I was presenting an assembly for kids grades 3-8 while on book tour for the third PRINCESS ACADEMY book.
Me: “So many teachers have told me the same thing. They say, ‘When I told my students we were reading a book called PRINCESS ACADEMY, the girls said—’”
I gesture to the kids and wait. They anticipate what I’m expecting, and in unison, the girls scream, “YAY!”
Me: “'And the boys said—”
I gesture and wait. The boys know just what to do. They always do, no matter their age or the state they live in.
In unison, the boys shout, “BOOOOO!”
Me: “And then the teachers tell me that after reading the book, the boys like it as much or sometimes even more than the girls do.”
Audible gasp. They weren’t expecting that.
Me: “So it’s not the story itself boys don’t like, it’s what?”
The kids shout, “The name! The title!”
Me: “And why don’t they like the title?”
As usual, kids call out, “Princess!”
But this time, a smallish 3rd grade boy on the first row, who I find out later is named Logan, shouts at me, “Because it’s GIRLY!”
The way Logan said “girly"…so much hatred from someone so small. So much distain. This is my 200-300th assembly, I’ve asked these same questions dozens of times with the same answers, but the way he says “girly” literally makes me take a step back. I am briefly speechless, chilled by his hostility.
Then I pull it together and continue as I usually do.
“Boys, I have to ask you a question. Why are you so afraid of princesses? Did a princess steal your dog? Did a princess kidnap your parents? Does a princess live under your bed and sneak out at night to try to suck your eyeballs out of your skull?”
The kids laugh and shout “No!” and laugh some more. We talk about how girls get to read any book they want but some people try to tell boys that they can only read half the books. I say that this isn’t fair. I can see that they’re thinking about it in their own way.
But little Logan is skeptical. He’s sure he knows why boys won’t read a book about a princess. Because a princess is a girl—a girl to the extreme. And girls are bad. Shameful. A boy should be embarrassed to read a book about a girl. To care about a girl. To empathize with a girl.
Where did Logan learn that? What does believing that do to him? And how will that belief affect all the girls and women he will deal with for the rest of his life?
At the end of my presentation, I read aloud the first few chapters of THE PRINCESS IN BLACK. After, Logan was the only boy who stayed behind while I signed books. He didn’t have a book for me to sign, he had a question, but he didn’t want to ask me in front of others. He waited till everyone but a couple of adults had left. Then, trembling with nervousness, he whispered in my ear, “Do you have a copy of that black princess book?”
He wanted to know what happened next in her story. But he was ashamed to want to know.
Who did this to him? How will this affect how he feels about himself? How will this affect how he treats fellow humans his entire life?
We already know that misogyny is toxic and damaging to women and girls, but often we assume it doesn’t harm boys or mens a lick. We think we’re asking them to go against their best interest in the name of fairness or love. But that hatred, that animosity, that fear in little Logan, that isn’t in his best interest. The oppressor is always damaged by believing and treating others as less than fully human. Always. Nobody wins. Everybody loses.
We humans have a peculiar tendency to assume either/or scenarios despite all logic. Obviously it’s NOT “either men matter OR women do.” It’s NOT “we can give boys books about boys OR books about girls.” It’s NOT “men are important to this industry OR women are.“
It’s not either/or. It’s AND.
We can celebrate boys AND girls. We can read about boys AND girls. We can listen to women AND men. We can honor and respect women AND men. And And And. I know this seems obvious and simplistic, but how often have you assumed that a boy reader would only read a book about boys? I have. Have you preselected books for a boy and only offered him books about boys? I’ve done that in the past. And if not, I’ve caught myself and others kind of apologizing about it. “I think you’ll enjoy this book EVEN THOUGH it’s about a girl!” They hear that even though. They know what we mean. And they absorb it as truth.
I met little Logan at the same assembly where I noticed that all the 7th and 8th graders were girls. Later, a teacher told me that the administration only invited the middle school girls to my assembly. Because I’m a woman. I asked, and when they’d had a male author, all the kids were invited. Again reinforcing the falsehood that what men say is universally important but what women say only applies to girls.
One 8th grade boy was a big fan of one of my books and had wanted to come, so the teacher had gotten special permission for him to attend, but by then he was too embarrassed. Ashamed to want to hear a woman speak. Ashamed to care about the thoughts of a girl.
A few days later, I tweeted about how the school didn’t invite the middle school boys. And to my surprise, twitter responded. Twitter was outraged. I was blown away. I’ve been talking about these issues for over a decade, and to be honest, after a while you feel like no one cares.
But for whatever reason, this time people were ready. I wrote a post explaining what happened, and tens of thousands of people read it. National media outlets interviewed me. People who hadn’t thought about gendered reading before were talking, comparing notes, questioning what had seemed normal. Finally, finally, finally.
And that’s the other thing that stood out to me about Logan—he was so ready to change. Eager for it. So open that he’d started the hour expressing disgust at all things “girly” and ended it by whispering an anxious hope to be a part of that story after all.
The girls are ready. Boy howdy, we’ve been ready for a painful long time. But the boys, they’re ready too. Are you?
I’ve spoken with many groups about gendered reading in the last few years. Here are some things that I hear:
A librarian, introducing me before my presentation: “Girls, you’re in for a real treat. You’re going to love Shannon Hale’s books. Boys, I expect you to behave anyway.”
A book festival committee member: “Last week we met to choose a keynote speaker for next year. I suggested you, but another member said, ‘What about the boys?’ so we chose a male author instead.”
A parent: “My son read your book and he ACTUALLY liked it!”
A teacher: “I never noticed before, but for read aloud I tend to choose books about boys because I assume those are the only books the boys will like.”
A mom: “My son asked me to read him The Princess in Black, and I said, ‘No, that’s for your sister,’ without even thinking about it.”
A bookseller: “I’ve stopped asking people if they’re shopping for a boy or a girl and instead asking them what kind of story the child likes.”
Like the bookseller, when I do signings, I frequently ask each kid, “What kind of books do you like?” I hear what you’d expect: funny books, adventure stories, fantasy, graphic novels. I’ve never, ever, EVER had a kid say, “I only like books about boys.” Adults are the ones with the weird bias. We’re the ones with the hangups, because we were raised to believe thinking that way is normal. And we pass it along to the kids in sometimes overt (“Put that back! That’s a girl book!”) but usually in subtle ways we barely notice ourselves.
But we are ready now. We’re ready to notice and to analyze. We’re ready to be thoughtful. We’re ready for change. The girls are ready, the boys are ready, the non-binary kids are ready. The parents, librarians, booksellers, authors, readers are ready. Time’s up. Let’s make a change.