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Gender imbalance in kidlit?

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PW Children's Bookshelf had a link to this article in the Guardian (UK):http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/06/gender-imbalance-children-s-literature. Basically it decries the overabundance of male MCs in children's books.

I find this interesting as I've recently heard three separate agents say how small the boy book market is. My own anecdotal evidence is my YA-reading-level boys scouring shelves looking for more boy-friendly books (I know some people are allergic to calling books boy books or girl books, and I agree that many are friendly to both, but my boys will not touch a book about girl in groups and shopping at the mall.) Also, overhearing girls in B&N telling their brothers to "go away, this is the girl section" when in fact they are in the entire YA section.

Thoughts? Maybe the "excess" of boys applies only to picture books...? Or maybe I should be trying to publish my boy-friendly books in the UK instead of the girl-reader-dominated US?
#1 - May 12, 2011, 02:35 PM

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I think it depends. Conventional wisdom is that girls will read books with male MCs, but boys are less likely to read books with girl MCs. In MG, there's a lot of both, but it does seem as though there are a few more male MCs books than girls. In my house, we read both, and none of my boys have complained, but my kids are young.

There are some male MC books in YA that are doing very well (The Gone series comes to mind), however, most of the covers I've seen at Barnes and Noble are dark, broody, girlish-type covers. Covers most boys wouldn't be caught dead with. I wonder if the covers and some of the titles are part of the problem and not so much the story.
#2 - May 12, 2011, 03:23 PM

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My son is only 9, and he reads the abundance of boy-oriented fantasy out in MG right now.  In fact, there is quite a bit more than even he can read (and he's a voracious reader).  He's willing to read boys and girls as MCs, as long as it's fantasy and isn't oriented around romance (in any way, shape, or form).  I don't read MG hardly at all (even the upper end), and I've noticed there's a pretty big drop in boy-oriented books once you hit the YA shelves.  I can look through the MG shelves at B&N and see tons of boy-oriented covers and titles, but in YA...*crickets*.

It'll be interesting, though, to see how my outlook changes as my daughter (7) heads into the reading arena. She'll read, but she's not an avid reader, by any means, and she doesn't do fantasy.
#3 - May 12, 2011, 04:30 PM
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Robin - my daughter is the same way. She's 10 and loves MG - will read boy or girl MC, but nothing to do with romance, please. ;) She hates even the hint of it. (unlike her boy crazy little 5 year old sister). My guess is she'll never be the kind of kid that wants to read angsty teen romances.
#4 - May 12, 2011, 04:39 PM
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I read that article and kept changing my mind over whether I agreed with it or not. I really don't see a lot of PBs with boys as MCs, if anything, I see way more with girls as MCs. When I think of the big popular series-style PBs, almost all feature girls. There are books about girly girls, books about non-girly girls, books about animal girls, books about adventurous girls... As for books like the Hungry Caterpillar being about a boy and therefore excluding girls, pah, balderdash, hogwash and codswallop!

So I found myself wondering what all these boy-as-MC picture books were?

I've also read that boys as MCs is a harder sell in YA because boys tend to move on to adult books at that age.

#5 - May 12, 2011, 06:03 PM

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Was it on this board or somewhere else that someone commented that boys who are reading on a Kindle are more likely to pick up a book with a girl MC (i.e., no one knows you are reading it, so it is OK). Or is that totally made up? Gahh, my mind is mush right now. Should probably just stop talking -- this is how rumors get started. But if anyone does have experience with kids reading on a Kindle and how that might influence their selections, I'd be interested to hear.

Carrie
#6 - May 12, 2011, 06:05 PM
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The article states that animal characters account for a significant portion of the difference. So the ones off the top of my head...

Male: Arthur, Franklin, Little Bear, Little Critter, Redwall, Timothy, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Charlotte's Web
Female: Angelina Ballerina

Yep, definitely seeming a pattern here :)
#7 - May 12, 2011, 06:28 PM

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Female: Olivia, Mercy Watson... eek, are girls represented as pigs in the animal world?!

I must admit that I even have a tendency to give almost all stuffed toys male names too (my daughter's toys, not mine!!). Have you ever met a kid's teddy that had a female name? Unusual, I imagine. I have no idea why I do that. Does it mean I'm brainwashed into thinking women are big fat zeros and so aren't important enough to have a stuffed animal in that gender?!! Or does it just mean stuffed animals remind me of men (furry, silent, and happiest when being fondled?!). He he he.

But while there are a lot of male MC animals, how many male MC kids are there? I can hardly think of any, but there's Fancy Nancy, Ladybug Girl, Eloise, LIly, Ramona, Madeline... the list goes on. I can only think of No, David, No for boys.

Modified to add: Just thinking about Pooh Bear. They're almost ALL male! Christopher Robin, Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit... it's a gang of guys hanging out! Except for Roo's mom, of course. The guys always need a mom around.
#8 - May 12, 2011, 07:04 PM
« Last Edit: May 12, 2011, 07:19 PM by Franzilla »

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This has to be the least methodologically sound sample group in history, but this what I see on the shelves right in front of me:

Female MC: Sacred Scars, Silver Phoenix, Theodosia & the Eyes of Horus, Neil Armstrong is My Uncle, Dani Noir, Life, After, The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, The Boneshaker, Cracked Up to Be, Words in the Dust, Operation Yes, The Miracle Stealer, Absolutely Maybe, I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, Plain Kate, Lips Touch, Starcrossed, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, The Memory Bank, Carlos is Gonna Get It, Millicent Min Girl Genius, The Year of Secret Assignments, Want to Go Private?, The True Meaning of Smekday, The Great Call of China, Linger, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, XVI, Fury of the Phoenix, Huntress.

Male MC: Sacred Scars, A Conspiracy of Kings, Food, Girls and Other Things I Can't Have, Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto, The Amber Spyglass, Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), Bobby the Brave (Sometimes), The Book of Time, Ways to Live Forever, Absolutely, Positively Not, 8th Grade Superzero, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone, Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Marcelo in the Real World, Linger, Shipbreaker, American Born Chinese, Warp Speed.

Like I said, not very scientific, but from my perspective it's more evenly distributed than The Guardian thinks...
#9 - May 12, 2011, 07:30 PM

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Anecdotal, but I helped the libarary out at the Scholastic Book fair at the elementary school and the boys were not buying much at all once the 39 Clues and Rick Riordans sold out. They weren't touching anything that looked girlish or young (illustrated covers, generally.) There was not much boy YA and they wouldn't do MG, so they walked away with nothing.
#10 - May 12, 2011, 09:06 PM
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*Sigh*

And here I am, trying so hard to sell my YA boy book.
#11 - May 12, 2011, 10:42 PM
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I find it odd that the sample size for this study which found a "huge" imbalance was only "almost 6,000 children's books published between 1900 and 2000."  Seems to me that 6,000 books to represent 100 years of publishing is an awfully small sample size.  How could they make such definitive claims on such an easily skewed sample set?  It reminds me of the papers I wrote in high school (just to see how much I could get away with), where I would take a series of small quotes, out of context, from a text and argue that "this is the obvious point of the text."  I could provide enough "evidence" to make anyone who wasn't familiar enough with the full text think that I was right in my claims.  If you base your studies on the right sample, you can find "proof" of any wacky theory you want to promote!

Interesting side note... I just realized that of my current works in progress, I have 3 male MCs (2 picture books & 1 middle grade) and 2 female MCs (both YA novels).  I guess that means I'm biased toward male MCs (unless you take into account the other 3 stories I have planned but haven't started writing, 1 PB, 1 MG & 1 YA, all of which have female MCs).
#12 - May 12, 2011, 11:38 PM

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The language used in the study gets me, 'symbolic annihilation.' The thing is, too, that the lists they use don't represent what the public is reading necessarily. Aside from the fact that the study didn't look at books beyond 2000, they used Little Golden Books, and Caldecott winners, along with books from the Children's Catalog. I don't understand why they chose to look at Little Golden Books, which, although popular, can't be held to represent children's publishing overall.

Meh, is what I say. Or maybe that should be oink.
#13 - May 13, 2011, 07:27 AM

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I also don't think it's as imbalanced as they claim -- plus, a ton of boy books have come out in the past 11 years!  Still, books like LINGER (for instance) would probably not get read by boys like my son.  I have a feeling that even when he reaches teen-level reading, he's not going to want romance ;)  My daughter, otoh, I'm guessing will suddenly become an avid reader once she starts finding the hints of romance (um, just like her mom, hehe).

I keep an eye out for boy YAs because I can usually get my husband to read those -- so far, he's read Michael Grant's GONE series, EPITAPH ROAD, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Lisa McMann's WAKE trilogy, and SA Bodeen's COMPOUND and THE GARDENER.  So they're out there...
#14 - May 13, 2011, 07:55 AM
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I think we have to talk about MG and YA separately -- the audiences are very different. I've also just gotten a lot of feedback about an MG I've been shopping. It has martial arts and a girl protagonist, and apparently that was a "no go" for some editors -- only boys could be the main characters in such books. So yeah, I'm feeling like there is still a HUGE problem with at least the *kinds* of books girls get to star in, versus what boys get to do.

I don't think I'd have that problem with YA. I think this is definitely an MG thing. We still need more stories starring girls.
#15 - May 13, 2011, 08:12 AM
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I think we have to talk about MG and YA separately -- the audiences are very different. I've also just gotten a lot of feedback about an MG I've been shopping. It has martial arts and a girl protagonist, and apparently that was a "no go" for some editors -- only boys could be the main characters in such books. So yeah, I'm feeling like there is still a HUGE problem with at least the *kinds* of books girls get to star in, versus what boys get to do.

I don't think I'd have that problem with YA. I think this is definitely an MG thing. We still need more stories starring girls.

I wonder how much of this is publisher perception and how much is reality. As I child, I would have loved a girl ninja MC. O:)
#16 - May 13, 2011, 08:34 AM

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It has martial arts and a girl protagonist, and apparently that was a "no go" for some editors

That totally sucks. I really hope there's a smart publisher out there that isn't frightened off by a strong female main character and will snap up your book. A girl ninja MC rocks  :hairdude

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As I child, I would have loved a girl ninja MC. O:)

Me too!

And I have to wonder how much of this is perception vs. reality too because look how popular Hit Girl was.
#17 - May 13, 2011, 09:56 AM
« Last Edit: May 13, 2011, 10:59 AM by C.K. »
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It has martial arts and a girl protagonist, and apparently that was a "no go" for some editors -- only boys could be the main characters in such books.

This makes me want to take my black belt to NY and kick some. While I cry. (And oink.)

But there IS a "strong, physical women are only allowed in fantasies" undercurrent that meshes with the "... and even then only if they're babes and fight in bikinis" corollary that video games express frequently. And for books, I think it's largely because so many of the people making the decisions are bookish, indoor, city people, not sports/outdoor/country people. It's human nature to be most drawn to what you relate to, and I've seen some pretty compelling arguments/evidence that people in New York have a hard time imagining that there is a buying/reading public that has never been on a subway,  might know how to rock climb, and would be excited, not terrified, to be in the woods alone at night. I've run into the latter myself with more than one manuscript.

And publishing is its own worst enemy. BUT, the "people won't buy" conventional wisdom tenets fall all the time... it's just a matter of finding someone to take that risk. Unfortunately, tough economic times tend to repress risk-taking... but the upheaval in the industry is set to reward those who DO take the risks pretty significantly, so I'm hopeful that positive change can still happen.
#18 - May 13, 2011, 12:21 PM
« Last Edit: May 13, 2011, 12:22 PM by Joni »
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I think we have to talk about MG and YA separately -- the audiences are very different. I've also just gotten a lot of feedback about an MG I've been shopping. It has martial arts and a girl protagonist, and apparently that was a "no go" for some editors -- only boys could be the main characters in such books. So yeah, I'm feeling like there is still a HUGE problem with at least the *kinds* of books girls get to star in, versus what boys get to do.

I don't think I'd have that problem with YA. I think this is definitely an MG thing. We still need more stories starring girls.

Ugh, that's awful. But I'd argue that that particular attitude isn't necessarily about not wanting female MCs as such, it's about not wanting a certain type of female MC, which the study doesn't really look at in depth. That, for me, is definitely a bigger problem - in PBs and beyond. There could be thousands of female MCs but if they don't show a variety of characters/activities, then it doesn't make much difference.
#19 - May 13, 2011, 01:28 PM

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I think at the root it's the same problem that Geena Davis talks about in children's movies and TV, albeit to a lesser degree:

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We raised some money, and we ended up doing the largest research study ever done on G-rated movies and television shows made for kids 11 and under. And the results were stunning.

What we found was that in G-rated movies, for every one female character, there were three male characters. If it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female.

Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.

And then we looked at aspirations and occupations and things like that. Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty. Nice gig, if you can get it. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can't exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?

http://www.summitdaily.com/article/20100429/COLUMNS/100429803

There's a ton of good research on that at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media:

http://www.thegeenadavisinstitute.org/

"We know that if girls can see characters doing unstereotyped kinds of occupations and activities, they're much more likely as an adult to pursue unusual and outside-the-box occupations. I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it." -- Geena Davis

I'm glad that in that Guardian article Anne Fine also highlights harmful stereotypes about boys and reading. "More worryingly, in these new lists of recommended books for boys, there's a heap of fantasy and violence, very little humour (except for the poo and bum sort), and almost no family novels at all. If you offer boys such a narrow view of the world, and don't offer them novels that show them dealing with normal family feelings, they will begin to think this sort of stuff is not for them."
#20 - May 13, 2011, 02:06 PM
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I agree with Veronica that the book sample seemed off. I think the article raises good points, but I don't think we can look "at almost 6,000 children's books published between 1900 and 2000" as a good indication of gender issues in children's literature today. Our whole culture's attitude toward women was so different in 1900 than in, say, 1990, and we can expect there was a lot of gender inequality in books from the beginning and middle of the twentieth centure. I hope that writers and publishers today consider gender equality in what they produce.

I'd be interested to know how the survey chose the books. If these are the 6,000 books that are still among the most-widely read by children today, then kids will still be exposed to the gender issues they present. But if it was just a survey of books over the last century, I am guessing many of them are less-frequently read and will have less impact on kids' feelings about gender roles simply because they'll reach fewer kids.

Still, I love that someone is studying this issue. I feel it's hugely important in children's books and everything to which children are exposed. I was just remarking to a coworker that when we were little, there were no female puppets on "Sesame Street," save Miss Piggy, who wasn't the greatest female role model and rarely appeared on the show. Now kids have Abby Cadabby. There are still far more male puppets than female ones, but it's a start. Good for the Guardian for calling attention to this matter!
#21 - May 13, 2011, 03:24 PM
« Last Edit: May 13, 2011, 03:29 PM by ChristineCA »

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"We know that if girls can see characters doing unstereotyped kinds of occupations and activities, they're much more likely as an adult to pursue unusual and outside-the-box occupations. I really believe that if you can see it, you can be it." -- Geena Davis

I'm glad that in that Guardian article Anne Fine also highlights harmful stereotypes about boys and reading. "More worryingly, in these new lists of recommended books for boys, there's a heap of fantasy and violence, very little humour (except for the poo and bum sort), and almost no family novels at all. If you offer boys such a narrow view of the world, and don't offer them novels that show them dealing with normal family feelings, they will begin to think this sort of stuff is not for them."

Wow, that's fascinating. I know that when I was a kid my sister and I would watch movies, desperately looking for female characters (tricky as we were often sneaking TV time when westerns were on!). Thing is, I grew up never doubting I could be anything I wanted to be and never felt as though men were better, or that I had to marry/be with a man to 'have a life.' I realise that's not the case for every woman, but I just wonder what influences kids more? Books/tv/media/parents/school/other? I guess I have my parents to thank for my attitudes, but I wonder why watching and loving movies like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Calamity Jane and the like didn't really do anything to me.

It really is very interesting. I'm also glad the Guardian published this article, even though I don't think the study sounds very thorough/accurate for kids today.
#22 - May 13, 2011, 07:20 PM

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The reference to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers cracked me up because my mother (who would definitely define herself as a feminist) LOVED that movie when she was a little girl. When my sister and I were teenagers, she made us watch it, and we were totally horrified. I think even she was a little shocked at the movie -- said she only remembered loving the singing and dancing.
#23 - May 15, 2011, 06:05 PM
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ECF, he he he, yes, I think I might not share my love of that film with my daughter, even when she's older! Funny thing is, I remember being annoyed with the men from the town, rather than the seven brothers who actually kidnapped the women, imprisoning them for months! I do still love the idea of a bunch of men wearing different brightly coloured long johns though...  :hahaha
#24 - May 15, 2011, 08:01 PM

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#25 - May 16, 2011, 12:26 PM

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There's absolutely an imbalance.  Several.  And we 'accept' it.

I realize writers are a pointedly biased population subset when talking about reading, but I'm curious... How do these stats compare with the actual of-age kids you know/have contact with, right now?

Yes, my girls read more broadly than the boys. Yes, my girls and those I regularly talk with are used to "putting themselves into" the minds of boy MCs much easier, much more often, than the boys.  Yes, I think we bend over and cater too much to courting the boyreader's favor.  We We suceed only in further defining what is 'man enough'. Yes, if the boys I have/know are going to read something with a girl on the cover, they gripe. They hide.

_But_ they read more than what a surface survey would show.  I just routed one teen from under blankets where he was reading his little sister's old 'Strawberry Girl' (Lois Lenski).  He'd overheard a read aloud session. It was very pink. But same kid was also reading my  Pride and Prejudice unassigned, a few months ago. Not as covert, but there was no pic on cover.  To answer my own ?, my kids and those regularly talking to me about reading, don't fit the stats.
#26 - May 29, 2011, 11:32 PM

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I have a house that fills up with boys fairly frequently -- two of my own, a dozen or so good friends that troop in and out -- many of them are avid readers -- that is they will pick a book happily, on their own, and sometimes refuse to do anything else. But the few that are not, are in deed hungering for stories as the Huffington article says. I listen to their elaborate D&D games, or their play with legos. Everything is an adventure.

I hand them books when they are here -- or give them as presents on birthdays. But I worry for these "non-readers" anyway. Our school system is cutting librarians. Our county is cutting the time for the libraries. It takes knowledge of the kids and of the books to get the books too them. It's a hand-selling job. You need to know reading level and interest, and bring them together. The testing that all the schools live or die on "assumes" the kids read outside their curriculum. As the kids pass fourth grade, the test questions can no longer be answered by a careful reading of the question itself, but require a broader knowledge of the world and how it works. [i had an example, but my mind is blanking on it right now]

One question for us is how to jump into the market where these kids are looking -- the video games? Would they read a book if it were mentioned in a game? Or if a game were turned into a book? I'm not sure I could write that book, but it may be a good place to look.

amy
#27 - May 31, 2011, 08:07 AM
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I just think it's interesting/ironic how the original article is complaining about too many boy books, and here in the States, girl books get the overwhelming focus.

I agree, Amy, that cutting the librarians who know the boys and handsell to them is not going to do good things for boy readers at large. I wish I had millions of dollars and could keep all those librarians. :(
#28 - May 31, 2011, 08:19 AM

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I think what a boy will read depends on how comfortable his family makes him with books, all books.  I admit most boys may not want to read a book about a girl worrying if anyone is going to like her, if she is going to be in the popular crowd, how fast she is developing, who she is crushing on, etc.  However, a well written mystery, adventure or fantasy story with a girl MC may not bother many boys.

Now I am one of the older ones on the board. :old and I recall when I bought my first Trixie Beldon books and the eventually received the rest for Christmas one year.  I had a male cousin that loved to read these books, but if his twin brother or father found out he was reading them he would never hear the end of it, the fact that he was reading a "girl's" book.  He and I used to hang out together and read so he could read the next book in the series, eventually his younger sister found that they were interesting and she began reading them.  When she received all the books, he could read them at home on the sly without having to worry about everyone wondering why we weren't outside playing when he was visiting at my house. 

No one ever made a comment to me if I picked up a Hardy Boys book, or any other book meant to be a boy's book, but boys that pick up books where the intended target is meant to be girls are still looked at funny.  Not all of this has to do with who the MC is, but how we are still teaching gender identification.  Just because you read about a boy when you are a girl, does not mean you want to be a boy and just because you read about a girl when you are a boy, does not mean you want to be a girl. 

I think this is why very young children do not have problems with who the main character is in a book.  It isn't until they begin reading MG stories and then YA stories that they become more wary of reading a book that is identified with one sex or another.  There are a few books written for girls that I cannot imagine a boy reading and comprehending, those with all that tween and teen angst over being a girl.  Just as I do not see many girls understanding all the bathroom jokes that boys find so hilarious.  (I did grow up with two brothers, they still think bathroom humor is funny)

I think girls can be strong - winning a black belt or being a star in whatever sport and I think boys can be sensitive in books.  I think editors can be just as biased as many other people in the world.  It doesn't mean we should stop writing the stories.

I also cannot believe they compared books starting with 1900.  Do you realize how many children stopped school by the age of 14 if not earlier?  Most of these would have been boys.  An 8th grade education was standard for many years and the work was often hard.  I also know that my father received a few books as gifts in the 1930s that had the MC as a girl.  He also had many Tom Swift books.  He grew up in a poor household, but books were often the gifts he received and I do not believe anyone made sure that the MC was a boy or girl before they bought him the book.  (I think as long as it was a mystery, it was okay.)

#29 - May 31, 2011, 07:27 PM
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I ran across this interview with Elizabeth Law (editor at Egmont) and author Allen Zadoff (author of Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have) today: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2011/05/interview-publisher-elizabeth-law.html. They talk a little about different covers for his book, and while some of them are rather girl-appealing, the book stars a male MC and it would be a dead turnoff for a teen boy. The one they went with works a lot better than the ones they scrapped, as far as its intended audience. Maybe you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but everyone does, and if you want to sell books, you have to understand that.
#30 - May 31, 2011, 07:54 PM

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