Blurring Gender Lines in Readers' Advisory for Young Adults

Article excerpt

Literacy behaviors that we used to think were gendered are crossing genders now. Whether it is due to changes in gender expectations or changes in how writers are addressing teen readers, we are seeing boys who exhibit literacy behaviors that have been associated with girls and vice versa. In this article, Beth Brendler explores the shift in reading behaviors among girls and boys, reflecting on many examples of current, popular fiction to provide examples of books that cross gender lines. Brendler draws on her past experience as a practicing librarian and head of the youth services department at a public library in Wisconsin. Her teaching interests include youth services in libraries, literacy education, children's literature, and adolescent literature.--Editor

How often do you hear both children and adults refer to texts as "boy books" or "girl books"? Thinking of literature in those terms is the result of early research on gender and literacy. (1) About forty years ago, in the light of concerns about girls being overlooked in the classroom, researchers began to examine the ways males and females took up literature. Now the concerns are about a literacy gender gap that leaves boys behind. Both issues have asked educators and researchers to look at reading as a gendered practice.

Literacy has been gendered based on the cultural expectations of males and females in our society, and literacy practices have been studied through the lens of those cultural assumptions. Early researchers in gender and literacy reported that children thought in terms of "girl books" and "boy books" and that girls tended to respond to texts via their emotions and feelings about the characters in books, while boys connected to what the characters did in the story. (2) They found that females were more focused on the relationships and romantic elements in a text, and males were more drawn to action and adventure. (3) Girls were thought to be more likely to enjoy fiction, particularly realistic fiction that depicts relationships and employs strong character development, while boys often chose to read fiction with action or humor over books that emphasize relationships between characters. (4) Boys were more likely to enjoy graphic novels, nonfiction, and digital media than girls. (5) In addition, research indicated that children and teens preferred protagonists that are of the same gender as the reader. (6)

While those studies were enlightening and contributed much to the field of literacy, there have been societal changes over the last few decades that have affected gender beliefs. Research shows that men and women display increasingly less differentiation in their sex role attitudes. (7) The Millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, has been viewed as more "inclusive, empathetic and tolerant in their social outlook." (8) This has paved the way for many of today's teenagers to reject the idea of gender as a determinant of societal roles.

While we will still encounter readers with more traditional preferences, much of our teen clientele may have new attitudes toward what they prefer to read. The key to improving readers' advisory is to approach every reader as an individual, recognizing that there is as much diversity within gender as across genders.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION THAT DEFIES GENDER RULES

This gender diversity is evident in the popularity of some types of adolescent literature. We are seeing more fiction that appeals to both genders. New offerings often combine action/ adventure with romance, paranormal, fantasy, and science fiction elements. Twenty-two of the twenty-eight nominations for 2013 Teens' Top Ten Titles were either fantasy or science fiction, long considered male genres. (9) These books usually have central characters of both genders. We are seeing more intelligent, capable, athletic heroines; however, they rarely stand alone. There are usually one or two male characters that provide motivation and conflict for the female protagonist. …