Sunday, July 7, 2013

Trust Me, Pal, Kissing Is Awesome



My daughter is six.  Before she was born, my wife and I swore a pact.  We would do our best to not make her entire universe pink.  So, under a full moon in the wee hours of December, a light blanket of snow dusting the pre-dawn blue of the world, she was born.  Through her infancy and into her toddler-hood, we clothed her in greens and oranges and blues (BLUES!!) and purples and browns and reds and yellows and, yes, sometimes pinks.  She was like a little walking and not yet talking Benetton advertisement.  We would not be consumed by the pinkification of our little girl!  We would lead a revolution!  Vive le resistance de rose!

She learned to talk, practiced words, and soon became quite adept at stating her little opinions.  She had favorite shows (Wonderpets, Wonderpets, We're on our way!), favorite songs, favorite vegetables, and restaurants.  She was quite suddenly a little human being.  And yet, favorite color...to this day...pink.  PINK! PINK! PINK!

Two and a half years later, our son burst into the world wrapped in colic.  Three months of howling and screaming and sleepless nights consumed us.  We barely had time to remember to brush our teeth never mind trying to be so forward thinking in the color of our boy's attire.  Still, we had enough left in the tank to be somewhat strategic.  Sure, he was covered in blue onesies emblazoned with robots and superheroes but if he wanted a dolly or a Barbie or to be a fairy for Halloween, we were all over it.  Still, despite our best gender equity based intentions, our boy likes to crash headlong into stuff. He dangles off the top of our playset and says he's a monkey. He destroys things with devilish abandon.

It was time to face the facts...nature was beating the snot out of nurture.

So, we then come to this.  If nature was playing such a significant role in my son's love for all things explosive, how do I get my boy, once he gets a few more years under his belt, to appreciate books that look like this?


I used Maureen Johnson because she recently raised this issue herself.  If you aren't already, you should probably start following Ms. Johnson on Twitter because a) she's a riot b) she's witty and c) she occasionally posts stuff like this:


She laid down a challenge to her wide fan-base - play publisher for a minute and flip some popular book covers.  If the cover seemed decidedly masculine, make it feminine...and then do the same for the reverse.  I don't have time to chase down all the image rights for the ridiculously creative covers that people created but just go do a quick search for #coverflip on the old Google.  I'll wait for you.

So, to get back to our conversation from earlier, I bring you to the subject of my son. One of the first thoughts that you may be having is "What about your daughter?"  Well, I don't think that girls have the same issue as boys.  I am a teacher and, let me tell you, girls will read anything.  Massive tentacle encrusted giant on the book's cover eating the bones of unfortunate sailors while our hero falls from the sky with a flaming sword aimed precisely for the gargantuan's one good eye?  Are you kidding, Mr. Adams?  I'm all over that!  Most girls that I run into don't care if it's Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen or Elizabeth Bennet or Iron-Man, if the story is good, they'll read it.

So, if we could please focus our thoughts on the so many boys out there in the world who are not getting their fair share of reading experiences (especially ones where things get kissed more than things get blown up...or zapped...or Avada Kedavra'd).  Because the issue doesn't seem to be wrapped up in who the main character is.  Boys in my classes love The Hunger Games, Graceling, or The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.  It's not about the protagonist being male or female.  It's something different. For most of my boys, if I can get them past the cover, I'm golden.

I'm writing books right as we speak and I try to fill them up with characters, both male and female, who are daring and brave and complex and I'm hopeful that those characters will appeal to both boys and girls. Still, I wonder, and this is where we get back to our old arch-nemesis, what would happen if my book (a book about kids and evil octopuses and saving the world) had a pink cover?  Pink.  PINK! PINK! PINK!

I hate to cave-in to stereotypes (especially ones that are so wrapped up in something as silly as a color) but, let's face it, pink is a tough one for boys to swallow.  As much as I'd like to shake away the confines of a color from my son's world, I have to face the facts.  Modern society has given pink a lot of baggage.  Baggage that doesn't come with blue, who no longer seems quite so gender identified, or purple or orange (I mention orange being that it is my son's favorite color).

I'm not here today with answers.  I'm just a guy writing books for kids.  But, someday not too far down the road, I'm hoping to be having conversations with my future publisher about what my covers should look like.  So, what weight do book covers carry?  What burden are we asking our boys to carry when we hand them a girly book cover?  What do you think?

-- Paul A.

11 comments:

  1. Loved this post! So true. I had to purchase a black nylon book cover for my son to cover some of the books he wanted to read, but was embarrass to carry around. Unfortunately, publishers market to the majority and there are more girl readers than boy ones. I wished they'd get more creative and include all tastes.

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    1. Thanks Brenda! I can just see my son sporting a sleek black book cover. So chic. :)

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  2. Covers are tricky. From the marketing perspective, they need to be compelling enough to get someone to buy the book, and unfortunately, most publishers don't often think to look beyond a single gender. I think of the Beverly Cleary books I loved as a kid, and even the updated Ramona Quimby book covers are skewed toward girls.

    As the mom of a precocious 6-year-old boy who also happens to be a voracious reader, I'm sensitive to book cover designs now. I will probably have to follow Brenda's example above and cover some books in plain paper to hide their girly covers.

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    1. Now that you mention it, as a kid I remember not wanting anything to do with the Beverly Cleary books because they were so obviously for girls. I wonder if Jane Austen ran into any of these same problems or if the plain, flat covers of older books evened the playing field?

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  3. My son is sixteen, and we've dealt with this all through his reading experience. The good news is, it didn't stop him from reading what he wanted once he understood that the cover was only the beginning and not the end. Plus, as a teen it gets easier cause they learn that swapping books with the girls is a good way to break the ice, and every boy knows that if you're reading it cause a girl told you too, you get a pass on the cover.

    I wish it was easier, though. Had he been a little less possessed of the reading bug I'm sure he'd have missed a lot. 'Course, my book has ninja chickens, so that'll probably fly. ;)

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    1. Ohhhh, using books as an ice-breaker for meeting girls. *Jots that down into "Great Future Dad Wisdom" notebook* That's a good one.

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    2. Even better cause it means they're all reading and talking together for entertainment! Not that smootching in dark corners is all bad, but there ought to be something more. ;)

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  4. Very interesting post. We've already had this conversation with my 6-year-old boy who says boys don't like princesses. (His younger sister has a whole book bin of princess books)My response was, "But boys think princesses are pretty." He seemed to take that as a fair argument.

    Maybe you've hit upon a clever marketing idea- generic stick-on covers to change a "girl" book to a "boy" book. :)

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  5. I'm the mom of three boys, so I want books they can read. At the same time, it seems unfair to say, "Well, boys won't read girl books, but girls will read boy books, so let's make all books appeal to boys."

    Harry Potter did two editions, once for kids and one for grown-ups. One could do the same for YA....

    And then of course, on an ereader, no one can tell the cover of the book you're reading is pink.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song (of whom a male reviewer once said, "Pay no attention to the girly cover, this is actually a good book...")

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    1. I don't think I'm asking for book covers to change. Feminine covers and masculine covers have their place (especially when you work in marketing). I think I'm asking for the conversations we have with our sons to change. To help them not be afraid of things that suggest they are feminine in some way. It's the "baggage" that I mention that I'm hoping we can address.

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  6. Studies have shown that if you put a person in a pink room for a while, they will actually test weaker physically after a while. So maybe the boys are onto something... Still, both my girls love pink and I kind of like it too.

    There can be way less pink on book covers, though, and still convey they're about girls. Publishers give up too easily on attracting boys to books that might have a girl protagonist, but would still appeal to boys.

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