Boys’ Books – Katharine Kerr

Welcome to day two of the guest blogs. Today author Katharine Kerr talks about Girls’ Books vs. Boys’ Books. It was interesting to read her story and compare how books were segregated in the 1950s vs. the way they’re marketed today. And as she notes, it’s not just how the books were shelved, but the stories themselves that made clear who was and wasn’t welcome in the genre.

Come back tomorrow for a post from Susan Jane Bigelow.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of readers. Admittedly, on my mother’s side of the family, some of them mostly read the Bible or religious works. Others, like my mother and grandmother, loved the “sweet” Romances of the period. My uncles loved Westerns and police thrillers. My father’s parents, on the other hand, were serious Leftists and read serious Leftist books, like DAS KAPITAL in the original German. Both sides, however, believed in reading aloud to children. They also believed in public libraries.

From the time I was big enough to walk the ten blocks or so to our local branch, my grandmother and I made a weekly trip to the library. She loaded up on genre reading for her, and I loaded up on books from the children’s section, mostly animal stories, which I particularly loved. As soon as I could read, I read a lot, well beyond that illusory category, “grade level”. That’s when the trouble started. Not from my grandparents, I hasten to add, but from the other adults around me.

When I was an older child and young teenager, back in the 1950s, I began to hear entirely too often, “You shouldn’t be reading that book. It’s not for you.” No, I hadn’t picked out a book with too many big words or too much sex, nothing from the “Adult” section of our public library, no Leftist tracts, either. I had committed the sin of liking Boys’ Books.

It may be hard to imagine now, but there used to be fixed categories of Boys’ Books and Girls’ Books. Boys got science fiction, adventure stories, historical stories of battles and exploration. Girls got junior Romances, stories of girls helping others or setting up their own homes, horse stories, and . . . well, I never found much else in that section of the library. Some were well written, like the “Anne of Green Gables” books or the “Flicka” horse stories. Most struck me as utter crap, even at thirteen, particularly the junior Romances, such as the Rosamund de Jardin “Marcy” series. Oh yes, I can’t forget the forerunners of “self help” books. Those available for girls in the 1950s centered around “how to look pretty and get a boyfriend.” I never noticed any self help in the Boys’ section. They, apparently, didn’t need advice.

What I wanted were the adventures, the battles, and the science fiction. Among the Boys’ Books, I discovered Roy Chapman Andrews and Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, along with a lot of lesser writers whose names, alas, I have forgotten but whom I loved at the time. When I went to the library desk to check these books out, the voices started. “Are you getting those for your brother? No? Why do you want to read those? They’re for boys. You should look in the Girls’ section.” No librarian actually prevented me from taking the books home, mind. That was reserved for my mother. “Why are you reading that junk?” was one of her favorite phrases. “It’s not for girls. Take those back. Get some good books.”

I read most of Heinlein’s YA books while sitting in the library. Why risk taking them home and getting nagged? When as a teen, I graduated to SF for grown-ups, the disapproval escalated, too. My mother helpfully tried to get me to read proper female literature by checking out books for me. I dutifully read them — hell, I’d read anything at that age, from cereal boxes on up — but I never liked them. Finally she gave up.

But even the books I loved told me I shouldn’t be reading them. Some had no female characters at all. Some had a few females placed here and there, as servants or, back in the delicate ’50s, “love objects.” (Raw sex objects arrived in SF a bit later.) A few had horrible female villains, like THE STARS MY DESTINATION, where a bitter woman, trapped in a teleport-proof prison to protect her virtue, schemed against the hero. There were exceptions, like Jirel of Joiry. The librarian let me check those out without comment. But on the whole, the Boys’ Books had merely grown up — or grown older.

Reading a lot of SF did make me profoundly interested in science. I desperately wanted to be part of the space program. In high school I took all the science and math I could. I got the highest marks in those classes only to be told that no one would ever let me into an all-male space program. And back in 1960, it was most definitely all-male. One of my teachers even joked that maybe I could be a receptionist at JPL. I realized at some point that reading the “wrong” books had given me the “wrong” dreams. At 16, confused and vulnerable, I gave it all up. I took no more “hard” science courses. I left the math classes to the boys, just like the boys wanted. I read no science fiction at all for years, until I came across Ursula Le Guin in the late 1960s.

I have been known to snark at writers and editors who question the need for including a wide range of characters in their fiction. Why? I know first hand that it hurts. Had I been black or Asian or a member of some other minority group, it would have hurt even worse. People who read a lot of fiction form judgments based upon their reading about how the world works and should work. Books can give us dreams and ideals and goals. Saying to any group, “these dreams, these goals, are not for you” harms not just the individuals, but our culture. These days, the future needs all the help it can get. Let’s not turn anyone away who wants to be part of it.

Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes  industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, from  whence she fled to the Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye. An  inveterate loafer and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares some time to write novels.