A few weeks ago author Shannon Hale blogged about showing up for a school visit and learning that only the girls would be attending her lecture. The assumption that boys don’t want to see a “girl book” author is wrong in a million ways, but enough people have responded to this outrage, and I don’t need to add to the chorus.
I know Shannon Hale is popular with young readers, as her name always comes up when I poll groups of kids on their favorite books, but I’d fallen into the same benign sexism as the school: assuming that something that looks like this had no interest to me.
But in following this story, I read a synopsis of Princess Academy and was intrigued. It sounded far more interesting than I would have guessed from the title and cover. Now, after reading it, I know it a thoughtful critique of the “princess” ideal with a strong feminist theme. Its popularity with girls shows that they are quite ready for this message.
Hale’s way into this topic is intricate: girls competing against one another, tempted by materialism, made to feel ashamed and undeserving. Every element feels natural in the story but could lead to rich discussions about how own culture treats girls. It could even be assigned reading in a college class on women’s studies or gender issues. But the sociopolitical aspects are so well integrated with a good story, it doesn’t feel like the whole book is just a frame for a lecture. I’ve read few children’s books that are as deceptively simple on the outside and run as deep.
After a childhood of Disney princesses, girls really need books like Hale’s. I think boys should read it too: because it’s an enjoyable book, and to have an idea of what girls are going through. We know many men arrive at college belligerent and hostile to feminism; why not begin those discussions sooner?
Besides that, few quote/unquote “boy books” show heroes as reflective and conscientious as Miri. Boys steeped in the personal exceptionalism and power fantasies that often shape “their” stories will be ill-equipped for the real world; Miri is a much better role model for all children.
How do we make the leap to a world where boys can read a book called Princess Academy without fear of bullying and scoffing? Men need to read books by and about women, showing that it’s expected of men to care about women, and boys about girls. And schools need to encourage boys to see brilliant authors like Shannon Hale when they’re lucky enough to have her instead of keeping them in class.