What Kid-Lit Taught Me
Brooke Dilling | @brookefrances
Full disclosure: a portion of my full-time work includes planning and coordinating Youth One Book, One Denver (YOBOD), a shared summer reading program for 9-12 year olds in Denver and the surrounding areas. In the fall of 2017, I attended the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association event in Denver. The event coordinators are kind enough to allow me to attend their event and talk with authors and publishers to learn about middle grade books that meet our YOBOD criteria.
I’m a reader. Thrillers, cookbooks, sci-fi, kid lit, poetry, classics, young adult, memoirs, nerdy-non-fiction--you name it, I read it. I average around 60 books a year. I read for pleasure. I read for work. I read to my kids and my kids read to me. I believe literature enriches my life. I want my kids to be passionate readers, too. And part of building passionate readers is to allow kids to choose books to spark their interest. All this time I thought I’ve been doing right by my kids (and the kids who participate in YOBOD). But, it turns out I’ve been off-base. I was schooled by an amazing author I met at the Mountains and Plains event.
Shannon Hale and her husband Dean Hale are the authors of the book series The Princess in Black. Their books are considered early chapter books. Perfect books for K-3rd grade children moving beyond 32 page kid books, but not quite ready for a full-size chapter book. The two were at Mountains and Plains to discuss the 5th--and newest--book in the series, The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate.
You’d think The Princess in Black series is a series of books designed for girls. You’d be half right. But still totally wrong, as I was. The Princess in Black is a princess, but she is also a badass monster-fighting ninja. And boys love her just as much as girls do.
Shannon Hale had a lot to say about the princess books, and all books for kids. “Books don’t have genders. You can say a book is about a girl or about a boy, but when we start labeling books as only for certain readers, we limit kids and actually discourage them from reading widely,” she told me.
Research from our YOBOD program shows us boys are more reluctant readers than girls. More girls like to read and will read more widely and boys tend to be more selective about the books they choose on their own. For this reason, we have tried to find books with lead male characters. However, Shannon Hale’s comments made me reevaluate this stance. It’s really important for boys to read books about girl characters.
As she put it, “half of the human race is female. Girls grow up reading about boys, watching movies about boys, seeing the world from a male perspective, that gives girls an advantage. Boys should equally be encouraged to understand and empathize with female characters. They’ll navigate the world more easily and more respectfully as a result.”
Shannon Hale’s perspective helped me see as long as we prioritize boys and men’s stories, girls and women’s stories will be considered inferior.
“Why are men’s stories universal but women’s stories considered only for women or girls? Let kids see we value all voices,” she said.
I came home from the Mountains and Plains event with a stack of books geared towards kids and middle grade readers. The first book my sons picked out of the pile? The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate. We’ve since purchased the other four books in the series. My boys are huge fans of Princess Magnolia, aka the Princess in Black and her friends the Goat Avenger and the Princess in Blankets.
Thanks to Shannon Hale and The Princess in Black, I learned a lot about what it means to expose kids to a variety of stories, characters, and voices. Many of us right now are thinking about how we can we raise our young men to be feminists. Perhaps we can start by reading them books with strong female characters.