In much of modern publishing history, particularly as it pertains to children’s literature, there has been a significant movement toward marketing childrens’ books for particular, gendered audiences. There are “boys’ books” and “girls’ books”, each with their own emphases and particular genres. Boys’ books tend to be adventures complete with violence, while girls’ books are more fully centered on romance. However, despite these distinctions, I do not feel quantifying these books as being appropriate for a particular gender over another is wise or appropriate; children’s literature on the whole has a great capacity for being palatable and enjoyable for both sexes, as dynamic stories have something that appeals to both boys and girls. Sometimes it is to combine both stereotypical ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ interests (adventure, romance), and other times it is performed by writing about universal subjects that appeal to both at the same time. Looking back at some of the more influential and well-known childrens’ books throughout the history of literature, the unnecessary nature of the “boys’ books” and “girls’ books” labels is made all the more clear.
The Secret Garden, despite being potentially considered a book primarily for girls, has role models and life lessons that boys can enjoy as well. I think that many of the characters in The Secret Garden could be considered good role models. However, this is not until the garden changes their lives for the better. Colin Craven, the young disabled boy, is an extremely gloomy and depressed individual due to his circumstances; however, with the help of the garden and his interactions with Mary, he starts to become more optimistic about the future, and has a lot more fun.Mary Lennox, though she is an incredibly selfish and self-absorbed character in the beginning, seems to take a dramatic change in her behavior as she gets to know Colin. Her telling of stories to him is meant as a kindness, to distract him from his own troubles, and she gives him access to the secret garden, which starts to miraculously heal him. The relationship between these two provides a wonderful central character for both boys and girls, and they both learn from each other in interesting ways.
The other characters are also incredibly inspirational to kids of both genders, like Dickon Sowerby, the younger child who is always sprightly and full of life. Martha, his sister, is also very kind and charming; her pragmatism combined with Dickon’s optimism and energy make them both ideal role models for children. Mary actually admits that, “if an angel did come to Yorkshire,” it would be like Dickon, noting how kind and cherubic he could actually be, as well as in reference to his love of nature. This makes them incredibly inspiring figures, and one that children could emulate; we even see this effect they have on Mary and Colin, making them better people too. Is it better to have a role model who is flawed themselves, and learns to be better (like Mary and Colin), or show perfect people from the beginning making others better? Children of both genders have someone to root for, and the problems themselves are universal, making this book perfect for both boys and girls.
Freckles gives us another universally-appealing novel which, while featuring a male protagonist, can be seen as appealing to both genders. He is polite and assertive, and constantly engages in ideal, childlike and innocent pursuits despite being employed at a lumber company – ostensibly a place where raucous adults are employed. Both boys and girls love nature for different reasons, and this is most certainly also true of Freckles; “day after day the only thing that relieved his utter loneliness was the companionship of the birds and beasts of the swamp, it was the most natural thing in the world that Freckles should turn to them for friendship” (Chapter 2). Instead of being cynical and bratty, he is full of innocent verve and pure intention, and he places a great emphasis on natural learning; “It’s been fretting me more than I knew to be shut up here among all these wonders and not knowing a thing” (Chapter 3).
The fact that Freckles himself has to deal with only having one hand also lends him quite a bit of relatability. Freckles’ disability, that of his missing hand, and Colin’s spinal injury that leaves him in a wheelchair, provide unique and similar effects on themselves and their environment. Freckles’ missing hand comes as a result of someone performing an evil act on him – as a baby, someone “cut off [his] hand” (Chapter 1). Colin’s disability, however, is congenital and its origin is undescribed. However, both of these maladies seem to define them as ‘broken’ to others, at least at first; Freckles has been “refused a home and love” (Chapter 1), and Colin is often ‘ ill and miserable’ because of his condition and the way people look at him (Burnett, Chapter 13). These are universal conflicts that both young girls and boys can relate to; the young person who yearns for belonging and family, and who must seek it out elsewhere, is an endlessly relatable storyline that both genders can enjoy.
Even high fantasy is something that appeals to both boys and girls; The Book of Wonder’s tales of adventure and romance have a little bit of everything for kids to enjoy. Consisting of a series of short fantasy stories, this anthology provides stories that will thrill both boys and girls. If boys want to read adventure stories, they can read something like “The Hoard of the Gibbelins,” where the knight Alderic has to go on an adventure to steal gems from the Gibbelins, evil creatures that the hero must vanquish. This tale is full of high adventure, and stereotypically masculine activities like killing evil creatures, plundering and adventuring, and other things that little boys might have fun reading about. However, there are more comic or sedate stories in the anthology as well, including “Chu-Bu and Sheemish”, which follows two bickering deities who fight over the loyalty of the people who worship them. The tale is fraught with comedy, as each deity attempts to perform more and more incredible miracles in order to convince their people that they are worthy to be worshipped. The constant trash-talking between deities provides an interesting sense of humor that both genders can enjoy: “Chu-bu cannot do much, though once I am sure that at a game of bridge he sent me the ace of trumps after I had not held a card worth having for the whole of the evening. And chance alone could have done as much as that for me. But I do not tell this to Chu-bu.”
There are children’s books that provide both adventure and romance in equal measure, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. For boys, their main appeal in the book is Tarzan, the boy raised among apes, who swings from vines and fights other jungle creatures to prove himself as king of the jungle. Tarzan’s tales are filled with adventure and action, as he constantly has to defend himself from gorillas, the ape leader Kerchak, and African tribes. The excitement and tension of the fight scenes, and Tarzan’s supremacy of the jungle, gives young boys yearning for adventurous characters someone exciting to hold onto.
At the same time, there is a lot to appreciate for girls as well, given the romance between Tarzan and Jane. The romance between these two characters is strong and interesting, given Jane’s status as a damsel in distress who is constantly saved by the brave Tarzan. While this comes close to reinforcing fairly problematic gender roles, the content of the books does have something ostensibly for both sexes. Furthermore, Jane still gets moments of strength, such as when she ultimately chooses to marry William Clayton in order to be happier; also, this provides a moment of pathos for both boys and girls, as the girls want Jane to marry Tarzan, and the boys wonder if Tarzan will reclaim his heritage.
Little Black Sambo, despite its racist undertones (at least in its initial publication), also has some interesting adventures for both boys and girls. Sambo himself is not an explicitly masculine or feminine boy, permitting his problems in the book (the threat of being eaten by large tigers) and his perspective to be related to universally. He is a trickster, who fools the tigers into running around until they turn to butter; this kind of sly boy is someone boys would appreciate for his inventiveness, and girls would appreciate for his humor and the comedy of the situation. Furthermore, parents could use the book and its illustrations to talk about issues of race and the portrayals of Africans in literature and children’s books.
In conclusion, books should not be strictly classified into ‘boys’ books’ and ‘girls’ books,’ as there is always something to appreciate for both genders in the best books. These tales typically follow both stories of thrilling adventure for the boys and romance or humor for the girls. They also tackle issues that are universal to children regardless of gender, like growing up, dealing with strangers, learning about new lands, and dealing with conflict. Furthermore, there are boys that may appreciate the stereotypically feminine stories of romance, and girls who might also love the swashbuckling action found in many examples of children’s literature. In either case, that kind of gendered reductionism in books is unhelpful, and may dissuade readers of either gender from finding literature that they may enjoy very much. If children’s literature were treated as its own animal, and not further quantified and divided by sex, the field would be open for every child to potentially enjoy any book they like.
Bannerman, Helen. Little Black Sambo.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes.
Plunkett, Edward J.M.D., Lord Dunsany. The Book of Wonder.
Stratton-Porter, Gene. Freckles