Episode 97 , The Myth of “Girl Books” and “Boy Books”: Exploring Gender Bias with Middle Grade Authors, panel discussion PART 2


Welcome to episode 97 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 2 of the after panel discussion. 

Read all the kidlitwomen* essays shared in March

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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:                      Well, I think it's interesting because I just released a podcast today, actually, about the word demanding. About how if you say, that man, he's very demanding, it sounds like he has very high standards. But if you say, she's very demanding, all of a sudden it becomes this idea that she's a [inaudible 00:28:21].

Becky:                      Problem.

Grace:                      So I kinda feel like, when you're talking about your girl characters, it's similar. Boy characters in general... we're talking a lot in general, obviously. But boy characters, they just go do things. And that's fine, but if girl characters just go do things, then sometimes they're not sweet enough.

Becky:                      It's not their role, or whatever.

Grace:                      Yes.

Becky:                      And it seems problematic. And it shouldn't be.

Jeff:                           No.

Grace:                      Right.

Becky:                      Yeah.

Grace:                      Right.

Jennifer:                 There's a double standard at work. I have friends who are librarians, and I've had these discussions with them because I've had to check my own bias and I've also had to ask myself, well what am I doing to make things better? And so I'm trying to have more direct conversations with people, and I will talk to some of my librarian friends and sometimes they'll say, well I recommend girl books all the time. I recommend books that center on girls all the time, and they'll start naming them off and they're all fantasy. They're all fantasy or dystopian. And I'll have to say, well, what about realistic fiction? What about the ones that seem more in the real world? And they admit they have had a harder time recommending realistic fiction that centers on girls to boys. And I'm not sure why.

Grace:                      So last year, they changed the cover of my book The Year of the Dog. Before it was just a red cover with a little drawing of a dog on it. And for the anniversary, it hit the 12-year anniversary, they changed the cover. And it's a photographic cover of a girl on it. So I did a one book, one read at a school and they did Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and said, oh, we loved having you so much, we're thinking about doing your book Year of the Dog for next year's one book, one read. I'm like, that's great. Then she said, we were thinking about it. But then we saw the new cover and some of the, I don't know, the uppers thought it wouldn't work for the boys. And so they ended up not doing it. I was like, but it's the same book, you know?

Becky:                      Literally judging a book by the cover.

Grace:                      It's really just the same book.

Jennifer:                 Oh, no.

Grace:                      Before they had thought they might do it. I can understand if they don't wanna do it because, you know, the same author. All those things. I'm sure that had something to do with it too, but the thing that was kinda the clincher was oh, boys aren't gonna go for that.

Jeff:                           It's such a good book, too.

Becky:                      It is.

Grace:                      Thanks.

Jennifer:                 Why do they sell boys short that way?

Becky:                      Yes.

Jennifer:                 That is perpetuating. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When they are never allowed to try a book. And a book is never held up and said, this is a great book. You will love it. Period. Not you will love it even though it's about a girl.

Becky:                      Well, or even think why not engage students and say, here are all these choices and let them decide and let them vote and read the summary and decide. And don't show covers, just let them read the book. I just... yeah. That's crazy.

Jeff:                           And then the non-genderized covers. Then people will comment that, well, it doesn't have the kid on the cover so we don't know what kid's supposed to read it.

Becky:                      Yeah. [inaudible 00:31:39]. Yeah. Yeah.

Grace:                      It's only for good for dogs.

Jeff:                           My first book came out-

Grace:                      Only dogs can read this [crosstalk 00:31:45].

Becky:                      I've seen a couple of answers like that, and I'm thinking, you go, because I think people... I think that's one of the tweets that I curated too. I think people just don't realize what they're saying until you frame it in a different way and they go, oh.

Jeff:                           Oh.

Becky:                      [crosstalk 00:31:59] I didn't think about it like that.

Jennifer:                 Well, when I first started out, I think my first TOA was about 10 or 11 years ago. I'm not gonna name names, but I was sitting next to an author of color and the librarian was talking to him about his books and she said, I love your books, but I just can't buy them because we don't have kids like that. And I know. And I was just aghast, and the author said, oh, it happens all the time. This happens all the time. I think we still have such a long way to go. But because we need diverse books, and because we keep having these conversations, we have made strides and I'm hoping that there is the rare librarian who's going to say, I cannot have this book because I have very few black students or something like that. I'm hoping that that awareness has sunk in, so I think the same can happen with gender and with everything else if we just keep the conversation going.

Grace:                      I agree with you when you were saying why do we sell our boys short on things like that. And why do we sell our girls short on things like that? My daughter is six, and she loves Captain Underpants, right? But she also loves unicorn books. She has the capacity to love poop jokes and to love beautiful princesses. And I think that she's not that rare, and I think that probably all kids are like that, and I think when we start genderizing these books, like, oh, this unicorn book is only for girls, then that's what you're saying, we're really selling them short.

Jeff:                           Boys love unicorns.

Grace:                      Exactly.

Becky:                      Yes they do.

Grace:                      They do. And there's boys that love pink, and they love purple, and they like sparkles.

Becky:                      Yes. Yes.

Jennifer:                 Right. Right.

Jeff:                           Lots of sparkles.

Grace:                      Yes. All kids love sparkle. They just love sparkles, yet somehow we have made boys ashamed of pink, and sparkles, and purple, and unicorns, and princesses, and pretty clothes.

Becky:                      Yup.

Jennifer:                 Right. Right. And ashamed to show who they really are, you know? And that's hard for any kid. If they like those things and have to hide them, that just breaks my heart.

Becky:                      Yeah, it does.

Grace:                      And we've also shamed girls, too, to like something so rude and gross. That's not very girly.

Jeff:                           That's not for you.

Grace:                      Yeah, that's not for you. That's so gross, I didn't think you'd like something like, you know [crosstalk 00:34:46]?

Becky:                      But I think sometimes that is just, again, you know, like I say, we wanna make strides, but you run into things. I run into that sorta stuff when I go to the store to just buy clothing, because I wanna buy something really fun for the grandkids or something. And so I'll go into a store and they'll be Star Wars gear and t-shirts or whatever and inevitably it's on the boy side. And I'm like, where's for the girls? And so I just go over there and we grab one for the girl. And I'm saying, this really should be in the middle, because everybody loves Star Wars and this shouldn't be just for one or the other. So I think, again, some of that's just a society sorta thing, but we have some really great kid champions that'll say hey, so-and-so basketball player, I wanna [inaudible 00:35:27]. And things happen because these kids are activists in sharing what they want and that it's okay whether it's girl or boy. It should be for everybody.

Grace:                      So let's talk about the responsibility of the gatekeepers to discourage this bias and any more tips that we have to challenge it. Why don't we start with you, since you're a gatekeeper? What do you think the responsibility is?

Becky:                      So I think the responsibility is to honor a student's choice. Students have a voice, and as librarians, we should not be telling them that book is not for them, whether it's because of a gender, or the color of the book, or the level. Kids should have access to anything they wanna read. I think that's, to me, the bottom line, and that's what important. So we try to advocate for that in our school district. Not try, we do. We advocate with our teachers. But inevitably, you still have teachers that will say [inaudible 00:36:25]. And so it's just a little critical conversation to say hey, this is not what our educational beliefs are. And I know for us, in our district, that's a very important thing that we share when new teachers come and we remind them and we do our professional learning is that here are our beliefs about literacy. And I think we could even take a step further by sharing that with parents and say, here are our beliefs about literacy and as you read with your children and that kinda thing. So I think that's one way we could do it, but then also just share with others too.

Jeff:                           I just think checking your bias and checking it often is really important. And I think that it's hard, and it's not comfortable, but we need to do it and we need to consider the lenses that other people see things through. And I think in the ways in which we bring up the conversation we have to be conscious of not making it seem like you're an idiot because you think that way.

Becky:                      Or that you're wrong.

Jeff:                           Or all white dudes, or whatever, are bad. I just think we have to be really careful to keep the conversation alive. I think we have to confront hard truths, but I also think that we maybe should do it in ways that work.

Jennifer:                 Yes.

Jeff:                           Sometimes confrontations can be too much and then they don't work. And they seem like we're going 360 from wrong is still wrong, and we have to be careful. But I think it's huge. That, to me, was everybody, all the time. Writers, kids, because I think our language is really important and easy to go astray unconsciously.

Becky:                      Without realizing.

Jennifer:                 I don't think we can make this change without the gatekeepers' help. We can create the water, but it's you guys that lead the horses to it, you know? And I think we're doing what we can, and I see a lot of librarians doing what they can. A lot of other gatekeepers doing what they can, and I think some could do a little more. Again, just awareness and talking about it. I had a conversation with a gatekeeper, real taste maker. He's very powerful. Lovely, lovely person. And he said, if only your books weren't so pink and girly. That's not his words, but basically if only publishing would have more neutral covers. And I thought, well, you know, there's only so much I can do about that. First of all, I can't do anything about that. But also, should that matter? I kinda think that he and other gatekeepers can say, look past the cover. You should check your thinking, we don't want people to judge people just on the exterior. So I think the gatekeepers could do more to look past, because what's happening there is I think their own assumptions are getting in the way, and they just feel like it's gonna be too difficult.

Jennifer:                 When I was a classroom teacher, kindles were just happening as I was leaving teaching to become a full-time writer. And I thought, oh, this is so great, because so many of my students were ashamed of what they read. I taught eighth grade, and they were ashamed that they were reading below level. This is also before levels, by the way, but you know what I mean. Before grade level. And they were ashamed that they liked books that were about characters younger than them. They were ashamed they were reading across gender. There was just so much shaming, and I thought, wow, this is a wonderful tool where it's not as obvious what someone is reading. No matter what your age, you can read what you want. And I still love the handheld paper books and stuff, but I think we don't have to necessarily rely on the technology. If we can just be aware of these assumptions and the tendency to shame and rein it in.

Grace:                      Right. Right. Allow readers to read without judgment in eighth grade.

Jennifer:                 Yeah.

Grace:                      And I think we'll mention it our panel discussion, but there was the really important Shannon Hale thread, I thought, where she talks about if, when we genderize books, the message we're sending to boys is that girls' stories are not for them. And we're sending the message to girls that their stories are not as important, when we do that. Like she was talking about, when she went in to go do a school, and she was only talking to the girls. And the boys didn't have to come. But when a male author came to a school, they all came.

Jeff:                           Wow.

Grace:                      So it's that kind of thing that we are starting to implant in our kids, which is why the next thing I wanted to talk about is school visits and the authors that we invite. So do you have any thoughts about that?

Becky:                      So I have never talked to our librarians about who they invite to the schools. What I know, though, is that if an author comes, everybody goes. It's not just certain people go and not, and that kinda thing. But it makes me wonder, and I always think about, do I want to hope that that's not happening? Or do I want to ensure that's not happening? And so I think it's about having a conversation to say, as you're planning, and setting kinda some, I say guidelines, but not in the strictest sense but considerations as you plan. Because I think also too, sometimes we just plan and maybe we're thinking so much about the cost that we're not thinking about are we balancing male female. How are we thinking through those lens? Are we thinking diverse? Just all of that kinda thing, too. Because I know for us, in our district our demographic is changing. The state of Texas is changing, which is great, but I think, again, too, is I want to make sure that our students see themselves in anybody that comes to visit at their school. Whether its their teacher, and see themselves to be that teacher or that librarian or that author. And so if we're always going to the go-tos, the same person, that's never gonna happen, right?

Grace:                      Yeah. Well, I wrote this article for The Horn Book where I said the best way a male author could help feminism is not to write the strong girl character, but to create more male characters that embrace what we call the feminine characteristics. And to go to these school visits, and to show the kids that they feel, too. It's kind of like being that model for the kids. I am a man that can feel, you know? And I think that's what sometimes gets lost, is the modeling of those kind of things. We are, unfortunately, running out of time but it was so great having you all. Before we end, I'm gonna end with the two questions we ask everybody, that's why I'm stopping it now. Okay, so, first question is what is everybody working on that they would like listeners to hear about?

Jennifer:                 I'm a weird superstitious person. I am, I'm superstitious and weird and so I don't like to announce projects until I absolutely know that they are going to be what I say they're going to be. And so things are just a little too squishy and fluid right now with some things I'm working on, but I will just say I'm working on some books and I'm going to be at other events, but mainly I'm just writing and writing.

Grace:                      What's your latest published book, then?

Jennifer:                 My latest published book is the final book in the Brewster Triplets Series called Revenge of the Teacher's Pets.

Jeff:                           Well, I just finished my third book in the series for Zack Delacruz which is Upstaged. And I'm thinking about maybe looking at some younger chapter books as well.

Grace:                      Great. Are you working on anything?

Becky:                      Not writing-wise, but I am working my next panel is gonna happen hopefully [inaudible 00:45:28] NCTE on the patriarchy. So I'm excited, and we're talking about maybe bringing maybe [inaudible 00:45:34] that proposal for TLA for next year. So I'm excited. So we'll see.

Jeff:                           Hey.

Grace:                      All right. And the last question is, what is your biggest publishing dream? So this is the thing, I really encourage you to think big and goofy. A dream that's so big that you're almost ashamed to say it, because the idea being that we should not be ashamed of our ambitions, okay? So I'll start.

Becky:                      What's yours? I wanna know what yours is.

Grace:                      My biggest publishing dream? Oh. Gee, you know, I have never had it [crosstalk 00:46:05].

Becky:                      Flipping the question here.

Grace:                      So my biggest publishing dream is to have my art on a postage stamp.

Jennifer:                 That's awesome!

Becky:                      I want that, too!

Jennifer:                 Yeah, me too!

Jeff:                           [crosstalk 00:46:25].

Becky:                      Can that be my dream, too?

Grace:                      You know how they have the hungry caterpillar, or they have [inaudible 00:46:28]. I would love to see my book on a postage stamp.

Jennifer:                 Yeah. That's a great one.

Becky:                      Mine, I guess, would be I would just love to publish a children's book. A picture book. I just love that art and I see all these amazing things that all my favorite authors do. I really would love to take a stab at that.

Jeff:                           I would wanna make a Netflix series out of one of my characters. I don't why I always think of that.

Becky:                      Fun. That's fun.

Grace:                      That's great.

Jennifer:                 Oh, gosh. I would like to write a movie based on one of my books. And in my biggest dreams I would direct it too. [crosstalk 00:47:10]

Jeff:                           All right.

Jennifer:                 Be in charge of the soundtrack, and I would cast it.

Grace:                      And have it win the Oscars.

Jennifer:                 Yes.

Becky:                      There you go.

Grace:                      Bring all of us.

Jennifer:                 Yeah, sure. Awesome.

Grace:                      Great. Well, thanks so much everybody. So glad.

Jennifer:                 Thanks, Grace.

Becky:                      Thanks for inviting us.

Jeff:                           Thank you.

Grace:                      Thank you.


Grace Lin