When a man recently went to a bookstore in search of his book group’s latest selection, he never dreamed that a clerk would question who the book was for, nor did he expect an unsolicited analysis of his character. Yet that’s what happened to one purchaser of Aryn Kyle’s novel, The God of Animals, when the woman who waited on him asked who he was buying the book for, and when learning it was for the customer himself, informed him that men who read “women’s fiction” were “sensitive.”
The customer was understandably unsettled by this encounter, which he later discussed on National Public Radio’s program, The Bryant Park Project. As a bookseller for many years, and as a parent of two sons, I’m perplexed and unsettled by this story as well, on a couple of different levels.
Even if we ignore the fact that The God of Animals is an amazing novel about the modern-day American West, in which one of the central relationships is that between a father and daughter, and is a book that should never be limited to readers of only one gender, the assumption that there are “men’s books” and “women’s books” and never the twain shall meet is one that is alien to any bookstore I have ever known. Yet at the same time, as a children’s bookseller, I often heard, and have espoused myself, the point of view that “girls will read books about boys but boys will rarely read books about girls.”
There are of course exceptions–I’ve yet to find any child who will not devour Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy seems to have met few gender-based barriers. Yet I’ve learned from bitter experience that offering a boy Harriet the Spy or my all-time favorite Mistress Masham’s Repose often will evoke the disappointed response, “Oh, it’s about a girl.”
When my sons were small, they loved the adventures of Dorothy in the land of Oz or of Alice whether she was in Wonderland or through the looking glass as much as they did Peter Pan or Rat, Mole and Toad in The Wind in the Willows. And certainly Marjorie’s Brothers One and Two seem to enjoy books about females as well as males.
So when and how does this divergence in taste occur? Or do we just assume that it will occur and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophesy? In your experience, do boys avoid books in which girls take the leading role? If so, how can we broaden that point of view? And what would have become of J.K Rowling if she had written about Harriet Potter?