I can’t stand the title that hovers above this post. I don’t want there to be ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls’; I just want there to be books. Lots of them. But the heartbreaking truth of the matter is that girls and boys do experience gender segregation in their play and have stereotypical masculine/feminine behaviour reinforced by forces outside of the control of parents and carers: the t-shirts they wear feature diggers or princesses bought not in the ‘t-shirt’ department, but the boys or girls department; the toys they play with are dinosaurs or doll-houses purchased from toy stores coded in pink and blue or a catalogue that depicts girls nursing dollies and boys zooming Hot Wheels down a track.
In schools too gendered behaviours are reinforced – countless studies over the last few decades have shown that even in classrooms with teachers that perceive themselves as gender-blind still assume the superiority of male students in maths and sciences, and grade/reward accordingly, and reward meekness in girls and outgoingness in boys. Deborah A. Garrahy’s 2001 study “Three Third-Grade Teachers’ Gender-Related Beliefs and Behavior” is an intriguing example.
I digress. If the tone of the above seems a little apologetic, it’s because it is. Almost all the books I’ve mentioned in this series have been marketed at a female audience. But feminism is not just for girls. The message of equality is equally important for young readers of all genders.
I have already mentioned Bill’s New Frock, and Piggybook, both gems of a books with an excellent feminist message that should not be shunned on the basis that they’re girls books. Here are a few more, arranged roughly by age group.
Anxiety regarding the genitals is unfortunately very common, and to have any book that addresses the subject with sensitivity and humour is excellent. To have Little Zizi is a joy.
Written by Thierry Lenain who asserts on the cover that ‘much of the world’s misfortune comes from men thinking they have to assert their manliness’, Little Zizi is translated from French by Daniel Zolinski. The beautiful full-page illustrations from Stéphane Poulin have been, quite rightly, described as Brueghel-esque and cinematic. High praise indeed, and entirely justified.
Little Zizi has come under criticism from some bloggers because it introduces the idea of penile inadequacy to young boys before they have started to worry about it themselves. The accusation is that Little Zizi, far from allaying fears, actually induces them. It is my opinion that this is pish.
The phrase ‘peeing contest’, or the unbowdlerised version at least, is one commonly thrown about by those watching men trying to out-man their peers and generally assert their masculinity. In Little Zizi the metaphor is made flesh. Martin, a little boy with a little zizi*, is teased by the school bully about his lack of inches down below and is challenged to a peeing contest.The winner is to get Anais, the girl who both parties so adore. Despite concerted effort and rigorous practice, Martin loses. No matter though, little Martin with the little zizi still gets the girl, in one move confirming that Anais will choose her boy on her own terms thankyouverymuch, and that size doesn’t matter.
Captain Abdul’s Pirate School
Pickles is a pupil at pirate school. A reluctant student, Pickles learns how to talk like a pirate, make cannon balls, fight and get up to all the mischief expected of a pirate at sea. Leading a mutiny against the teachers, Pickles shows bravery, cunning and compassion.
Only on the last page of this 32 page book is Pickles revealed to be a girl named Maisie.
This beautifully illustrated, witty and engaging book plays with the assumptions readers make when dealing with a new text. It’s a ripping story, propelling the reader from page to page with the jaunty language and wonderful illustrations, and all the while quietly subverting gender norms.
Swallows and Amazons
Published in 1930 and taking place in the summer of 1929, Swallows and Amazons follows the adventures of the Walker siblings (the Swallows) and the Blackett sisters (the Amazons) as they colonise an island on a lake in a fictionalised version of the Lake District.
The Walker siblings tend to fall into prescribed gender roles; the elder brother John captains the schooner and acts as leader of the group, the elder sister Susan prepares meals and nurtures her siblings. It is with the introduction of sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett that this picture of patriarchy is subverted.
Nancy Blackett has changed her name from Ruth in order to appear more piratical. She is strong-willed, not fearful of making decisions for her self, and full of fun. 1960s critic Hugh Shelley (in)famously suggested that Nancy “could not be transmuted into a normal, satisfactory adult“, that is, that she would grow up to become a lesbian. This claim was laughingly refuted as a symptom of societal homophobia when Shelley was writing. Nancy does, however, rise above the restrictions that the acceptable modes of femininity place on her. She captains her boat with as much skill as John, indeed John goes out of his way to impress her.
Ransome paints a picture of gender equality in an era when it was not the done thing. By introducing strong and subversive female characters into an adventure book, traditionally the realm of boys, he made waves in the genre which are sill being felt today.
The children of Swallows and Amazons are able to make real changes to their world, transforming Wild Cat Island from an unknown to a friendly place, and Captain Flint from an antagonist to a willing participant in their games. While this demonstrates the colonialist values of inter-war Britain, it also contains can-do messages which are presented by both female and male characters. For Ransome, in this context at least, gender is unimportant.
Boys Don’t Cry
Not to be confused with the harrowing 1999 movie of the same name nor the totally awesome 1979 Cure song, Malorie Blackman’s latest offering is the heartbreaking story of Dante Leon Bridgeman, a young man with the world at his feet. He’s waiting for his A level results – his ticket to university and a bright future – when his life changes forever. His ex-girlfriend walks back into his live and hands him a baby. His baby.
What follows is a well observed story with excellent dialogue. Dante’s first lesson is that birth control is a shared responsibility, but it’s far from his last.
Mel wasn’t even nineteen yet. How could she have been stupid enough to have a kid at our age? Hadn’t she ever heard of the pill?
Boys Don’t Cry, p. 13
No one should have to buoy the argument for feminism by suggesting that a less misogynist, less gender conformist society benefits men too. It should be enough that feminism helps women get a better deal, but this is the world that we live in, and arguments for better flexible working, for example, often have to touch on the benefits to men to gain media attention and sell the idea to a ‘what about me’ world. Boys Don’t Cry not only puts the trials of teen parenthood and parenthood in general – in the hands of a seventeen year old boy, it also highlights the inequality of parental duty. Dante has trouble registering his new daughter with a doctor (‘Maybe her mother could come in with the necessary documents’ he is told by the receptionist); he is made the target of an off-duty social worker because of his age and his gender; he even has trouble maneuvering his daughter’s buggy around a badly parked car. This last problem is more universal, but it serves to illustrate how much parenthood changes your life.
At the end of the book there are a couple of pages of questions to mull on, giving readers a chance to elucidate their own ideas on Dante’s story and that of his gay brother Adam, as well as help line numbers and web addresses where further information can be sought. Highly recommended.
Gender Equal Books curates a list of titles for male readers, though it is largely US-centric.
*I should point out, lest it is not made clear, that zizi is a French slang term for the penis.
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