The first book I remember reading cover to cover (without being required to), was Wringer by Jerry Spinelli, published by HarperCollins in 1997. It tells the story of ten year old Palmer LaRue, who is faced with a moral dilemma. In Palmer’s hometown, it is a tradition for all the boys who have turned ten to wring the necks of injured pigeons on Pigeon Day. Thousands of pigeons are released and shot as a way to raise money for the city park. This is considered an honor and a rite of passage for the boys. Everyone around seems to be looking forward to it, except Palmer. The idea of it tortures him; he is taunted by the thought. He even ends up taking in a pet pigeon, who he names Nippy. The only person who knows about his new pet is Dorothy, his best friend, who is also against the festivities on Pigeon Day.
Palmer fakes enthusiasm to fit in with his guy friends so that he is considered “cool”. On Pigeon Day, Palmer finds out that Dorothy accidently let Nippy out of his cage near the area where pigeons are captured for the festival. Palmer rescues an injured Nippy from the shooting zone in front of the entire town. The story ends with a little boy, while watching Palmer, tell his father he wants a pet pigeon.
We have talked a lot in class about the gender roles in children’s toys and books. This book is the exact opposite of the gender focused books described by Elizabeth Segel. Palmer is not very adventurous and he relates more to his best friend Dorothy than the popular boys in his class, Mutto, Henry and Beans. There is definitely male focused comedy associated with these three boys, (bathroom jokes, etc). The combination of the soft thoughts of Palmer and the rowdy boys in his class allows for this book to be appreciated by both boys and girls.
I never understood until recently why this book meant so much to me. At the point when I was reading this I was eight years old, so I did not think much about it. Looking back today I realize it is because the story is about a boy who does not fit into his society’s idea of what a boy should be or act. I was a girl faking it with my friends and family, though I did not know why. Now I know why I felt so different, I am gay. Palmer’s story of fighting for how you feel inside, even though everyone around you may reject you, is something that sticks with me to this day. This book bends the gender roles we have established for our children. It says: be who you want to be, no matter what the world is telling you.
Illustrated characters from Ann M. Martin's popular series The Baby-sitters Club.
In my experience as a devoted reader of The Baby-sitters Club, these books were quite popular among girls my age during our elementary school careers in the mid 1990s. Each week when our class would go to the school library we would scour the shelves for The Baby-Sitters Club novels, seeking one that we had not yet read. If memory serves, these books always had very tattered covers. This could be for a couple of reasons: One, that elementary school children are incapable of not destroying something as delicate as a paperback novel; or two, that these books exchanged hands between many elementary school girls. During the summers the search for unread Baby-sitters Club books would be transplanted to the public library, which always had a much larger selection of tattered cover books about a certain group of babysitters. Through the years and many dedicated search efforts, I never came across any boys who read the series. If boys did, they certainly did not advertise their interests.
Beginning in 1986, Ann M. Martin began writing novels centered about middle school aged children who ran a babysitting business. These middle school children worked to fulfill the need for babysitters in their neighborhood. Her novels were published from 1986 until 2000 and sold approximately 170 million copies. 131 novels were published; this number does not include the special edition novels or subsequent series that sprouted after the initial success of The Baby-sitters Club novels. Of the ten main characters that Martin developed in her novels, only one of them was male.
A typical cover style seen in the publication of The Baby-sitters Club series.
In Elizabeth Segel’s discussion of gender and its relation to childhood reading, she suggests that “boys [venture] into the territory of girls’ reading only with considerable trepidation” (73). The Baby-sitters Club series was quite obviously marketed to girls. If the flowery and brightly colored covers did not dissuade boys from reading the series, the cast of main characters that only included one male might have. The series seems to reinforce the gender role of females as caretakers; in her writings Segel discusses how literature that is specifically catered to girls tends to reinforce ideas such as these. It appears that in writing the series Martin does attempt to reach out to male readers through the inclusion of a male babysitter. However, whether or not this was enough to induct male readers into a predominantly female following is difficult to say. As Segel plainly puts it: “reading a book about a girl is still cause for embarrassment for many young readers” (76).
Where the Wild Things Are (book cover)
Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” has long been one of my favorite books from my childhood. This classic children’s book, which was published in 1963, is about a mischievous young boy named Max who gets sent to his room by his mother to be punished for being too rambunctious. In his room, Max’s imagination takes him to the land “where the wild things are”, where he becomes “king of all wild things”.
Although this book is a mere thirty-seven pages long, with most pages filled by elaborate illustrations, the underlying messages and reinforced gender roles are extremely clear nonetheless. The book reinforces the gender roles discussed by Elizabeth Segel, as the protagonist is a young boy, and the subject matter is that of action and adventure. In addition, Sendek’s book directly exemplifies Segel’s assertion that “the boys’ book was, above all, an escape from domesticity and from the female domination of the domestic world” (70), as Max tries to escape his mother’s control by running away to an imaginary land where he is the king.
Despite the presence of these familiar themes, the book has prompted some negative feedback, as many people wonder if the book is truly for children. Furthermore, Sendak’s statement in an HBO interview, “I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood”, has prompted some people to debate whether the story is some sort of psychoanalytic masterpiece about a boy’s anger and emotions, or merely a bunch of colorful illustrations designed to catch the attention of children. However, whatever the author’s intended meaning and motivation was behind the story (and Sendak is deliberately making it ambiguous), it seems that certain aspects of Max’s personality seem to resonate with all who have read and enjoyed the book , which is a testament to how much the line has been blurred between what is appropriate for adults and what is appropriate for children.