Gender in Books for Children and Young Adults was the topic of a panel at Harvard University, an afternoon event sponsored by the Athena program, designed to empower teen girls. Authors Sarah Lamstein, Jacqueline Davies, Padma Venkatraman, and I began by talking about what part gender plays in our work.
Padma spoke eloquently about the layers of history, explaining how her novel Climbing the Stairs was inspired by the story of her mother who grew up in India when Gandhi was nonviolently fighting for freedom from Britain, but at the same time, soldiers, equally passionate about freedom and justice, left India to fight alongside the British in the war against Hitler. And at the same time, Padma’s mother was sneaking upstairs to find books that girls were forbidden to read.
Sarah Lamstein spoke of her novel, Hunger Moon, which shows a girl’s moving attempt to be honest and fair to her brother. Gender isn’t really a focus, but as Sarah explained, the 1950s setting gives a backdrop of different expectations for boys and girls. I nodded. Growing up during that decade, I slowly became aware of my mother’s history of having worked during WWII, being asked to leave her job when the troops came home, marrying, moving to the suburbs, and getting depressed. I became a writer partly because I wanted to understand my mother’s silences, which led to my being curious about other stories that seemed lost and bring them into more light.
Gender isn’t the source of Jackie Davies’s inspiration, but themes are woven in. Her acclaimed series of books starting with The Lemonade War is told by alternating points of view of brother and sister, and the novels seem equally popular among boy and girl readers, which is a beautiful thing. They explore ideas about family, friendship, money, competition, as well as push against stereotypes: you can read a bit more about this here at a Harvard Crimson article about the event.
When asked about what we hope to teach with our books, I spoke about balancing the strands of education and entertainment. Padma, with quite a bit of arm waving, said that emotion would be a better word than entertainment, and I agreed. Or engagement. What we most want are readers who will feel along with the characters. We discussed how girls are more often willing to do this as readers of what are sometimes called “boy books,” while boys are less apt to read about girls. Would Harry Potter have been as popular if a witch instead of a wizard was at the center? We’ll never know, or if anyone would have cared if Jo Rowling had resisted the request to use initials rather than a risk a female name on the cover. Such issues go beyond reading. Most girls are willing not only to read about boys, but dress like them, while boys may get teased or worse if they choose to dress up as a girl on Biography Day. Is it because people want to imagine they are someone with more power, and see women as having less?
There were so many good questions. We left wondering about the impact of calling this a panel about gender instead of using the words girls and women. What’s gained and what’s lost? Sarah, in her always generous way, brought up examples from history, showing that strong women in literature are hardly new, and cited the work of Pat Lowery Collins, scheduled to be on the panel but who had to opt out due to illness. We could have kept talking, kept naming books.