Gender Inequality in Children’s Literature

I was recently on a plane, chatting with the man sitting next to me.  He told me he had a little girl who loved to read, and mentioned several books she had devoured lately.  He said he said was always looking for new books for her, and asked me for recommendations.  I gave him several, and then asked about his son, who he had also mentioned to me earlier.  “Oh, he’s not so into books,” was the reply.  “The occasional comic book, but there aren’t many books he actually likes, much less finishes.”  I went to recommend a few books that might help his son enjoy reading a little more, and realized I had very few ideas for him.  I mentioned the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the Boxcar Children series, and Choose-Your-Own Adventure books.  He was surprised I had any recommendations at all, and made notes of them in his phone.

For many years, there has been an overwhelmingly positive push for books for young girls.  It’s become a tremendous, commendable mass effort on the part of writers and publishers alike, and I love that when I walk into a bookstore, I see great titles and characters like Madeline, Amelia Bedelia, Olivia, Judy Moody, Imogene, etc.  And of course there are classics like Matilda, Little House on the Prairie, The American Girl books, Harriet the Spy, and so many others.  I remember reading so many books as a little girl and learning about social interaction, history and culture, vocabulary and creative language usage (Black Beauty is written from the 1st person perspective of a horse.  Nine-year-old me was BESIDE HERSELF.).  Books contain not only stories that drive imagination and wonder, but also developmental content that’s so important.  While we’ve achieved our goal of crafting uplifting and encouraging content for our young girls, we’ve created a problem.

When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Girls,” this is the result:


When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Boys,” this is the result:


This brings to light an interesting problem: in our focus on encouraging, educating, and uplifting girls, we’ve developed some tunnel vision and have forgotten about the boys.  I’m talking about books and stories specifically tailored for boys, not gender neutral books that can be enjoyed by all kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which, I might add, is about a boy protagonist who is not only “wimpy,” but generally a screw-up).  If we’re going to give girls the Disney Princess books, why don’t the Disney Princes get books?  There’s an absolute cavern of possibilities for “Disney Prince” books, because they don’t have backstories already established.  Why can’t we have a book series called “Wood Shop Wilson,” about a kid who solves problems through building awesome stuff, or “Undercover Andy,” a boy detective who solves neighborhood mysteries a la The Hardy Boys?  I believe the root of this problem is two-fold.

First, the fact of the matter is, writing for girls is cake.  It’s easy to write meaningful stories for girls, because girls have more interests to be creative with.  You can put a girl protagonist into almost any environment, and girls will think it’s really cool so long as the storyline is interesting enough.  You can make her royalty, or an astronaut, or a mermaid, or a schoolgirl in another time period, a cowgirl, a sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, or a high-flying Amelia Earhart.   You can essentially just spin the wheel, because there’s an infinite number of plot/protagonist/environment combinations that will capture and keep the interest of little girls.  Boys, however, require a different kind of interest and encouragement.  Frankly, it’s harder to keep them entertained, so it requires a different method of storytelling.  It requires a new, and more intentional way of story-crafting that no one seems willing to bother with.  Bob the Builder only cuts it for so long.  As they grow and develop, our boys need literature that will grow with them, and provide them with the same kind of lessons that we’ve poured so much heart and effort into for our girls.

The second factor will be a largely unpopular opinion, I imagine: the lack of decent literature for boys falls at least partially to the fault of the cultural emasculation of young boys.  While we never want young boys to embrace fighting, violence, or needless destruction, I find it a grave mistake to assume we can reprogram those tendencies out of our young men.  There is a significant difference between encouraging boys to develop good habits to control those tendencies, and encouraging boys to be more like girls in demeanor.  Boys need male role models that teach them it’s OK to be a boy, and to like dirt, explosions, speed, risks, etc.  But those same role models need to be the ones to show them the consequences of liking those things, and how to enjoy them in a moderated and safe manner.  I’d like to see a boy’s book where a young man dares his younger brother to jump off the roof, and the younger brother breaks his arm.  That book can still have a happy ending, and can wrap up with a lot of hugging, apologies, and forgiveness.  But it’s a valuable lesson in considering the safety of others, and the price of some kinds of fun.  These are the kinds of lessons boys need, and they’re the kind of stories that will hook boys from beginning to end.  Give a boy a book about survival on a long-term sea voyage – teach them about the importance of preparedness, and how adventures sometimes don’t go how you planned them.  Give a boy a book about asking someone to the school dance – teach them about polite and fun social interaction.  Give a boy about a book about trying out for the football team – teach them about rejection, and how to handle it gracefully.  Give a boy a book about how sometimes it’s OK to break the rules if it’s to take care of another person – teach them good judgment and independent thought.  Give boys books that cater to them, and the way they’re wired.


I’ve heard it said too often that if a young boy doesn’t like reading, it’s just because he’s lazy, or thinks books are boring, or doesn’t want to try.  It is my opinion that child has just not been given the right book.  As the parents, writers, and publishers of the world, why have we given up on them so quickly?  Why do we consider it their fault, when it is firmly our responsibility to guide and encourage?  Why are we not crafting literature they will love, and that will kick-start their literacy in the same way we’ve done for girls?  Why do we treat them as hopeless cases when we’ve only been giving them books that were likely written to entice and encourage girls?  Even when they get older, they’re faced with popular YA series like Hunger Games, Twilight, etc.  “Oh, but there’s politics in The Hunger Games! That’s interesting,” you say.  Sure, but the male characters in many of these books are essentially just romantic options for the female protagonists.  That sucks.  I wouldn’t want to read that either.  Emotions are being manipulated in very specific ways in many YA series, and boys a) are already uncomfortable with their emotions and don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole, and b) aren’t as heavily affected by the emotional drama that’s being manufactured (often poorly, in my opinion).  Don’t even get me started on The Fault in Our Stars.  If you break it down: those books are written in a style that is more interesting and effective for girls.

While there are some great books out there for boys, they are few and far between, and don’t get even half of the publicity and praise that girls’ books do.  I also believe many of them are classics, and it’s hard to get kids to read classics when they hate reading in the first place.  Not to mention, the younger boys, maybe ages 5-9, often aren’t developmentally at an appropriate level to read Narnia or Sherlock Holmes yet.  There needs to be a concentrated effort for our little guys.  They need books that work with their brains, and their interests, and their difficulties.  Writers and publishers, we have a new challenge.




Blog Tour – Writing Processes

A giant thanks to Josh Bennett, who invited me to take part in such a great blogging project!  Josh is not only one of the most creative and inspirational people I know and a splendid writer, but also my cousin and essentially the big brother I never had.  He has a fascinating futuristic novel in the works, and I’m absolutely giddy to read it in its finished form.  If you’d care to read his addition to the blog tour on writing processes, click here!

What are you working on now?

What am I not working on?  I write this blog, and try to write interesting articles for LinkedIn.  I’m also currently working on two short stories for grad school, and a fantasy novel, as well as any other little literary doodlings that pop into my head, such as this.

My novel-in-progress, tentatively titled “Namesake,” follows the tale of two humans with opposing purposes in a supernatural battle between Destiny and Freewill.  The book follows their thoughts and choices regarding which is the more ethical and humane system, and whether or not they will attempt to defy their own destinies.  Destiny gives humans a purpose and direction, even though they’re not aware of it.  Their very lives are woven into the fabric of destiny, which their failures or successes will either tear or mend.  Freewill, however, gives humans power over their own life paths and choices, with no outside “pull” towards any expectation of the gods.  Alternatively, is Destiny nothing more than supernatural slavery and oppression of human nature?  Or with no purpose, is Freewill sure to break down into anarchy, with chaos and confusion reigning over the human race?  Given the choice, which would you defend?  Eh?  EH?

How does your work differ from others of the genre?

I often find myself drawn to giant ideas and concepts.  I like to explore the massive what-ifs of the world, and create characters really to carry out possible scenarios in entertaining ways, somewhat how Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series was really just a vessel for his constructed languages.  In a recent story I wrote, I took the concept of dissatisfaction with one’s workplace, and created a character to embody that.  So many people sit in a 9 to 5 torture every day, and so many believe that they have no way out.  I wanted to make a story for those people, so I created a girl who I hoped would relate to those in a depressing work environment on an extraordinary level.  One of my short stories that is currently in progress encompasses the idea of childlike imagination, and the other story explores the idea of subconscious mental processing of stress.  Having said that, I’m not typically one for metaphors and indulgent abstractions.  I like writing in a more grounded fashion — clear, easy to follow stories that are still interesting and very human.  None of this, “and then the butterflies in the woods danced a tango, much like the back and forth wrestling of her own thoughts.”  Blech.

In the fantasy genre specifically, I find I tend to focus more on relationships between characters than I have normally seen in popular novels.  While the relationships are there, the emphasis is generally more on the oddity or mysticism of the constructed world, the purpose of the main character, and whether or not he succeeds in doing the thing he needs to do.  While those are all vital elements, I often find myself wondering what the characters really think about each other.  If two characters have been perfectly cordial throughout an entire book, regardless of hardships and obstacles, I think, “but does she hate the way he chews?”  Barring the common and expected dissension between protagonist and antagonist, I often find relationships between characters to be lukewarm at best, which seems to suck the human experience out of things for the reader, whilst the author just points to the distance and shouts, “but look!  There’s a DRAGON!  Because it’s a fantasy book!  See?!”  If I’m not led to be concerned about how the characters consider each other, in addition to the ultimate outcome of the plot, it feels a lot like drinking flat Sprite.  Interpersonal carbonation, I say!  That’s always something that has been an important focus for me.

Why do you write what you do?

Because I’m not very good at writing other things, I suppose.  I believe that writers write in their particular genres and styles because those are the ones that best fit their individual writing voice.  I write things that seem natural for me to say, and since I’m an imaginative and emotional person, I tend to come up with fantastical things, and try to create characters that are very “real.”  Not in the sense that they’re always honest and genuine, but in that the character could remind you of “that guy” that you work with, or “that kid” that kicked the back of your seat for 6 hours while flying over the Atlantic.  But if I tried to write a story about technological advancement, or a courtroom suspense novel, it would be absolutely wretched.

I also just happen to have a lot of thoughts, and an overwhelming desire for other people to hear them.  So I suppose I also write what I do because I believe in those thoughts, and it’s likely that I may violently combust if I don’t.

How does your writing process work?

Wait until one week before deadline, then panic.

No, not really (but kind of).  I have an Idea Journal that I keep with me at all times, and I record concepts and story ideas whenever they pop into my head.  It’s been a really great method for me because I only write down the ideas if I’m terribly, irrationally excited about them.  Then when I need new material, I open my journal and can choose from several story ideas that I was already thrilled about.  I rarely find myself at a loss for story ideas thanks to this method.

After choosing a story idea, I take a notepad and do a lot of brainstorming/scribbling.  For larger story ideas, I might continue to scribble pathways and options for the story for several days, until I have a stock of possible outcomes, characters, ways the characters could affect the story, plot twists, scenes, etc.  It often looks a lot like this:

image (1) scribble

Believe it or not, the information is highly organized in my head.  I have tried so many different kinds of outlines, grids, checklists, forms, etc. for molding a story into something coherent, but they just confuse me and I get very frustrated with more formulaic methods of story planning.  There is something important about letting my mind wander wherever it would like to for a while, where there are no boxes to fill in and no threat that I will run out of space.  That’s very distressing, the fear of running out of space.  From this seemingly aimless method, I can construct a general outline and main points that I want to make sure are included in the story.  And then I begin to write.

I am a pantser, through and through.  My characters create themselves within the story as I’m writing, and I go back and revise if need be, and the same goes for action and events within the story — I need to be sitting at my computer, fingers drumming (but not pressing) on the keyboard, my head tilted upward and slightly to the right.  Only then will I devise what happens next, to whom it happens, and what that character’s reaction will be.  I do have a giant 4′ x 8′ whiteboard in my living room which I use when I get stuck, as a more expanded version of the above brainstorming method.  So I continue writing, and pansting, and drumming, and gazing, and scribbling until there’s a story.

Oh, and there’s usually lots of coffee involved.

Blog Tour’s Next Victim: Paul Elwork

Besides writing fiction, Paul Elwork edits archaeology/historic architecture research reports and teaches creative writing in the Arcadia University MFA program. He’s also a dad and a fair hand at scrambling eggs. His fiction has appeared in various literary journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, Word Riot, and Johnny America. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead was released in hardcover by Amy Einhorn Books in March 2011 and in paperback by Berkley Books in 2012. He lives in New Jersey, not far from his hometown of Philadelphia.

As he is one of my graduate school professors, I’m very excited to see Paul’s addition to the blog tour, which will be posted on July 14th.

Check out his blog here:



How Novel

I have enjoyed writing since my high school days, and can find enjoyment in nearly every genre of literature that exists.  I have written silly poems, published articles, journal entries, product reviews, blogs (of course) and even a thesis.  I realized a few months ago, however, that the one realm of the written art that I have not yet dabbled in is that of the fiction novel.  I have many friends who have suggested I write a book, although most of them beg for a paperback copy of my absurd and risible dating life.  They caw, “it would be such a great comedy book!  You’re so witty about all those loser guys!”  Yes, my inability to find a sentient being who makes me happy is a total scream.  Although if I could become a millionaire from documenting all the tortuous dates I’ve had in my time, perhaps it could pay for grad school…but I digress.

In the true spirit of myself, I decided a few months ago that I was going to write a book, damnit.  And it will be awesome!  And inspiring!  Prize-worthy! Meritorious!


With all my perfect future predictions in mind, I got a notebook and some coffee and set myself down to start creating my first opus.  About 3 hours into character creation, world building and jotting down scene possibilities, I felt confident and clever, and went to bed excited for the ideas I would concoct the next day.

Then a month went by.  Whoops.

I woke up one morning and said aloud to myself (and my cats), “Well, barf nuggets.  I just frittered away a solid 30 days of writing time.”  Then and there, I decided that such a level of procrastination and a lackadaisical attitude was unacceptable.  I vowed to write/create/scheme/brainstorm/research SOMETHING every day to ensure the forward motion of my project.  That afternoon, I wrote several scene outlines and developed some great character detail; “dedicated” was my middle name!

Then three weeks went by.  $#^@.

Thankfully, I was able to scoop myself up into a metaphorical dustpan and begin again.  I have been quite diligent with my book over the last few weeks, and am quite happy with the progress with the exception of one small detail: actually writing it.  I have tiny chunks of scenes written, some extensive outlining, a decent plot and complex characters, but every time I sit at my computer to write, I stare at Microsoft Word like a mackerel at Pike’s Place and my thought processes are as dry as the Atacama desert:

…so, right…where to begin?  Once upon a ti…ugh, no.  There once was a man from Nantuc…haha, but no.  Mmm…I really like “Century Schoolbook” for a font, it stretches things out to make it look like I wrote more.  “Cambria” is pleasant too, but NO.  Time to write now.  Hokay…writing…things…that…are…interesting…and… what if I research more writing strategies?  Or maybe I should world build some more?  Pinterest might have some good articl–NO.  No Pinterest for you.  …fuuuuuh.


Turns out writing a book is not only difficult, but obnoxious, and depressing, and exhausting.  The idea that this would be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy has now been firmly booted out the window, and has been replaced with a mild sense of panic and lots of nonsensical scribbling on paper.  As happens often in my life, I’ve been humbled by a learning curve.  I am enjoying the process, and am still confident that I will achieve my goal of completing a fiction novel, but I’m now realizing the time and work that actually goes into fiction writing.  Neil Gaiman, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and all you other creative smartasses out there: I salute you.

I should really go write my book now.