Episode 96 , The Myth of “Girl Books” and “Boy Books”: Exploring Gender Bias with Middle Grade Authors, panel discussion PART 1
Welcome to episode 96 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
Today’s episode is recording from the 2019 Texas Library Association conference. Before the panel “The Myth of “Girl Books” and “Boy Books”: Exploring Gender Bias with Middle Grade Authors” was held, a few of the participants gathered to begin the conversation. This is part 1 of the after panel discussion. Please come back on Wed. to hear part 2.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Jennifer Ziegler is a native Texan, a former ELA teacher, parent of four kids, and Austin-based author. Her latest books are in her Brewster Triplets middle-grade series published by Scholastic. Revenge of the Flower Girls, Revenge of the Angels, Revenge of the Happy Campers, and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pets feature three civic-minded history buffs who fight for what they believe in, even if it means stirring up a little mayhem. When not creating books, Jennifer leads workshops, talks, and presentations, urging young people to recognize their own powers and use them for good. Follow Jennifer on twitter at @zieglerjennifer. She was also featured at this podcast on episode 31.
Jeff Anderson, a former Texas teacher, is the author of the humorous Zack Delacruz Series: Me and My Big Mouth, Just My Luck; and Upstaged He’s written several best-selling teacher resources such as Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language, 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, and Mechanically Inclined. Jeff lives in San Antonio and spends his days, reading, writing, and talking to kids and teachers. Learn more about Jeff at his website.
Becky Calzada is the District Library Coordinator in Leander ISD located NW of Austin, Texas. She’s a past chair of TASL, a division of TLA, a member in TCEA, ALA, AASL, Learning Forward, TASLA and a co-moderator for #TXLChat, a weekly twitter chat for Texas Librarians. With over 30 years of teaching experience----literacy, leadership, innovative teaching and library advocacy have been her top passions just after her love for her 2 daughters, 2 grandkids and 3 dogs. Becky is currently the Region 6 Director for AASL and on the TLA Legislative Advocacy Committee. Follow Becky on twitter @becalzada .
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon her most recent picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.
Grace: Hello, I'm Grace Lin, and I'm here with some of my panelists at the Texas Library Association. I think what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna have them introduce themselves. As I said, I'm Grace Lin, I'm an Asian-American woman, and I go by she and her. And I'm gonna ask each one of you to introduce yourselves. Not only self-identify, but also maybe give a little bit of your background, if possible. Why don't we start with you?
Jennifer: Okay. My name is Jennifer Ziegler, I am a half-Latinx woman, my pronouns are she, her. I write middle grade for Scholastic, the most recent being the Brewster Triplets Series.
Jeff: And I'm Jeff Anderson, and I write, for Sterling Publishers, a series of books called the Zack Delacruz Series. I also write books for teachers. I identify as a he, him. And I guess I'm part Indian, but I call myself Caucasian, I guess, at this point.
Becky: And my name is Becky Calzada, and I am Latinx in background. I'm the District Library Coordinator in Leander ISD, so just northwest of Austin, Texas, where we are today. And I've been asked to be a part of this amazing panel and moderate, so I'm excited to do that. And I identify as she, her.
Grace: All right. So the panel that we are all on together is the myth of girl books and boy books: exploring gender bias with middle grade authors. So which of you were the genius behind this panel?
Jeff: Well, we all started talking about it. Jen and I talked about it, and then we talked about Becky, and then we talked to Becky.
Becky: Yes. So I will say that Jen and Jeff came to me and said we have this idea for this panel. And they explained the idea as far as genderizing books and then they said, would you moderate? And I said, sure. But I love the idea, and I think that's really why I agreed to it, because I just agreed wholeheartedly that a book is a book, it's not a sex. It's just, it's a book.
Grace: So why was it important to you to have this panel? The two of you?
Jennifer: You know, I think this has been a topic of conversation at a lot of author events, as you know. I'm sure you've been part of these conversations. You know, I adore Jeff, and Jeff and I have been wanting to do a panel together. Because I'm a former educator, you work with teachers, you've been a teacher, we both write for middle grade, and I'm trying to remember, but I think it just kinda happened organically where we were talking about do your books get called boy books?
Jeff: Yeah, that's what it was. It was the because they said yours book is a girl book and my book is a boy book. And we were talking about the levels of that. How do you get that conversation going? Because I think we all wanna do better, and I think part of it is our unconsciousness, the things we do unconsciously without even thinking about it. And so it just seemed rich for conversation.
Becky: And I wanna add that what I liked especially about it is that being in the position that I am with training with libraries or just working with librarians, I see that and I hear it happening. Whether it's a teacher doing it, or even a librarian doing it. So I thought that this would be a great platform to talk about it and help people to consider, because they may not even realize the potential implications of trying to put a book in a certain box. That could be potentially good for everybody.
Grace: So let's talk about those implications. What do you think is the biggest harm about genderizing these books? The boy book versus the girl book?
Jeff: Well, to me it cuts off an ability to see something through somebody else's lens. Because my books are narrated by a boy, I could see that it would be helpful for a girl to see boys have vulnerabilities too. Boys worry too. Being able to be in that possibility of somebody else. And as a boy, I remember being told books were not for boys or not for girls and there was a shaming sense to it. So I like that idea, that tweet you put up. Jess Keating's tweet, she's a science writer and the books are not anatomical. They're for readers, not for boys and for girls, and I really like that idea. But I think it's a systemic problem beyond books that makes it more interesting and to think about what is our role? And that's about what I was thinking about.
Grace: How about you, Jen?
Jennifer: Oh, I agree. I think it's a symptom of a system that's been in place a long, long, long time. And there's this false categorization. We like to put things in boxes, and I think we're now at this point in society where we realize that this is not a good way. It's a shortcut, but it also perpetuates the patriarchy and it perpetuates fear of other. And it's something you have to be very careful with with young people, especially because they're all about finding their identities. So when you start saying, you belong in this box, you're making a whole bunch of assumptions about them, about what they like, and you're making a lot of assumptions about a book, too. I've had this conversation before. What is a girl book? I mean, what is a girl book? Do they think it's 200 pages of us talking about periods? Because that book doesn't exist. Not when I write it. So, you know, is it about relationships? Is that it? Does that make it a girl book? Because guess what, every single John Green book is about relationships, but they don't get called girl books.
Jennifer: So from what I can see, the only thing that makes a girl book a girl book is whether it centers on a girl. And so right then you're just taking this one fragment of a whole book and making assumptions, and that's the definition of prejudice right there. That's a bias.
Becky: And I think about just the opportunity as readers to just be able to learn from the character in a book, whether they're male or female. And I think that's a missed opportunity if we're saying that's only for girls or only for boys. If we want girls to understand boys, a book is a great way. And vice versa. So I think those are important things. And I think it also just helps us to understand one another. I think of Jeff's books and it's in a school setting, or Jen's in camp. Kids can relate to the kids because they're kids. And what do we think about those kinds of things, too? I think about your book, Grace, and I sit with my two grandkids and we read it together. And one's a boy, one's a girl. Boy's older. And it's never about oh, I can't read that because the character's a girl. He loves that story, because he just loves the idea of a moon cake and making one and that kinda thing. And I think that's a beautiful thing, because he sees that he can be a cook if he wants to be, and it's not centered on those cultural stereotypes that the woman was always cooking and those kinds of things, too, which I think is important.
Grace: So what are some of the examples that you observed or heard about gender issues that you'd like to share with our listeners?
Jennifer: In our own personal experiences?
Grace: I think in your own experience. I think that would be the best.
Jennifer: Well, professionally I get a lot of questions like, do you talk to all students or just girls? I will go to events such as library association conferences and my husband is also an author of children's books, and we will be on the event floor and sometimes librarians will come up and say, oh, we wanna have you come out and speak to our students for a week. And I'm glad they want him, that's great. He's a wonderful author. But then sometimes in the same breath, they will turn to me and say, do you do free Skype visits?
Becky: [inaudible 00:08:43] way.
Jennifer: Which hurts, and I will say, well, you know, it depends. I think if they pick up on my discomfort, they'll kinda backtrack and say, oh, but that's because we want you to talk to our girls.
Grace: Which is almost worse.
Becky: [crosstalk 00:09:02] digging a hole there.
Grace: That doesn't make it better.
Jennifer: Exactly. I love librarians. I love librarians so, but occasionally I will have to grin through these... I don't know what to call them, micro-aggressions? I'm really not sure what the term is.
Jeff: It's not that micro.
Becky: Yeah, it's not. Well, and assumptions that are made, right?
Jennifer: Exactly, exactly. So there's been a whole lot of that. And I think this has happened, too. I'm sure things like that have happened to you, Grace, and I'm sure things like that have happened, an equivalent, to you. And then it just perpetuates and I think that the industry takes note. I think that when publishers are talking about who to really push at conventions and which books to really market. So there's that, there's a professional level, there's me having to advocate for my girl characters, which might be for another question. But I think the worst part is just seeing and hearing from boys who will say, I liked your book even though it's about a girl.
Jeff: Like whispering it?
Jennifer: Yes, exactly. Exactly. That, to me, is the greatest pain, is to see that struggle.
Grace: It's the even though, I think. That's what bothers me the most too. Because it's already in them that they shouldn't like it, you know?
Grace: There's already a certain shame that I'm not supposed to like this, but I do. You know?
Grace: And they shouldn't feel that way. So Jeff, do you want to [crosstalk 00:10:50]?
Jeff: I was just thinking it's interesting in a couple of ways. One of them, just as a gay man, it's interesting because I remember the shame. I wanted a sunshine family when I was a little boy, and they were like, that's not a boy toy. You get in those conversations and you just, over time, that's I enjoy. The binder I would pick out was a girl binder and I just wanted that one. To me it was pretty or attractive. But what's interesting is I noticed that I sent my book out to a lot of female, because there are a lot of females in the business.
Grace: Yes, in the profession.
Jeff: And I would get back coded things to me like, slapstick. Which to me, I think means this is too boyish and whatever. And I don't think that's right, either. I think it was interesting that a man was the one that liked it and then several women had turned it down. But I'm not saying that's why. They could just not have literary merit, I'm not saying that. But I just think it's interesting, the conversation. But what really scares me is the way that it gets pushed, like, what power is. And what being a man is. Because what I got from my life as a boy was that power was being mean and angry. And I cringe sometimes when I see, whether you're a woman, or a man, or whatever, why would you continue to keep that going? Because it's just really scary to me. On both sides. Just the attack. Oh, I hate even saying both sides now because it sounds terrible.
Grace: But I agree. I feel like what has been stereotyped as a boy book tend to be books that are fairly aggressive. It's always the way that the boys bond are usually either some kinda competition, they're doing something aggressive against a foe.
Grace: That's the way that we are teaching boys to bond, you know? We have to bond through aggression. Especially when we call those books boy books.
Jennifer: Right. And then they wonder why some boys stop reading, you know? I had what some people would say a gentle boy, one of my sons. And he loved Junie B. Jones, and it was a real struggle for him when he realized that he was not supposed to like those things and he was not supposed to read books about relationships, as if he's gonna lose masculinity points or something. And don't we want our boys to have a sense of relationships and friendships? And what they're all about? And be able to talk to other people and relate to other people? I heard the most wonderful quote from Vicky Ash, this wonderful librarian at a book festival recently. And she said that she had a student tell her, I want to read about people in books before I meet them in life.
Grace: Oh, wow.
Jennifer: And that's what books can do for people.
Grace: No, I'm sorry, you should.
Becky: I love that. No, that's okay. So for me, I think when I've kinda dealt with that it's been just mindsets with teachers about that this is for boys and this is for girls, and I don't ever wanna embarrass anybody, but I'll pull them aside and say, hey, did you know, and kinda explain. I hear it with parents though too sometimes, and I'm inevitably one of those librarians that's in the bookstore and I overhear a parent talking and they're looking for a book. And I am not afraid to go and say, oh, hey, have you thought about this? Or whatever. But sometimes I hear them even say, oh no, that's for this and this is for, you know. And sometimes I'm brave and say, you know, I'm a librarian and all kids love these books. And so really, it's okay for anybody, so just consider it.
Becky: And I think it's just having the courage to pose the question, but then also, in my area, because I work with all 42 librarians in my district and beyond, just send that message out and say, did you know? Have you thought about this? Do you know the implications? And be that voice for authors, too, and get that message out. Because I think just people don't realize, you know? But you see it on Twitter, or you see tweets like Jess's, and others, and you just wanna bring awareness to it. To make it better.
Grace: I think that's really important, because I think so much of this is unconscious. Like you said, the teachers, the librarians, we love them all. But it's been entrenched in us for so long. I used to be a book seller, and I remember people would come in and be like, I'm looking for a book for my child. I'd be like, boy or girl? You know? It was like, that was the first question you asked. And then you would immediately kinda figure out which way to go. And that's how we've been doing it for decades.
Becky: Compartmentalizing things.
Becky: I heard on one of your podcasts, was a friend that you did the other podcast with and she's a publisher. She said, I took out that box of is this is primarily for boys or girls? And I was like, oh my gosh, that's so amazing. But how courageous, too, to be able to be a leader and say and hopefully others will follow.
Grace: Yeah, and I think that's something that we all have to do. If only just bringing it up again, and again, and again. I feel like we can never bring it up enough times.
Becky: Yeah, I agree, I agree.
Jeff: It's so subconscious, I think.
Becky: Well, some of that's just rooted in how we were raised, too. And I will say, again, because my grandkids are living with me at home, that I'm already hearing the little things out of my grandson's mouth. Or I'm hearing words and I think of things like bossy in relation to my granddaughter. And I'll say, oh, let's not say that, we're going to say this, you know? Because there's just negative connotations, because boys are never called bossy, and those kinds of things. So I'm really trying to help in that way with my grandkids, but I think, again, we have to have those kinds of conversations just in general with people that we work with and have reminders about that.
Grace: So what guidance can you offer to help librarians or teachers to be more mindful when sharing books?
Jeff: I would think just check your language. When you're doing a book talk, just thinking about what's another way you can consider another way you can say this besides this. For boys who like books that are funny, and boys who like this, instead of just like, for readers who like, for kids who like, and just as simple as that. But we all know that just changing one little word changes attitudes. They want powerful characters that will help them transform. It doesn't matter what sex they are or what gender they are, it matters that they transform and change. That's what we get from books.
Jennifer: I don't know if you've heard of the phrase people first? So, you know, for example, you don't wanna say a disabled person, you wanna say a person with a disability. Because there's a difference, you recognize the humanity first. And that's not their identity, they are not a disabled person, they are a person with a disability. And I think we should do the same with books and have books first. It's not a girl book, it's not a boy book, it's not an LGBTQIA book, it is a book about blank. And then when we talk about blank, instead of saying it's about a gay teen who, we can talk more about-
Jeff: It's about a teen.
Jennifer: It's about a teen.
Becky: It's about a teen, yes.
Becky: No descriptors in front of the characters. It's about a character who. Yeah. Totally.
Jennifer: Exactly. Because it may explore those themes, but it may not. Yeah, so I think if we do that, and also if we really check our own bias. Because we all have them. We all have them. And just sort of recognize what we are doing and look at if someone is a librarian, which books are you book talking? Which authors are you hiring? What are you recommending? And if you're an author, how do you talk about your book? And can you open a dialogue with your publisher about how they market it? And you may be successful in that and you may not be, but you know.
Becky: At least you try.
Grace: Right. While you're being courageous, right, and trying, and seeing what's gonna happen, too.
Jennifer: And even if it doesn't work, it opens their mind just a little bit more, so maybe the next time it goes a little bit open more and more. All these little drops in the bucket, you know? Is gonna add up some day.
Jeff: And I think that whole unconscious thing, I've been guilty of saying a book had a strong female character in it. And just having the awareness of being on this panel.
Grace: This whole group, yeah.
Jeff: Hearing that that's a myth, too. But I didn't really think about it. I didn't think I was saying something wrong. I know we're not talking about wrong and right, we're talking about sensitivity and things. So I wanna hear, and I think the listeners would probably wanna hear, why a strong female character isn't a good thing to say.
Jeff: Because I wanna make sure to not.
Grace: First, let's hear from Becky and then we will definitely go to the strong female character.
Becky: So I think for me, just thinking about challenging librarians to learn more about this, to not be afraid to ask questions, and then I think also there's more and more out there to read, to learn about, and I just think about this topic that even equity in general, diversity. This is all an area that everybody's learning about. But we do have to stop and take the time, because that learning has so many implications because librarians work with students, they work with teachers, they work with parents, they work with administrators. And so the ripple effective is immense, or could be immense if they take that time to learn and make little substitutions like change the book, you know, the simple little actions. And that's one of the things I wanted to promote about our session today, is that this is the kinda session that if you listen, the takeaways are instant. You can implement them right away, and you don't have to lift a piece of paper. It's just in your simple actions of your words, and that's a powerful opportunity.
Grace: That is powerful. It's something that just shows that we can change something so simply. And that's not something you can say about the problems of the world too often.
Becky: Probably not all that often.
Grace: So Jeff mentioned it and this was definitely one of the questions we were gonna talk about. The fallacy of the strong female character. Now, since this is for the KidlitWomen blog, that's actually one of the essays written by Erin Dionne, who was episode 61, which I'm so happy has reached our panel as well. So let's talk about this fallacy of the strong female character. I think Jen had some good ideas about that.
Jennifer: For one thing, it's redundant, I think.
Jennifer: Because with all that women and girls in our society have to put up with, we're gonna be strong just to survive. So I think it's redundant, but it also implies that it's in some way an aberration when you highlight that. I remember growing up. This doesn't happen so much anymore, but you would hear lady astronaut, lady scientist.
Jeff: Oh, yeah.
Jennifer: You know?
Becky: I remember that.
Jennifer: So again, you have that male-centric, you know, the male is understood, it's the default, it's the universal. And if there's something that goes against that, then you have to add lady to it. And so, again, I think when people say strong female character, you're somehow implying that it's different from the norm.
Grace: And I think it's also the way we perceive strength, right? Usually, when they say the strong female character, they are saying the character is somebody who's spunky or headstrong, or somebody who's always talking really loud. And I think that also gives a myth of what strength is. Because those are the things that we associate with male characteristics, this kinda like loud, brassy, very aggressive characteristics. And those we have, for better or worse, said are male characteristics. Aggression. And then there's the other, what we call female characteristics. The quieter ones, you know? The ones that are introspective. The ones that maybe are more emotional. And so those are "female," yet those are not considered strong. Yet I think there is a good argument to make that those are characteristics of strength as well. So, the ability to show emotion versus being stoic. I think that's a pretty strong thing to be able to do.
Jennifer: Kindness. Kindness is a strength. It's a strength we need more of. Yeah. I will say that my triplet characters, I think, have been maligned a little bit for not being sweet enough. I have read some reviews that say, oh, you know, I couldn't stand this book. And they would talk about things that I thought were actually very good traits about them, that they were very gung-ho, that they were very direct in their problem-solving, and that sort of thing. And it occurred to me, okay, it's because their girls. Because I think if boy characters acted this way, nobody would question it. And so I mentioned earlier my son loved Junie B. Jones. And, oh, my gosh, was this poor character just maligned for not being sweet and for being bratty and for all of these things, and they talk about how she acts up. But then you compare it to a character like Fudge in the Judy Bloom series.
Becky: Or the great brain, even.
Becky: And it's okay.
Jennifer: Or Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes, and it's fine. So there is... yeah.
Becky: There are those mindsets about what a female or a male character should be or shouldn't be, and why is that? And I think that's the problem, is that there's some fixed mindsets that people have and I feel like it's generational most of the time, but because I think of younger children, they don't know different. And so until somebody introduces that concept, they don't know any different. So they don't make those same assumptions about what kids should be or shouldn't be, they're just kids, right?
Jeff: But I think that's interesting how you can take something... I feel supportive of women and I still make mistakes.
Jeff: [inaudible 00:26:56] We can reflect on those is understand why that's hurtful instead of just going on and doing it. Because even if we don't mean them in a negative way, they can be perceived in a negative way or have negative consequences that we're not even aware of that the language is laying down.
Grace: Right. Yeah.
Jennifer: Well, it's so tricky to talk about. Just now while you were speaking, Becky, I was sorta thinking about the answer I just gave and was cringing a little bit because I hope it didn't sound like I think all girl characters should be necessarily spunky and forthright, and stuff. That's just how my characters were. I think there's characters who are quieter, who are not as direct, who are a little more up here in their heads than they are outward. I think a lot of leaders are gonna relate to them, boy or girl, no matter what.
Grace: I agree.
Jeff: Oh, yeah.
Becky: Yeah. I didn't take it that way. Really, for me, it's this. Judgements are made and I'm like, where are you getting that from and why? What's making you think that way, that necessarily doesn't... it just makes you wonder.
THIS IS PART 1, Please return on Wed for Part 2.