Checking Our Biases When We Check Out Books
by Laura Koennecke
The other night I was telling my son about a book I wanted to read to him called Little House in the Big Woods; it was one of my favorites as a child. He really likes non-fiction, so I told him that it’s autobiographical, explaining that meant it was based on a real person’s life. I thought that might stoke his interest. I’ve been itching to get him interested in a good story, but aside from Frog and Toad books, which are amazing by the way, and a few Dr. Seuss books, we mainly read facts.
I also told him that I especially liked that I share my name with the main character, Laura. He thought that was pretty cool.
As I was telling him about the book, a weird sense of doubt surfaced. I wondered if Little House was a girl’s book. I wondered if that mattered. After all, little girls read books with male characters all the time. My Side of the Mountain was about a boy, and I loved that book. I had no trouble identifying with Sam.
But there were other books that I read and identified as being girls’ books, like Misty of Chincoteague, even though it has both a boy and girl for main characters. That one I chalk up to the fact that most of the girls my age at the time were obsessed with their Breyer collections and all things horse-related.
So if I identify certain books as being girls’ books based on my own childhood reading, does that mean I shouldn’t read them to my son? Of course not, but how much do we unwittingly withhold from our sons this way. It really bothered me that I considered not reading him a great story based on a little voice that said it was for girls.
When my daughter was younger, I was always happy to see a strong female lead character. She latched right on to Tamora Pierce’s books when they were introduced to her by a grade-school friend. And as parents more actively look for female protagonists, they have a great resource for girl-empowered books in amightygirl.com, which provides characters from many different cultures that young girls can identify with.
This is great, but what if we also started reading stories to our sons with girl protagonists – asking them to see through another person’s perspective?
As the 48-year-old mother of a 6-year-old son (advanced maternal age I’m considered), I sometimes think there’s a cultural divide between myself and younger parents in their 30s. I worry that I’ll become the old person who says the awkward things at the soccer field, you know, uses the words that expose my outdated, uninformed biases like the drunk uncle at a family gathering that everyone rolls their eyes at.
After all, my childhood was firmly in the 1970s. And the fruits of second wave feminism were just starting show themselves. For my older sister to change into jeans after leaving the house was an act of rebellion and a strike against gender norms. Now everyone wears jeans and nobody thinks twice of it. She also wanted to be an auto mechanic and go across country with our cousin Karen who wanted to drive an 18-wheeler. This raised some eyebrows at the time, but now women are excelling in what used to be traditionally male job markets. And the idea that they wouldn’t is simply foreign to many women born in the 1980s.
It’s quite possible that younger parents don’t think twice about gender when they pick out a book, that deep into third wave feminism people don’t project gender norms onto their kids. They say to each other “Let’s get David this biography of Danica Patrick – he loves race cars.”
But we all know that for the most part that’s not true. Just look at the uproar Target caused by removing gender-based signs from their toy sections. Side note: For a fun response to that check out Renegade Mothering (unless you are satire-averse and don’t like salty language, then don’t).
Anyway, as the mother of a son, I’d like to see feminism work for him too. I don’t want him cut off from strong female role models, and I don’t want him walled off from the empathy that comes from reading about people who are not like him. Empathy can only help us all. So dear parents, young and old, maybe we can turn down the little voices that tell us what’s meant for boys or meant for girls, and use books to break down barriers instead of reinforcing them. Let’s loosen the reins and see what happens.
About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.
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