June 6, 2013

Needed: Gender-neutral covers, especially for boys


“If The Hunger Games had featured Katniss on the cover instead of a gold medallion against a black background, sales to boys would have been fractional.”

Shortly after Jane Eyre was first published, a skeptical male critic picked up a copy and started reading. “I found myself unable to put it down. At midnight I was on the moors with Jane Eyre, and at 4:00 A.M. I married Mr. Rochester,” he wrote. You won’t hear boys today issuing statements like that, partly because of the way books featuring female protagonists are packaged.

Novelist Alison Croggon participated in a panel on gender and YA literature at the Reading Matters conference last weekend, and yesterday she described her experience in The Guardian.

“A shelf of YA books might still suggest a world in which boys and girls make their reading choices based upon their gender. Almost from birth, readers are coralled into the pink and blue worlds of sparkle for girls and adventure for boys,” Croggon wrote. Obviously these stereotypes are problematic, but they’re especially problematic for boys.

Girls tend to read widely, glibly crossing the gender divide. They can read “boy books” without encountering social stigma. Not so for boys, who learn early on to feel ashamed of dipping into a “girl book.” And what determines the girl-ness or boy-ness of a book? The cover—not the content. As Elizabeth Bluemle lamented in Publisher’s Weekly,

If The Hunger Games had featured Katniss on the cover instead of a gold medallion against a black background, sales to boys would have been fractional. This is a frustrating truth. And it’s our fault. We steer kids—no, we steer boys—away from stories they might respond to from a very early age.

“If you categorize books as for boys or for girls, the message is that boys don’t need to be concerned about the female experience,” said YA author Libba Bray at the Reading Matters panel. In a climate of increased violence against women, boys should be encouraged to reading books that will help them not avoid but instead empathize with their female peers.

YA author Shannon Hale described a typical book signing on her blog:

Most of my line is made up of young girls with their mothers, teen girls alone, and mother friend groups. But there’s usually at least one boy with a stack of my books. This boy is anywhere from 8-19, he’s carrying a worn stack of the Books of Bayern, and he’s excited and unashamed to be a fan of those books. As I talk to him, 95% of the time I learn this fact: he is home-schooled.

If we want more boys in the book signing line—marrying Mr. Rochester, you might say—we need more gender-neutral covers.

Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.