Sunday Reflections: What I Learned While Trying to Put Together a Women’s History Display
I was walking by my YA room when I saw a staff member searching the shelves for something, so I went down and asked what she was looking for. It turned out, she was looking for inspiration for a new display. So after some talking we decided that we would do a Women’s History Month display. And then the conversation got, interesting I would say.
I started grabbing a bunch of great titles off of the shelves and we started making stacks for the display. I pulled the Katherine Longshore titles and Maid of Secrets by Jenn McGowan, A Mad Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Lots of great titles about women in historical fiction. After we had some good stacks of books to fill all the display pieces we had, I could tell that something was still bothering this staff member and that she was hesitating.
“But we need some books written by men,” she said to me, “and with boys on the covers.”
I was . . . stunned. “Actually,” I replied, “I’m pretty sure we don’t for a Women’s History Month display. I think books written by women about women fits in perfectly with the theme.”
“But we need some male authors,” she said again.
“I’m pretty sure we don’t,” I replied again.
“But we want boys to read, don’t we? So we need some male authors and books with men on the covers.”
I didn’t hesitate and asked her, “Did you read Shakespeare in high school? Lord of the Flies? Dickens? Hemingway? There is no reason, none, that a boy should not or can’t be expected to read books written by a female author or featuring female characters. Nobody ever blinks at the idea that women will read books written by men or featuring male characters. Books are for readers. All of them.”
“But boys won’t read books with girls on the covers,” she replied.
And this, my friends, is a lie. I have met many teenage boys who read Sara Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson and A. S. King, for example. I once went to a teen book festival where I talked to a teen boy who went to one author and one author only: Sarah Rees Brennan. He had read everything by her.
But the truth is, if we keep feeding into the lie that boys won’t read books with girls on the covers or written by female authors, they’ll keep believing it. Somebody teaches them this lie and that somebody is us. And this lie is dangerous because it tells boys that the lives and thoughts and art of women is somehow less than that of men and they don’t need to be bothered with it. And it tells girls who grow up seeing this lie lived out around them that they are somehow less than their male counterparts. And everyone grows up believing this and it’s a really hard internalized message that is difficult to rewrite. But we have to rewrite it, because it harms us all and it defeats the whole point of reading and art and storytelling; the part where we step into lives that our different than our own, where we develop compassion and empathy and understanding, where we dare to explore other points of view. If you believe the lie that boys can’t read books written by or featuring girls then you don’t understand the purpose and value of storytelling.
So after one final discussion, we agreed to do the display for Women’s History Month with the books we had pulled.
Ironically, the next day I noticed on the other side of the display space was a basketball display for March Madness. Not a single book on it was written by a woman or featured a woman on the cover. Apparently that inclusion doesn’t go both ways, which is just part of the problem.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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