it was just going to be about boys and the stuff they do,” my daughter told me.  “But now I know that it’s a book for everybody.”  Indeed, it’s a favorite part of our day, to snuggle under the covers and discover Almanzo’s next adventure.

Farmer Boy

In the United Kingdom, a campaign called Let Books Be Books has sprung up, urging publishers to stop saying books are “for boys” or “for girls” on the cover.  That campaign argues that such labels restrict children and even make them targets for bullying.  It’s certainly a valid point, but children are certainly wise to even more subtle cues.

While some argue that the industry is/should bemoving toward more gender-neutral books – as seen in this Today show clip – it seems to me that part of our efforts to allow children to freely select any book they desire should include models for enjoying all books.  We can read books together as a group, showing that all are expected to enjoy.  We can introduce books of all stripes during book talks, trying to maintain an awareness of any unintentional bias we might have (Did I just bypass Ella Enchanted because it seems like a girl book?)  We can talk openly about what makes us think a book might be for a boy or a girl, and to think more deeply beyond first impressions.

By the end of library time, the young man had something to tell me.  “Everyone’s making such a big deal out of me checking out this book,.  I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said, with just a tiny bit of pride.


What is your answer to the question, “Is this a girl (or boy) book?”

Wendy Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu and the upcoming book, The Way Home Looks Now.  She reads books for all kinds of people.

Deadline Stress

The freelance world is feast or famine. No matter how hard I try to space things out, I occasionally run into what I call a harmonic convergence of deadlines.

You know how it is. You book some author events months in advance. You have several ongoing projects and an unpredictable production and marketing schedule for an upcoming book release. You think everything is spaced out so that you can meet all your deadlines. You organize and prioritize using fancy software or color-coded lists on your whiteboard.


Then there are unexpected delays in one project or another. Or there is a glitch that requires additional attention. Then the page proofs arrive when you are deep into another project with a looming deadline. Throw in some family crisis or health issue and you have a disaster in the making.

_hourglass_with_sand (2)For me, deadline stress starts with a dream. I arrive at a test and realize that I have not studied, or even attended any of the classes. As the deadline creeps closer, the stakes in the dream get higher. It’s not just any test; it’s the final. For a class I need to pass to graduate. And I am in my pajamas. Or naked.

Alarm_Clocks_20101107aWhen my deadlines are weeks away, I manage to find time to get to the gym most days. As the weeks pass, the gym becomes a distant memory. I start to count walking to the bathroom as cardio and lifting my coffee cup as a bicep curl.

Posture takes a hit.

Vulture_ (2)

And haircuts, and fashion, and personal hygiene.

As I devote more and more brain cells to writing, with an equal portion to stress, the number of cells devoted to memory falls below a critical level.

First I don’t remember to buy anything at the grocery store if it’s not written down.

Then I forget my grocery list.

Then I forget to go grocery shopping at all.

Some days I forget to eat. Or if it’s not going well, I eat constantly—to keep my strength up. As to feeding the rest of the family, I begin to rely on pizza delivery. Or I delegate.

“What’s for dinner, Mom?”

“There’s a packet of ramen* in the cabinet. Make me a bowl, will you?”

*If the child is less than ten years old, substitute cold cereal.

clock-334117_1280 (2)As much as we hate them, deadlines are our friends. There’s nothing like last-minute panic to boost productivity. And besides, it’s a great excuse.

“You need four dozen cupcakes for the bake sale? Sorry, I’m on a deadline.”

What about you? How do deadlines affect you?


Jacqueline Houtman forgot to include this blog post on her to-do list. Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long  (2014 Quaker Press) comes out next month. 

Day of the Girl Child

Last year we were very happy to help  Katie Quirk celebrate the publication of her wonderful middle grade novel, “A Girl Called Problem”.  Set in Tanzania, the story centers on a 13 year old girl who longs to help her family and people by becoming a healer. In a starred review, Kirkus said   “Quirk’s debut novel for children gives readers an intimate view of rural Tanzania in the early 1970s through details of daily life, folklore, family dynamics and spiritual beliefs.”

GCP cover high resKatie is back today to celebrate  a day declared by the United Nations as The International Day of the Girl . Here’s Katie:

October 11th marks an exciting day for young people. It’s the third annual United Nations International Day of the Girl, and it’s not just the UN that is celebrating girls. Increasingly, development organizations around the world are learning that if you want tofight injustice or poverty in communities that are struggling, don’t waste your time trying to enact change with local government, or even with adults in general. Instead, empower the girls in those communities. Provide them with access to quality education and healthcare, and before you know it, those same girls will be paying their privilege forward, making life for everyone better.

unThis notion that girls are one of the most powerful forces for change in the world makes for a pretty compelling story, a story which is increasingly popping up in middle-grade literature. A Girl Called Problem is set in late 1960s Tanzania, right after that country achieved its independence from Britain. The main character, Shida, is a spunky, 13-year-old girl. Shida has dreams of attending school and becoming a healer, but she also faces some pretty formidable odds: her father is dead; hermother is so depressed people label her a “witch”; everyone reminds Shida that no girl has ever grown up to be a medicine man; oh, and her name translated from Swahili literally means “Problem.” To make matters worse, when Shida starts going to school, fellow villagers and even one teacher say girls shouldn’t be there. These naysayers go so far as to blame girl students for cursing their village and causing the death of a child. Fortunately Shida isn’t a kid who easily gives up, and when the village is on the brink of collapse, Shida and another girl student prove critical to their community’s survival.

Although A Girl Called Problem is quite simply a coming-of-age mystery about an unyielding kid, it is also a celebration of exactly what the U.N. is honoring on October 111th: the world waking up to the notion that when girls are empowered to learn and lead, everyone benefits.

Other Books and Videos to Celebrate International Day of the Girl

Because many of the challenges faced by girls around the world involve them having their childhoods eclipsed through early marriage and sexual violence, books about girls facing and overcoming injustice tend to be for the young adult audience (Sold by Patricia Cormick, for example). Nevertheless, there remain a number of other great resources for middle-grade readers.


The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis is the story of an eleven-year-old girl in Afghanistan who, under Taliban rule, is forbidden to go to the market, attend school, or even play outside. When her father is hauled off for having a foreign education, Parvana is forced to disguise herself as a boy and to take on the task of breadwinner for the family.


Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal is the story of a fifth-grade girl and poetess who is forced to skip school when her alcohol-abusing father walks out, her family moves into a motel, and her now-desperate-for-work mother needs her to stay home to watch her little brother. It’s a good reminder that kids in developed countries face challenges that keep them away from school, too.

 Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter is a picture book based on a true story of a girl in Uganda who longs to go to school, but whose family doesn’t have the money for schools fees. Then her family receives a goat, and with the milk and the bits of income that follow, good health and even Beatrice’s dream of going to school come true.


 I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Youth Edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick is the inspiring story of the world’s youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Encouraged to stand up for her belief that all children should have the right to attend school, Malala was shot in the head while riding home on a bus after school but, as we all know, even that shot didn’t stop her.


Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins profiles six women, including Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, who became important scientists, writers and teachers. The book describes how they were sometimes discouraged from pursuing their interests, but how they persevered and went on to play an important role in how we think of the natural world today.

Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton isthe tale of a brave young woman who in the 1940s leaves her Inuit village for a residential school to pursue her dream of learning to read. There she is relentlesslyharassed by a nun, but she manages to stand up for herself.

Let’s Celebrate!

So on October 11th, help us celebrate girls everywhere: delve into an inspiring story or video about girls facing insurmountable odds, write a letter, make a donation, grab the hand of a girl you know who could use a little encouragement, and celebrate the power of girls to transform our world.