Today in class the freshmen read Maureen Johnson’s awesome essay, “The Gender Coverup“, wherein she takes a look at gendered book covers and calls to task those who think there are “boy” books and “girl” books.
“I don’t care,” say some other people. Probably most of the people. Because a lot of people don’t read much or see why any of this affects their lives. But I believe it does affect us all, very much so, because these are all subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) value judgments on what kind of narratives matter.
“But!” some of those people who are still paying attention cry. “Boys don’t like to/can’t read about girls!”
“&^%$@,” say I.
Of course they can, and stop making their choices for them or telling them what they do or don’t want to do. This may be a big part of the problem.
I see this issue every day as a teacher. I saw it in 6th grade and I see it with my high schoolers. I’ll booktalk a fabulous book and the cover will influence students to read it or not read it. I have plenty of male students who, as avid booktalkers of Thirteen Reasons Why would love Before I Fall, but avoid it because of the cover. They deem it “feminine” and say that they will be made fun of. A problem in and of itself, obviously, but we need to stop placing gender labels on books, too.
The conversations that stemmed from the article were fabulous. I eavesdropped as students argued over whether girls are more willing to read broadly while boys stick to certain topics. I watched as they analyzed the covers of the books on their desks. And I hid a smile as they vehemently argued over whether the covers of YA novels fit gender stereotypes. Plus, it led to a great analysis of the many editions of our current class novel, Things Fall Apart. The students noted similarities between how Achebe’s characters were presented on some covers and how those in the Western world view(ed) Nigeria (and Africa as a whole). Could this English teacher be any happier?
After reading the article and viewing the slideshow, I challenged my students to try #coverflip. In groups, they decided on a book that they felt had a cover that appealed more to one gender than necessary. Then, they searched for Creative Commons images that they could use to create a new cover. In photoshop, they designed their new book cover with either a more neutral cover or one that appealed to gender stereotypes. Take a look at what they came up with!
So impressed with what these students came up with in only 40 minutes! And I have to admit, some of these #coverflip books really make me think. What about you?
As a lover of books, I dream of a day when there are no “boy” or “girl” assumptions when it comes to audience. After discussing it with my students, I think they will be the ones to make it happen. For the most part, they see no reason why the narrator or characters should influence the gender of a perceived audience. You hate romance and love action? Great! Doesn’t matter if you are male or female. You love character-driven stories with romance and can’t deal with gore? Awesome! Who cares if you are a girl or a guy? An appealing cover should show some aspect of the story and the audience will find it, as my students said. Marketers can’t always predict who will buy a book (data isn’t perfect, they pointed out!) so why not appeal to the broadest audience possible?
I love my students.
*students- if you don’t see your cover here, it’s because I didn’t get it! Tweet or email it to me and I”ll update this post!