Monday, March 15, 2010

On Writing for Boys

I've somehow got myself a rep as a writer that appeals to boys. I find this pretty amusing, since I don't actually write for boys. I write for myself and I am, well, a girl. 

I'm fine with my testosterone-laden fans, though. We get on well, as we share a taste for fart jokes and squishy things like multi-legged bugs and inside-out eyelids. (Aside: We actually frightened another adult out of the room at The Flying Dragon last week when the boys' book club and I demonstrated zombie eyes - rolling your eyes back so only the whites show. If you can do that, BTW, you are probably very hypnotizable).
What I find funny-peculiar, however, is that  these topics have somehow come to be labelled as "for boys." I'm not a boy, and I like them. And there are plenty of girls out there who also like the rude, the crude, and decidedly grittier side of things. We gals are not all sugar and spice, you know. Forty+ years after the Women's Lib movement got its panties into gear (and burnt its bras), no one should need to be told this tidbit anymore.

But they do, still. Sexism may not be as obvious in North American life as it once was (just watch five minutes of Mad Men if you don't remember the "good" old days), but it's still there. Which brings me to the dilemma I have in being a "Writer for Boys:" How much should I cater to boys' inherent sexism when writing a boy book?

Exhibit A: My current book for Scholastic Canada: The Quiz Book for Boys. My name is presented on the cover in all its glory: H. Becker. Not "Helaine Becker" - girl's name. But "H. Becker" - genderless and therefore assumed-to-be-male name. This decision to go with the gender-free name irked me, I must admit. It seemed like giving in to sexism. But I want my book to sell. And boys can be dopey, we all know that.  Maybe some would put the book back on the shelf if they knew a woman had written it. And since a buck is a buck, we went with the plain unadorned H.

My proud female self is balking now, second-guessing that decision. Should I have made a stink, insisting we put my full name on the cover? Would it really have cut into sales?  Would Joanne Rowling's sales have suffered if she'd gone with her full given name instead of J.K.?

And what if it did? Was the cost in giving up our female identities worth it for a few dollars in book sales?

I have a niggling feeling that both Joanne Rowling and I pandered to male bigotry when we agreed to go with first initials only. We were modern day George Elliots, writing under aliases as men.

I'm not proud of it, but in the end, the name thing is pretty minor. The contents of my books is another story. I'm less likely to sacrifice truth or cater to boys' preferences if it means writing a book that strengthen's male sexism, if only by default.  That brings us to Exhibit B:  What's the Big Idea?

I had many heated discussions with editors about how to include women in the story of invention. The sad fact is there just aren't that many female-created inventions in the top 100. Nor are there many female inventors, great or otherwise,  that we know by name. In a book focusing on the history of inventions, how could we proceed without given half the population short shrift? It wasn't easy, let me tell you. We didn't want to be intellectually dishonest and put in women just for the sake of prettying the book up. Nor did we just want to leave us ladies out. After all, being kept out of the action was why there weren't any Leonardas or Galileas to write about!

The solution was to deal with the matter straight up. I explained to readers in a complete mini-essay just why women-inventors, like the ones who came up with the spinning wheel, the loom and the needle, didn't get recorded (guys took the credit for their innovations), and why, in the Industrial era, so few major inventors were women (sexism kept them out of the labs where scientists and technology geeks shouted Eureka!).

Next, Exhibit C: I'm writing another book sure to appeal to boys right now. It's The Hilarious History of Hockey.

In my research, I learned that women have been a huge part of hockey since the beginning of the sport in Canada. A 14-year-old girl named Isobel Stanley, for example, was even a major force behind a well-known championship prize (yes,the Stanley Cup, named for Izzy's daddy). She also played on one of the earliest known women's teams.

Good old Izzy, a genuine hockey pioneer and hero. But here's the honest-to-God truth:  most boys don't like to read about girls, any girls, even ones as impressive as Isobel Stanley. Statistics prove it. Guys tend to disdain girls' and women's activities from the get-go.

So here I am, trying to write a book that will appeal to boys who don't want to read about girls. Logic says I should just omit girls from the story. Or does it?

The trials and tribulations of the Spudettes are just as much a part of hockey history as are the ups and downs of the Canadiens. Both were discriminated against by the powers that be: the Canadiens  by the Anglo power-brokers, and the Spudettes by the male authorities.  Should I just tell half of the hockey story because boys are not as interested in the girly stuff? And  - bottom line - by leaving it out, will I sell more books? (Lord knows, I want to sell more books...)

To submit to that wish wouldn't be honest. It wouldn't be right. It would stick in my craw, as a woman, to leave us gals out. We've been left out enough in the history of hockey and everything else - should I allow myself and my (female) editors to do yet one more disservice to the (ha ha) gentler sex?

Nope - and that's why I am going to make sure as much of the history of the gals' game goes into The Hilarious History of  Hockey as is needed to give a fair and honest picture of the game. Even so, the girls' game will only garner about a tenth of the number of pages devoted to the boys' game.

That ten percent is important, though. Boys (and girls too!) who read this book need to know what happened in the past. When they read the very un-funny tales of blatant sexism, I'm hoping that they will recoil in shock and dismay. I hope they will realize that freedom and equality are always hard won, no matter where the battle is fought. And I also hope they will learn that even kids can make a difference in righting the wrongs of this world. After all, it was two ten-year-old girls, twenty-five years apart in time but identical in spirit,  who stood up for girls and women in Canada when everyone else just looked away. Abby Hoffman and Justine Blainey fought for, and eventually won,  the right for girls to play hockey just like the boys. They are every bit as great as Gretzky in the story of Canadian hockey.

I consider my mantle as "a writer popular with boys" as both an honor and a responsibility. I hope that my boy-readers enjoy what I write. I also hope that, as a consequence of reading my words, they will grow up with a healthier and fairer attitude to the fair sex than their predecessors.


  1. <>

    Honestly, especially in this day and age of technology where you can't really "hide", I don't think her sales would have suffered if she put Joanne instead of JK. A good story is a good story and I think kids, for the most part, are less likely to care about the author name- unless it's an author that creates a strong emotion of like/dislike.

    I think they're more likely to be drawn in, at first, by the cover design, the title, the blurb on the back and if they like what they see on the first few pages, then they'll read it.

    I support this 110%. :D

  2. Thanks for your comment! Always nice to get feedback! - Helaine

  3. A really interesting post on writing for boys! Also, as a huge hockey fan myself, LOVED hearing about girls' involvement in the sport.

    I bet your boy readers are learning something, small bit by small bit. Especially when they see it's a woman leading them in zombie eyes. =)

  4. Excellent post...and agree, alot, with this:

    "And there are plenty of girls out there who also like the rude, the crude, and decidedly grittier side of things."

    I'm one of them, lol. Sadly...I cannot make zombie eyes!! I tried, the eyes go crossed on me, sigh. Could be because these eyes are over fifty?


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