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.
February 11, 2014 @ 10:28 am
Even though these stories happened twenty years before I was born, they leave me embarrassed for my professional colleagues. Enforcing appropriateness is certainly not a professional standard in this day and age.
February 11, 2014 @ 12:19 pm
As a fellow reader of boy books, I can relate. I was told, in the early 70s, that I was reading the wrong comic books. I was reading boy comics. (Horror, Sgt. Rock, Fantastic Four). Girl comics? Um, the Archies? Which I loved, because I read everything I could get my hands on. But dating? Compared to wars and ghosts and monsters and saving the universe? Blerg. No contest. Even today, there are some best-selling series where I want to throw up every time the hero meets a new woman, because you know she’ll be dead before the end of the book. Unless she’s bad. Then she’ll be allowed to live, albeit hideously disfigured and/or driven to sleep with every penis she encounters, because that’s how powerful women operate.
February 11, 2014 @ 12:28 pm
Thank you, Katharine.
I had never thought about how fortunate I was in the people who worked in the public library I grew up with. They did initially question my move into the adult section, but only until my mother said it was all right. I was never told that I couldn’t read any or all of the books in the children’s section. It never occurred to me that someone might say that. I was never told that I couldn’t read the Danny Dunn books, or Tom Swift or the Hardy boys. In particular, I was never told that I couldn’t read Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster, which had just been released. Though now I wonder: what on earth were they doing in the children’s section? Then again, there were only three sections: children, adults, and little kids, no teens or young adults.
Thank you for pointing out how very lucky I was.
February 11, 2014 @ 12:31 pm
Was a big fan of the Nancy Drew mysteries as a kid, until I realized that although Nancy’s father was a high-powered attorney/lawyer, it seemed Nancy’s goal as a grown up was to be married to her boyfriend, Ned… I enjoyed Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; and the Tom Swift (second iteration) books as well, but was pretty put out that none of the female characters got to have any real adventures, not even as damsels in distress. At least the main female character in the Tom Corbett books was a Space Patrol Officer, who had earned her place by being a mathematical genius… but there were no ‘ordinary’ female SP officers, and she wasn’t allowed to go on trips and get into scrapes…Even the early Heinlein novels tended to constrain their female leads a lot more than the male leads. Podkayne of Mars can aspire to be a ship pilot/captain, but is bluntly told she might make it as a purser if she married a ships’ pilot, for example. And while I appreciate that the women in Starship Troopers could serve on Naval vessels and captain them, I never really understood why, if the armor was powered, why a woman couldn’t use it just as easily as a man. Argh. Is it any wonder that my first few pieces of fan fiction were fairly Mary Suish, with a woman who had adventures to match the heroes of those books, and helped get THEM out of scrapes? Or that I fell in love very early with Schmitz’s Telzey and Trigger books?
February 11, 2014 @ 12:53 pm
The first book I ever read was Bulfinch’s Mythology. It was loaded with powerful females: goddesses, which particularly interested me, as I was named after two of them.
I have always read whatever I wanted, despite the disapproval of my elders. However, the dearth of decent female characters who were in the book because they were something else than villains, whores, or a semen depository were few and far between. In this respect, Andre Norton was vital to me, because she wrote about strong women who could change the world. I devoured her books, every one I could find– and pestered the librarian to get more. Back then, libraries gave first preference to “local” authors, which meant authors who lived in-state. Ms. Norton was considered a “local” author, so my hunger to read about people like me could be satisfied.
Outside of science fiction, though, the situation was dire. Reading “boy” books automatically labeled a girl “undateable”, suspect in a world rigidly defined by gender roles. (I still fume about the school’s refusal to allow me to take Shop rather than Home Economics– I already knew how to cook, but didn’t know how to use a power tool.)
I, too, wanted desperately to be in the space program, and was told that girls were not “fit” to go into space, that they would either bleed all over the capsule, or would cry because the stress would be too much. While we have made some strides in the right direction, those early rebuffs still hurt, and still fill me with rage. Back then, there was no recourse; today, in most science fiction, the same old stereotypes are prevalent, moved over to the digital media lock, stock, and barrel.
I have become resigned to the fact that, at least in my lifetime, women will still be devalued for their strengths, and written(for the most part), into stories to be sexual relief for men. I have hope that the generations which follow me will have the opportunity to read about HUMANS who change the world for them, regardless of color, gender, or age.
February 11, 2014 @ 1:25 pm
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and I never had any trouble with either my family or librarians, I was encourage and allowed to read just about anything I wanted and probably read more than a few things that were in fact a bit inappropriate for my age…but I don’t think they caused any lasting harm…
However I did get a lot of grief from my peers. Why are you reading boy books? Why are you still reading fairytales? You’re too old for fairies and unicorns (the only kind of fantasy most of them seemed to know about) you should be reading Judy Bloom and Daniel Steel, you know girl books. And I read did some of those, I read romances and historical novels, action and adventures and mythology, just about everything really. I just preferred science fiction and fantasy.
And I agree it was very frustrating to have so few empowered female characters, I don’t write fan fiction but growing up I had gotten in the habit of retelling myself the stories I loved and replacing the male lead with a female lead that most likely would qualify as a Mary Sue if I had ever written them down, I was putting my idealized version of myself into the stores. As much as there is still so much more to do with representation in just about everything, it has gotten so much better than it used to be not that long ago and I’m hoping that it will continue to change as the internet provides more and more people with more and more avenues of expression that isn’t controlled by the publishing companies who are still mired in the old status quo.
February 11, 2014 @ 1:51 pm
I sympathize, but I guess I was lucky. I’m not aware that I was ever told a book wasn’t suitable because it was written for boys. Nor that I shouldn’t read a book because it was written for adults (I don’t mean the “adult” fiction written for real or arrested adolescents.) I read what interested me–Nancy Drew and August Huiell Seaman were favorites for mysteries into my early teens, then I graduated to mysteries written for adults–Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, plus Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, and a great deal of literary fiction. And yes, I’m aware some of these authors have issues with racism, anti-semitism, and so on; it simply sailed over my head). Read more female authors than male during my teen years, but not girl connives to get boy stuff (yuck); and if anyone tries to tell me that that’s all there is to Georgette Heyer, just know that them’s fightin’ words. There was a series of books about the merchant marine by an author whose name I’ve forgotten (alas). Some authors’ sexism went over my head as a teenager; identified with the males in those books (Sabatini, Dumas, but also Orczy). Have to say I didn’t get into science fiction until I was an adult, starting with Anne McCaffrey; liked early Asimov and Heinlein in which all the characters, male and female, were largely inanimate furniture. Asimov never changed, but later Heinlein annoyed me; he got preachy. I’m quite sure that one reason it took me 30 years to get around to actually finishing Lord of the Rings was that Tolkien’s world didn’t have any females to speak of and his Oxbridgian donnishness irritated me. But the main point is that I simply wasn’t set limits on what to read or what to think about it. I WAS told not to stay up late reading. This is why flashlights were invented.
February 11, 2014 @ 1:56 pm
Thanks for sharing these memories with us, Kit. I’d had no idea there used to be “boy” and “girl” sections in libraries–egad!
I grew up in the 1970s, and I fortunate as a young reader (age 7) to find Nancy Drew–a teenage girl who was the crime-solving protagonist, and about whom there were 50 books in print at the time. This was my primary reading material until I was 9 or 10, and it taught me early on that a woman can be the center of the story and its proactive hero (and yet also appealing to men–Nancy had a boyfriend). I also found some other female-protagonist detectives, including Beverley Gray, written back in the 1930s, I think. Gray goes to college, graduates, gets a job, becomes engaged, travels the world, etc. So there were great role models for a girl in fiction, if we could find them. But sf/f was certainly extremely thin pickings for a girl who wanted to read female characters, and so it never interested me.
My father often encouraged me to try sf/f, but my impression of sf/f as a child was always that it was a “guy” genre, and that impression stayed with me as a teen and young woman. And when I started writing professionally, I became a romance novelist, choosing a genre where women were typically protagonists and where my being female wouldn’t be at all problematic for my career growth.
When I started writing sf/f in the 1990s (in large part because legendary anthologist Marty Greenberg kept commissioning sf/f short stories from me after my father introduced us and urged him to give me a try), I was unable to sell an urban fantasy series with a woman protagonist (a series that’s now published by DAW, the Esther Diamond novels), and I instead wrote a traditional fantasy trilogy (which I loved doing, don’t get me wrong) whose main character was a guy with a sword. In Tor Books’ promo materials for the first book, under “Official Marketing Strategy,” it said:
“The author is female in a traditionally male genre.”
And that was ALL it said. I pointed out that I was a Campbell Award winner (for my sf/f short fiction), that I was also the award-winning author of 13 novels in another genre (romance), that I had crossed Africa overland, had a cum laude degree from Georgetown, spoke 2 languages besides English, that there were things the “marketing strategy” could say about the book itself (such as, inspired by Sicily’s blood-drenched history while I was living there, etc.)… And was told, no, no, none of that mattered. All that mattered about me or my work as a fantasy novelist was that I was a GIRL.
And this was by then the late 1990s, for goodness sake.
Yes, things have gotten better. And certainly WAY better than the era of her childhood which Kit has described and the only books in the genre that were available then. (I get so tired of people holding up the wonderful CL Moore as an example how egalitarian sf/f was, as if the existence of ONE woman writer in the so-called Golden Age PROVES sf/f was not a boys’ club and a field where it was extremely hard for women to find fiction that portrayed them as anything but stage props for the male characters–if, indeed, it portrayed them at all.) But we still certainly have a long way to go, and as someone who started out professionally in romance–which is overwhelmingly female (readers, writers, agents, editors)–I’m still regularly stunned in the second decade of the 21st century by the sexism in sf/f.
February 11, 2014 @ 2:52 pm
What a great piece, thank you. Ms. Kerr, have you read The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackman? I think you’d find a lot to identify with in those women’s stories.
I’m happy to say that the children’s librarian in my 1990’s hometown was supportive of whatever I wanted to read. She went as far as special ordering titles for me in astronomy, sci-fi, and all things Star Wars. Looking back, neither she nor any of the other library staff batted an eye at an 8 year old girl looking for books about how stars and planets form. Guess those books gave me the “wrong” dreams too, as I was frequently the only woman in my engineering classes.
My parents were supportive and encouraged me to read widely. My mother read us classics before bedtime for years and my father read us Bradbury and Doyle when we were young. My mother has told me that she was discouraged from reading “boy” mysteries (although she did anyway).
Sadly, I saw a morphed form of this as a children’s bookseller in the late 2000’s. The overwhelming majority of parents encouraged their daughters to choose anything they were capable of reading (albeit almost exclusively fiction, which is a whole different problem…). And yet I had so many parents ask for “boy books” for their sons, as though boys could only connect to male characters while girls were capable of connecting to anyone. (I also had many more boys’ parents asking for books to get their son interested in reading. Not sure what that indicates.) As a stranger, there’s only so much you can push back without losing them completely; I usually included a book with at least one boy and one girl as main characters in my recommendations and hoped that those boys would be able to expand their horizons as they read more.
Thanks again for the thought-provoking post.
February 11, 2014 @ 3:30 pm
Laura R: I saw that promotional material and I had completely forgotten about the “the author is female in a traditionally male genre” line. That everything else you had done (so far) was ignored is part and parcel of the way that fiction written by men is treated differently in terms of reviewing and how it is discussed and marketed than fiction written by women. (By which I am not saying anything about the fiction written by men but about the meta of how the field deals with it.)
February 11, 2014 @ 3:39 pm
Thanks for this. Libraries were my havens in school and I can’t imagine how I would have coped with being told what I should or could read.
February 11, 2014 @ 3:49 pm
First, I just want to say I loved the Deverry books!
And second, I can tell you that on the space program side, things have gotten at least a little better! It actually hurt me to read about you giving up on the space program, because your story was so similar to mine. Fortunately, starting on the same path decades later worked out much better. I also loved sci-fi/fantasy, and fortunately, my parents encouraged it, and by the time I was reading it, there wasn’t nearly as much of an enforced “Girls” vs “Boys” books divide. I also ended up wanting to join the space program as a result, albeit on the engineering side. I ended up getting mechanical engineering degree, and even did two internships at JPL while I was an undergrad doing actual scientific research for a couple different programs. We’re certainly not perfect, but there is progress.
February 11, 2014 @ 5:22 pm
I remember playing with a cardboard cutout model of the lunar lander, lowering it off the apartment building’s balcony on a long string.
My youngest daughter is about to graduate from Georgia Tech with a degree in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Her research (presented at AGU back in December) deals with finding matches between visible texture and mineral composition of the surface of Mars.
Thanks to all of you who banged your heads against that brick wall until it cracked open.
Kevin Andrew Murphy
February 11, 2014 @ 5:40 pm
I really hated this nonsense growing up too. I remember my 4th grade teacher asking me why I was reading some of the Nancy Drew books instead of the Hardy Boys. I told her, annoyed, “They’re better written.” Nancy at least acted somewhat like a detective: She spied, she picked up clues, and if there was someone with a gun, she hid. The Hardy Boys? If they saw someone with a gun, they chased after them. The books should have ended with them being quickly shot dead, an example of the Darwin Awards.
I also picked up Burnett’s A Little Princess. One of my favorite books–the only one I’ve ever found that depicts a storyteller as a child–but I had the sense to not read it at school.
And when I was twelve or so, the fantasy books with male protagonists went away and I had to choose between books with girls or ones about boys trying out for sports written for about four grade levels lower. I read the ones with the girls, then just switched to adult fantasy and science fiction.
February 11, 2014 @ 5:49 pm
This was the same for me.
I never got any flack over the books I read from my Mom or my teachers. Mostly, the complaint was that I spent too much time doing so, though no one ever tried to curb it either.
I did get a lot of this sort of thing from, of all people, other PoC, who said many of the exact same things you mentioned because – and get this – that sort of stuff is for White people. Why are you reading it? Or sometimes people bothered me about any reading.
But thankfully I was encouraged by my family ,at least.
And I can speak to the fact that it’s a heck of a lot easier now to find SFF with diversity, than back in the eighties when I got started.
February 11, 2014 @ 5:59 pm
“I realized at some point that reading the “wrong” books had given me the “wrong” dreams.”
I’ve been thinking about this off and on all day and it just makes me sad. Well and angry, but mostly sad. Sad for the lost opportunities for not just the girls and other under represented groups who had their dreams crushed, or who never had their dreams inspired in the first place because there was no representation of them doing science and math, but sad for our world over the loss of all the things they never got the chance to discover or create. Who knows what fantastic discovery or idea never happened because the right person was denied the chance to make it.
February 11, 2014 @ 6:09 pm
Wow. I am so glad I’m enough younger that my libraries weren’t restricted like that. Still had plenty of “girls can’t be astronauts” and such (as continues today), but neither the libraries nor my parents cared what I read. Mom liked some sci-fi now and again herself, and Dad liked a good Western romance. My grandpa made sure I read all his collection of Perry Mason, and we agreed it was a shame Perry and Della couldn’t get married and still work together, and why not?
Thanks to all the women who fought and still do.
February 11, 2014 @ 7:45 pm
You just expressed perfectly what I was thinking as I finished Ms. Kerr’s article and started reading the comments. Thank you both for a glimpse into another world for me and then showing that we can ALL lose out when some of us are held back.
And, again, THANK YOU Jim for this series of posts!!
February 11, 2014 @ 8:19 pm
Yay Kit, great article! Reminded me that my friend’s son was asked by his seventh grade teacher LAST YEAR why he was reading Isabelle Carmody’s OBERNEWTYN, because it had a picture of a woman and a cat on the cover and so must therefore be ‘for girls’! His teacher belittled this boy who had resisted reading, in front of the whole class, for reading the wrong book! He put it away and refused to finish it.
These attitudes are still around, and it’s not just the ‘old fogies’ who perpetuate them!
Tansy Rayner Roberts
February 11, 2014 @ 10:57 pm
Libraries and librarians may be a lot more progressive now, but I’m not sure that children’s publishing is. It frustrates me to no end to see rack after rack of books that are blatantly coded ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ for children my daughter’s age (elementary/primary, not *quite* ready for Harry Potter but high reading level). The ‘girl’ books are fairies and glitter, with a side order of ponies and popstars, while the ‘boy books’ are spies and superheroes and action adventure. I struggle to find the ones that are about KIDS playing together – and in the cheaper chain stores, it is especially noticeable.
My nine year old detests anything pink, girly or glittery which leaves her very little in her school library except for the ‘boy’ books which so often contain no female characters. (It’s Lego all over again – she likes ‘proper’ Lego but not the lack of female avatars in it)
My daughter is still willing, however, to take an ‘it looks like a boy book’ off the school library shelf and read it – many of her friends are not. As far as they’re concerned, the reading world begins and ends with the Rainbow Fairies. She recently fell in love with the brilliant Origami Yoda books which are fun, and teach you to make origami Star Wars characters, though entirely boy-centric as far as main characters are concerned. In the height of her obsession she tried to share the books with all her female schoolfriends, only to find they were completely unwilling to read a book without a pink cover. She found a couple of male friends willing to make paper Chewbaccas with her all lunch time, and she does have a few female friends outside school who love to talk Star Wars, but it was a demoralising experience for her.
We’ve found some good less-gendered stuff over the years, don’t get me wrong. But it’s often older books we are drawn to – the Diana Wynne Jones and Edward Eager and Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit – to find books in which boys and girls are friends, and play together and have the same adventures. Whenever I find a modern middle grade books that does this well – like the excellent Tiny Titans comic – I grab it with both fists.
Anything in our children’s world – whether it be books, TV, movies or toys – which tell them that boys and girls should only play with their own gender (and that is, intentionally or not, the message they get from a LOT of pop culture) is damaging, especially for those like my daughter who do have friends of both genders, and are left feeling like that’s somehow weird.
February 12, 2014 @ 12:37 am
I began as a fantasy lover until grade 3, when my class put on the school play, written by our teacher Mr. Coverdale: “Star Trek: The Generation After the Next Generation”, wherein the crew of the Enterforaprize went searching for the lost planet ToysRUs. I tried out for the role of Captain Pickacardanycard, but it went to a boy- I ended up as Dr. Beverly Flusher (this is all hilarious if you’re eight).
Anyway, we all had to watch TNG as research, and I fell in love with a fandom for the first time. All those people, all working together to explore the universe…And then I discovered the Star Trek books. So many books, all with my favourite characters, all expanding the universe, often in contradictory ways. I still prefer Diane Duane’s Rihannsu over the show-Romulans, particularly after that Nemesis mess.
My classmates just thought it was weird that I was always reading, since reading for pleasure wasn’t “cool”. Grown-ups thought it was weird that I was reading adult books, especially Star Trek. I don’t remember anyone telling me that they were for boys, but I knew anyway because all of the Star Trek action figures were in the boys’ aisles in the toy stores. I just loved it so much that I didn’t care.
I branched out, I found Asimov and Norton and Adams and Bradbury and so many others, but I always knew that I wasn’t really supposed to be reading them- they weren’t meant for me. But I loved the stories so much I couldn’t stay away. I’m so happy that the library never told me I couldn’t take something out-well, other than when I hit the limit of borrowed items (you couldn’t borrow more than 50 items at once.)
Jim C Hines series on Equity
February 25, 2014 @ 2:54 pm
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