Reading by Gender

(Sorry, I know it’s the last Monday of the month and this is not a comic. I’m kind of stuck in a time warp over here and forgot how to read a calendar until far too late. I’ll have a comic for you next week, promise! Bises!)

I know I’ve mentioned it about a thousand times, but bear with me. The reading program I work with—Gals Read—is fantastic. (Probably why I can’t stop talking about it, haha.) I love the students and I love what the program brings them. Gals Read, for all the 4th grade lady-types, is a sister program to another program called Guys Read, which is tailored toward the boy end of the spectrum. But the real heart and soul of both programs is to show even the most reluctant readers that reading is fun and that libraries are awesome. Simple!

Ehhh… maybe not totally simple.

(First, a quick caveat: In the program, we speak in generalities and averages about what boys need and what girls need, and never the twain shall meet. We know that’s not true. Lots of boys eat up thoughtful literary books, and lots of girls love a good fart joke. I know. So for the rest of this post, when I talk about girls this and boys that, just be aware that I know there are always exceptions. I’m an exception. My kids are exceptions. You’re probably an exception. I’m not talking about individuals here, but a broad composite Student based on nation-wide averages. Okay, back to the show.)

Although the Guys Read and Gals Read programs are very similar—in organization, in structure, in mission—they’re made for different groups of kids with different needs. The students have more similarities than they have differences (all our students are 4th graders, live in the same region, have similar-ish socioeconomic backgrounds, etc.), but it’s the differences that help us to sharpen the focus of our programs.

For the Fellas

Although all students’ reading for pleasure starts to drop off around 4th grade, it hits boys hardest. There are lots of reasons for this, but we focus our efforts on just two. One is that boys don’t have a lot of manly reading role models; most of the folks they regularly see with books in hand (their primary caregivers, teachers, and school librarians) are predominantly women when kids are eight and younger, so it’s easy for boys to grow to view reading as a feminine pastime. The other problem that boys encounter is their own immaturity. (That’s what gets me every time, too, ugh.) Most boys just do not have the emotional maturity to enjoy long stretches of The Tale of Despereaux or Number the Stars or the majority of the kinds of books that dominate fourth grade recommended reading lists. (For the record, those are both fantastic books that you and your little person totally should read.) And so for a lot of these boys, reading becomes a chore: boring drudgery you do only when assigned.

Guys Read attempts to address these problems by bringing in an array of volunteer men who read goofball-friendly books. These books are image heavy (usually graphic novels) to keep the kids’ attention easier and are usually a bit wacky. The volunteers park the kids with their lunches and read them outrageous, silly, adventurous, out-there rollicking good stories. Fun times for all. Whee!

For the Ladies

So, girls don’t really lack for reading role models the same way that the boys do. And a glance at their reading scores will show that, while the number of girls who read for pleasure does indeed dip, it doesn’t drop as much or nearly as sharply as the boys’ do. Plus, girls at this age are maturing socially and emotionally much faster than boys, so they are more likely to handle and enjoy the more thoughtful, literary books that teachers tend to assign. So why have Gals Read at all?

To be completely honest, this question haunts me.

For nearly a decade, there was no Gals Read, because there wasn’t a perceived need. But the girls asked for it long enough that the program directors found the means to make it happen. They kept with the same format of pairs of volunteer readers going in during lunch to read to the students. The girls loved it. The volunteers and teachers and librarians all loved it. Everyone was happy.

But the question was still kind of there, floating unanswered. Why are we bothering with Gals Read? Why have it if the girls don’t need it? Was it simply outside pressure? Political correctness?

And really, maybe it was, at least at first. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think I may finally have an answer for the naysayers.

But first, just a liiiiiitle more data about the needs of girls.

Girls’ confidence plummets around this age. Despite having, yes, higher scores, they perceive themselves as being less intelligent than their peers. Despite higher social and emotional maturity, they perceive themselves as socially inept. Despite having lots of female reading role models, they don’t have a lot of female leadership role models, or female role models who are confident about their social standing at all, or their contributions to the world, or even something so inconsequential as their appearance.

Girls at this age begin to worry. They are less prone to taking risks, particularly among their peers. They are desperate for acceptance, and struggle to be perfect, in all ways, at all times. By the time they are teenagers, this will blossom into anxiety and depression, which they are three times more likely to suffer from than their male peers. They feel that they are of less value and have less to contribute to society than the average person.

It doesn’t end in their day to day lives, either. History books rarely mention more than two or three women for whole eras of history. (And the stats are significantly worse for BIPOC women.) Science, mathematics, and technology—the fields of the future—are all seen as masculine fields. Literary prizes are less likely to be awarded to books with female protagonists. And repeated studies have shown that even children’s books are dominated by male characters. If girls have prominent roles in the stories at all, it is often as supporting characters to far less capable male protagonists. (I am looking at you, Hermione Granger.)

So… yeah. *climbs off soap box, kicks it back under desk*

The girls in my program do not need help with their reading scores. But that does not mean they don’t need these stories.

Girls need to see girls and women who are heroes. They need to see that women and girls are imperfect and awesome. They need to see lady folk in tough situations who come out on top. They need to see brave girls, and flawed girls, and girls whose input and efforts matter. Through the safety of a story, students can explore what it is to be a girl in a world that often feels stacked against them, how the straightest path isn’t always the best path, and that their best is good enough and more. They need to see girls and women who overcome.

What we have to offer the girls in this program is nothing less than a portal into new possibilities: a love of books. It’s a safe way to explore life’s struggles and see the possible outcomes. And it’s darned fun too. Library cards are free and librarians are eager to help anyone who will ask.

And that is why our students need Gals Read. Maybe the reasons are different for girls than they are for boys. And maybe the approach is a little different too. But in the end, the heart of the two programs are the same: reading is fun, and libraries are awesome.

So find yourself a little person to read to (from six feet away, haha) and just imagine all the amazing adventures they’re going to have. Stay safe, keep reading, and happy writing.

Historical Kid Lit with Laurie Halse Anderson

If you work in a kids’ library, you probably know who Laurie Halse Anderson is. She writes all over the spectrum of children’s literature, including historicals like Independent Dames, Fever 1793, and the Seeds of America trilogy. She’s been around the block.

So I was excited by the opportunity to sit in on her breakout session at Alaska Writers Guild/SCBWI’s 2019 fall conference. Of course, the moment I sat down, I realized—ugh—I should have brought all our books from the library for her to sign. Oh well, hindsight’s always clearer than foresight. A little disappointed in myself, but excited nonetheless, I plunked myself down at the feet of the master and just about note-wrote my little hand off.

I’ll give you the condensed version of her tips of the trade, but if it’s at all possible, I highly recommend you get yourself to her next conference and listen in on the full meal deal. She says it so much better than I’m about to!

Without further ado, here are Ms. Anderson’s eight tips on writing historical kid lit:

Tip #1: Know why you’re choosing the story. What is your connection to this story? Why does this story and this era matter to you enough to put in the work?

Tip #2: Research as deep as the ocean, but with attention to the grains of sand on the shore. Voraciously study primary sources and squint suspiciously at secondary sources. Know about the foods, politics, beliefs, medicine, power structures, and more. You will research waaaay more than actually goes in your book. That is right and proper.

Tip #3: Find your research squad. Amid all your research, haul out new trade books on your story’s setting and carefully comb the footnotes and bibliographies. Once you’ve done your research homework and have written through several drafts, reach out to these people with specific questions. Find some way to compensate them for their time and expertise.

Tip #4: Primary sources are your secret weapon. Remember Tip #2? Stories change over time and people remember things differently fifty years down the road. As much as is possible, try to get your information from the people living through it (newspapers, journals, letters, etc). That said, also keep in mind that the sources you are reading are probably from the perspective of the elite (who are deep in their biases).

Tip #5: Organization is your best friend. Keep all your notes organized and accessible. Come up with systems for keeping your information straight. Write down every source used. This is not the place to be lazy. *glares at mirror*

Tip #6: Changes are not failures. They are part of the process. Your story will go through several drafts, changing more each time. It takes as long as it takes.

Tip #7: Details are only in your book if they move the story along. I once researched tons of information on feeding an army on the go in medieval Europe and then found a way to shoehorn in almost an entire chapter of a character excitedly lecturing (literally *lecturing*) about purchasing versus foraging versus pillaging, and how many pounds of food each soldier and every horse needs per day and like everything. It was only there because I thought it was cool. But it wasn’t. ☹

Tip #8: Just dive in. Don’t wait for the stars to align! Get crackin’ now!

Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to writing your historical. And while the talk was themed toward kid historicals, there’s no tip here that wouldn’t apply to any age category of historical—and many of them could apply to writing in general.

So until next week, no matter your genre, age category, or subject matter, go forth and happy writing!

Will Learn for Food

My family is privileged to live in the area for what is widely recognized as the best public elementary school in the greater Fairbanks region. The typical background for the kids here is pretty well off, safe and stable, and primarily white with a good chunk of Native kids and a handful of other minorities. They are, as a general rule, sheltered and somewhat pampered by their highly educated, socially liberal, and deeply involved parents.

We at the library have a hard time getting these students to check out books about kids outside of their own demographic. I mean, if there’s like a sentient teddy bear or an anthropomorphized talking sunflower seed, sure, they’ll check that out. But if there’s a Japanese kid on the cover, that’s a hard sell. If there’s a Black kid on the cover, hard sell. A character in a hijab, hard sell. They’ll read the books when we push them into their sticky little hands, but they aren’t the kinds of books that they just pick up and read on their own.

The librarian and I bemoan this phenomenon together a lot and are constantly coming up with schemes to get the students to read all the amazing gems of books that they aren’t interested in without some prodding. One year for Valentine’s Day, we did blind dates with books where the students only knew a vague description of the books they were selecting from. We did a similar venture for an upcoming winter break where we wrapped books in gift wrap with descriptions, and the kids were snapping them up faster than I could wrap them. And—who’d have thought?—once the kids started reading these books about The Other, they enjoyed the stories and characters immensely, accepting their differences (and similarities) without blinking. Weird!

We do what we can.

Recently, the librarian wrote up a glowing review for Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen in which she lamented how little circulation the series gets. And this sparked an idea!

We have tons of books in the library that deserve more circulation, that are from a culture that could use a bit more representation, and that have food as a central theme in the story. Three books immediately popped in my head: Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore; Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (obviously, haha); and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard. Two of those three even come with a recipe in the back of the book!

I’ve taught quite a few after school classes over the years, but the most popular one—by orders of magnitude—has to be French Pastries. I usually teach it twice a year and it always fills up in literal minutes, and then I get to listen to the musical tones of a kid or two weeping in the front office because they didn’t get their form in fast enough to make the cut.

The secret of my popularity is food. Could we use that same trick to drum up interest for some of these awesome foodie books?

Food is really cool because it is so intrinsic to culture. Food says a lot about the way you were raised, what brings you comfort, the ways in which you celebrate. Along with housing and clothing, food is a huge product of the place where you live, the way your ancestors survived, and the network of community and sharing. By teaching the students about the foods of different cultures, we are giving ourselves an easy in for teaching about the people and their way of life as well.

Children’s books are really just windows and mirrors: mirrors that reflect back your own world and the ways of navigating it, and windows into other worlds and their value and beauty. Most of the kids at our school have plenty of mirrors around. By adding some windows to their repertoire, we teach empathy and understanding across cultural lines. We can teach kids that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘weird’ (and ‘not a chicken nugget’ doesn’t mean ‘inedible’).

So yeah. We’re roughing out a plan for a cooking class wherein each week, we pick a different book from a different culture with food as a central idea. We make the food and read the book (or parts if it’s bigger) and talk about the characters and their world while we eat. (The eating part is important.) It has all the elements to be a hit.

Now we just need to pick our titles and assess the difficulty/time required for each recipe. In addition to the three I’ve already mentioned, we’re also considering the November cakes from Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races (a YA novel with a splash of Celtic mythology *chortles*), but I don’t know if that’s so much to get the kids interested in Irish/Scottish culture, or just because the librarian and I want to eat November cakes.

What do you think? We don’t have any shortage of titles, but do you know a tasty kids’ book that we should consider? Let me know in the comments below!

And until next week, happy writing!

Conference Lessons: Age Categories

readingIt’s pretty easy to tell what your age category is, right?  So imagine my embarrassment when, at this year’s AWG Writers Conference, I was mid-pitch and the lady stopped me to ask, “Wait- what did you say your age category is?”

“Young Adult.”

“But… how old is your main character?”


Her brow furrowed in concern.  “Hm.”

Twenty-two-year-olds aren’t young adults?  Apparently not!  My pitch quickly turned into a brief run-down of the upper age categories in the hunt for mine.  Then the pitch continued, and she was very gracious and asked for a partial, even though I’m clearly an idiot.

So to spare you similar mortification, let’s talk age categories!  This is a really important aspect of your book and your pitch.  In fact, pitches often start with this information right up front.  (I’m querying a MG urban fantasy about… Ochre Skies is a YA historical romance about… etc. You get the idea.)   So let’s take a look at some of the common features in each of the main age categories.

Target Audience Age Main Character Age Typical Content Word Count (varies by genre)
Board Books 0-3 Varies Simple, familiar kinds of stories of everyday life, or concept books (colors, numbers, vocabulary, etc). 0-300
Picture Books 3-8 Varies Revolving around a single character that embodies a child’s viewpoint. Can be mirrors of child’s world, or windows into how others live. 0-1000
Early Reader 5-8 6-10 Simple sentences and words. Story mainly told through action and dialog, with setting left mostly to pictures. 200-2000
Chapter Books 6-10 9-12 More complex stories and structures, and typically run in a series.  Pictures are not relied on to tell any part of the story. 10k-12k
Middle Grade 8-12 10-13 Focus on friends, family, and immediate world. Little introspection and not super dark.  Little to no pictures. 20k-55k
Young Adult 12 and up 14-18 Focus on finding place in world beyond family and friends. Profanity, violence and sexuality acceptable for older target audience. 55k-75k
Adult 18 and up 25+ Varies by genre. Profanity, violence, and sexuality acceptable. 75k-110k

As you can see from these age divisions, children tend to “read up” by about two or three years; a twelve year old tends to read about middle teens, a seven-year-old would likely read a book with a plucky pubescent protagonist, etc.  Another defining feature is the content- is there swearing? sex? violence?  Any of these features can bump a book up in category.

You may notice that I didn’t put New Adult on the chart.  This is because we were told at the conference in no uncertain terms multiple times by literary agents that this is no longer a thing, that it was a blip on the screen that quickly turned into subcategory smutty romance, and we can move on now.  Which is a little disappointing for me, because I feel like, age- and point-of-life-wise, that NA would have been perfect for my books.  (I ranted about this before years ago in Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult.)

As far as overarching adult themes go, there’s very little written about it, at least that I could find.  (It’s actually really hard to find anything about the adult age category  right now because it’s so drowned in all the bazillion articles about young adult or even new adult. *whines*)  But it seems to largely come down to the genre.  Each genre will have its own specific themes and goals that are expected within that classification.  If I handed you a mystery, you could probably guess what it’s about.  Likewise for a rom-com or a thriller or a western.  Speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, alt history, etc) can vary quite a bit thematically, though.  (Seriously though, trying to research this age category was like expecting to see a forest and instead finding yourself on the lip of the Grand Canyon.  This might merit a more specific tons-o’-research blog post later.)  So, while other age categories seem to have broad themes found throughout genres, adult literature seems to be more of a mixed bag.  (For reals- I’m gonna research this more, this is driving me crazy.)

There are, of course, exceptions to the generalities presented in my pretty, pretty chart.  For example, Neil Gaiman’s fabulous The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which has a seven-year-old boy as the main character, but is definitely not a children’s book.  If you think you might be one of these exceptions, remember that content and target audience usually trump character ages, and then check, and double check, and ask around for second (and third and fourth) opinions before you start flaunting your exceptionality.

So!  I’m sure you all know exactly what age category you’re writing in now so you can present a pitch that doesn’t make someone interrupt you to tell you gently that you’re an ignoramus.  In case you’re not totally sure (because this is a super basic chart about broad generalities), there are a few links at the bottom of this post with more details.  Good luck, and happy writing!

More resources:

Categories by audience age

Categories by ages, pages, and content

Standard wordcounts by genre and age category