As a child, I read everything from Nancy Drew to Hardy Boys, James Herriot to Robert Ludlum, Iris Johansen and Robert B. Spenser, to Walter Farley and Jonathan Kellerman. I read the encyclopaedia or cereal boxes when fiction content was low in our home. What I didn’t read were typically girl stories: Anne of Green Gables/Jane Austen/Laura Ingalls Wilder. They simply didn’t capture my interest and I’m grateful to my mom for letting me read what interested me, rather than what seemed appropriate for a girl to read.
With my children, I let them choose their own books. To my dismay, my boys weren’t huge readers. They came of age during the Video Game era, and found it then (and now) more suitable entertainment for their high-action needs, though the youngest listens to audio books all the time (when he’s not playing a shoot-em-up game online with his friends). He’s a huge fan of Terry Brooks, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, and is on his third or fourth listening of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.
My daughter is a bibliophile like me, and when she was young, we frequently engaged in tug-of-wars over newly bought novels – if I put it down, she’d pick it up and vanish. Lock herself in the bath, or her bedroom. This was especially vexing whenever a new Harry Potter series novel came out, because they’re long books and they cost a lot—shouldn’t I, as the purchaser, have had first dibs?
Not according to my sweet girl child. If it was unattended, it was hers. Thankfully, she’s discovered eBooks and reads on her phone, not that she lives at home anymore for us to fight over paperbacks. Our tastes differ a little now, too. When she was young, she read what I brought in the house. Now she seems to prefer contemporary romance, while I lean towards historical romance, thrillers, and crime novels. But I can guarantee you, if a new Harry Potter hit the shelves, she’d fight me for it. Which brings me back to labelling.
Harry Potter is a male-centric themed book. Harry Potter is male. Dumbledore is male. He Who Shall Not Be Named is male. Harry’s main school rival is male. His best friend is male. His second-best friend is female. There’s action, mystery, fantasy, death, and destruction. Male interests, right?
Harry Potter appealed to both genders, and all ages. In fact, in our home, it was my daughter and I fighting over the latest copy. Not so, the boys. They enjoy the movies, but I wonder…
If the series had featured a female—Harriett Potter—with all the same drama, high-action stakes, fantasy, magic, themes of friendship and loyalty, the cycle of life, power of believing in one’s self—would it have taken off the way it did? Would it have gained critical acclaim, and JK Rowling billionaire status?
Hubs shied away from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series during the paperback novel years, because he assumed it was girly romance. When the books came out on Showcase as a mini-series, he actually watched one episode with me—and was hooked. “No wonder you like these books,” he said to me. Yes, no wonder.
Male/female… the protagonist has never mattered to me. Only the story. And no one ever questioned my affinity for reading then—or now—Robert Ludlum, Leon Uris, Robert B. Spenser, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, or any book written by a male featuring a male protagonist. NO ONE. But …
If my boys, or my husband, were to pick up a Nora Roberts, Robyn Carr, or Kate Morton book and delve in, would they receive the same silent assent as I did, growing up? Or, would they be looked at oddly, perhaps teased or ridiculed for liking “girly” books?
There are no girly books. No boys’ books. There are only books. And if we’re to encourage and build healthy readers of our children, grandchildren, boy or girl, we need to do better as a society in encouraging reading off all types of genres, regardless of the protagonist’s gender or the book’s premise.
I am willing to put myself through anything; temporary pain or discomfort means nothing to me as long as I can see that the new experience will take me to a new level. I am interested only in the unknown, and the only path to the unknown is through breaking barriers, an often painful process.