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Gendered Booklists and Their Place in Reader’s Advisory

It’s difficult to talk about gender definitions and not talk about labels, double standards, and stereotypes.  There is a fine line between narrowing the focus in a book search based on gender and narrowing topics or experiences.  How do you recommend books?  Do you begin by asking questions or immediately name a title?  While understanding gender roles is necessary to form one’s identity, should gender be a significant role in choosing reading material?  There is a place for gendered booklists, but it should not be the deciding factor and it does not remain the focus of reader’s advisory. After all, how often have you asked an adult “Are you reading a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ book?”

gender and readers' advisory

Some Background on Gender Roles

As adolescents begin to form their own identity we encourage curiosity through learning, yet topics are restricted once labels are introduced.  The preteen and teen years are the years when adolescents broaden their views.  Therefore, a variety of sources is required to shape a full image of gender to prepare them to enter the adult world.

Like all stereotyping, gender stereotyping restricts a person’s full potential.  If readers believe they can only read “boy” or “girl” books, then they miss out not only on great pieces of literature, and learning, but they continue to believe and live by the gender myth on what defines male and female.   Not every masculine trait is found only in males and not every feminine trait is found in females.  Likewise, males and females vary in perceived masculinity and femininity.  There is variety even within one gender and if teens are only reading one type of book and only seeing one example, then they are not experiencing the diversity among people nor thinking critically.  Branching out of the traditional “boy” or “girl” book talks can be exciting.  What if your next book talk just gave plot points and character descriptions with no names to divulge whether the characters were male or female?  Or what if students were given an introduction and told to create the storyline based on whether the narrator was a male or female – would the action and dialog change?  If so, then we need to do better than focusing on the gender of our characters.

Questions to ask instead of focusing on “boy” or “girl” books:

  • What books were your favorites?
  • What did you like about a book – dialog, action, character? By asking open ended questions, the teens choose their descriptors and will mention character traits and “he” or “she” and you can see if there is a preference of the gender of the characters
  • What type of book? Focus on genre and time period and less on character labels

There are two instances when gendered booklists assist reader’s advisory and those are when the readers are young and when booklists are used as a brainstorming tool.

The Age of the Reader

Typically gendered booklists are for children (or parents of children) who are still identifying children’s interests and identifying with typical gender roles.  I do not know of a teenager asking for “boy” or “girl” books since their development is more mature and they are able to find other literary elements more important than the protagonist’s gender.  I certainly do not place Harry Potter or The Hunger Games as gender specific books.  Whereas tweens and preteens find interests based on what peers and parents have established, teenagers are able to think outside of stereotypes and are more likely to read – and want – diversity in their literature choices.

Brainstorming Tool

While I lean more towards the philosophy of a gender-less book classification system, I also know the goal of parents, teachers, and librarians is to get books into the hands of readers and sometimes these gendered book lists help connect readers to books.  I do not censor the types of books students read, but I also suggest similar titles if the student asks for “boy” or “girl” books.

The ideas shouldn’t be to make it one or the other, either soldiers or princesses, but should focus on how a person searches for reading material or knowing the favorite subjects of the reader.  For younger readers this may still incorporate gender roles, but for older teens books should not be divided by gender.  Teenagers are willing to read outside of the norms, learn about different perspectives, and often see past the stereotypes.  Readers can find admirable characters based on intelligence, kindness, and humor.  Heroes are heroic based on their behavior and deeds, not always based on strength or gender.

The Appeal of a Good Book (regardless of gender)

Authors are branching out of the stereotypical gender roles for their characters as well.  Books such as Defy by Sara B. Larson and Stiching Snow by R.C. Lewis have incredibly strong, and atypical female characters.  In Defy, Alexa disguises herself as a boy and proves she is one of the toughest, most skilled swords(wo)man in the Prince’s guard. She saves the kingdom.  In Stitching Snow, Essie is a runaway princess who is an amazing coder who programs drones. There are amazingly strong female and male characters more focused on truth and not on their gender, Code Named Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Vango: Between Earth and Sky by Timothee de Fombelle are two books focused on intelligent, honest people who strive for justice.  Many recent books continue to focus on personal traits and characteristics more than the gender of a character.  Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson partners two near strangers, one male and one female, to solve a scavenger hunt of clues in a “to do” list from a missing friend.   Fantasy titles such as Marie Lu’s The Young Elites, the Reckoners series by Brandon Sandersen, and The Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard have such positive and negative characters, both male and female,  that they will appeal to male and female readers alike (even adult readers).  Young Adult literature is not only creating very strong male and female characters, but it is producing very thoughtful and curious readers.  To limit readers, in any method is a disservice to all readers.  Since books are a way to seek out new information and libraries are a safe space to explore, we should focus more on the connecting readers to literature, strong characters, and topics of interest and focus less on the gender of a character or reader.

— Sarah Carnahan, currently reading Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

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Sarah Carnahan

Middle School and Upper School Librarian at Pulaski Academy
Member of YALSA (2010-present) and various committees (2015-present), Contributor for The Hub (2014-present), Arkansas Teen Book Award (2008-present), and an ALA juror for the MAE Award (2015). Middle School and Upper School Librarian for an independent, private school. Mom of a preschooler and a toddler, who don't read YA, but hear it in the car.