by Hilde García
The SCBWI Los Angeles Conference was, as always, astounding. I leave with enough inspiration to last me all year. Key note after key note of incredible speakers, all thoroughly accessible and kindred spirits. Exceptional break out sessions where you can really take note of skills that will hone your craft and get you one step closer to publication.
This year, one key note hit a chord louder than the others. Shannon Hale, author of the Ever After High series, The Goose Girl, and the Princess Academy books, shook my world. Her talk was titled, Opening Up the Clubhouse: Boys, Girls, and Genderless Books.
At the beginning of her talk, she asks, "Are you giving books about girls to boys?" And that resonated with me.
"Novels," she continued, "yield empathy. The most important common denominator is the human heart."
Women's equality fought a long and hard battle to get "permission" to enter the clubhouse. But have you noticed? We left the boys out of ours. And we have done it without realizing it.
We encourage girls to read. We hope that boys will. We see a title and assume one gender will like it because it is a "boy" book or it's a "girl book." She joked about how if she had known the problems the title Princess Academy would cause her, she might have chosen something else.
Truth be told, when a 4th-6th grade boy sees the title Princess Academy, they run. They bolt. There is no way they will be caught dead reading a "girl book."
Why let the title stop you? If a girl reads a book about a boy who is a wizard, no one bats an eye. If a girl picks up Percy Jackson and reads it cover to cover, over and over again, good for her! And why not? The characters are electric and exciting- both boy and girl characters- in the series. You fall in love with the story and it's hero or heroines, whether you are a boy or a girl.
And there are a million titles that fit that category- Old Yeller, the Hank Zipzer series, Looking for Alaska, etc., all have a boy at the center of the story and are wildly read by girls.
But what about Catherine Called Birdy? Or Pandora's Box? The Goddess Girls, The Beef Princess of Practical County, The Practical County Drama Queen? The Princess Academy? Will a boy pick those up? The main character is a girl. And the titles are full of words like princess, queen, and goddess.
Most boys will not.
I hold out hope that we can change that. And as a teacher, I am going to make it my mission this year, more than I have done in the past.
Shannon shared with us that are a recent school visit, they actually only brought her the females students and told the boys that it wasn't for them. And one little boy, stayed after everyone left, to get his books signed, because as it turned out, he was a huge fan, but he didn't want anyone to know.
That is simply sad.
The main point is that if we want boys to grow up to be men who have empathy, the boys need to read stories about girls, just like girls read stories about boys. All children need novels of all kinds to nurture empathy towards all humans.
As we drove home from the conference, I told my son about a story he should read and not to worry about the title.
My daughter scooped it up first, and read it in two hours flat. Then Sam picked it up and you could hear him cracking up on the couch.
"Hey Victoria," he would call out to his sister, "what'd you think of this part or that part?" And the two of them would simply laugh until tears surfaced!
Sam couldn't care less about the title. He thought the story was excellent. And he has also read all of the Pandora and Goddess Girl books and is an avid fan of Anne of Green Gables. We, as a family, just finished watching the Avonlea Series that Disney created back in the 90's. Season seven was bittersweet and heart wrenching. My husband and daughter and I were in tears, and so was Sam. And I thought, there is a boy, who will grow up to be a man who empathizes, like his dad.
"Mom, it's so sad," he says to me with such tears in his eyes. He realized while watching that life sometimes hits you with tough blows illustrated so poignantly in the series. He understood empathy and he loves all the characters, whether they are girls or boys.
I told Shannon, right after she spoke, that her speech resonated with me deeply.
We had a brief exchange of mom moments and I told her about my background and how I had been left out of the clubhouse too.
She said to me, "We need your voice." And then grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.
Cubans love to ensure gender specific roles. I fought hard to break those chains. But now, my fight is harder. I have to help my son understand "girls," He has to understand their hearts.
Now, in 2015, we have to make it about the story and not about the gender. When the story speaks to the human heart, it knows nothing except that which makes the heart sing doesn't come in any type of body or gender. It's bigger than that.
Someone asked Shannon, "Where is the Judy Blume for boys?" Her answer, "Judy Blume is the Judy Blume for boys."
What titles would you add to this post that would make most boys run, but if they read the story, they'd be hooked?