Boys Should Read Fancy Nancy

Fancy Nancy Trio author is Jane O Connor Art by Robin Preiss GlasserEarlier this week, author Maureen Johnson tweeted, “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, ‘Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy.” She then challenged her twitter followers to “Redesign book covers by Literary Dudes,” telling them to “Imagine [the books] have been reclassified as by and for women.”

The results put bouquets of flowers and heart-shaped hands on the covers of books written by male authors and changed several of the authors’ names to ones commonly associated with women (i.e., Jonathan became Jane Franzen).

This challenge highlights the problem of gender-based marketing in books. The publishing industry, however, only reflects and reinforces the real source of the problem: consumers. We are the ones who accept that a bouquet of flowers is feminine and therefore tied to Jane, not Jonathan. We are the ones who assign a value to it.

Do we ever stop to wonder what’s so feminine about a bouquet of flowers? For the record, despite his Y chromosome, my husband enjoys cut flowers more than I do.

Even if flowers were somehow feminine, why would a guy avoid such an image on a cover? Why would he perceive a book with such a cover to be unworthy of his attention?

The problem starts at home, reinforced by the books we read to our children. Many parents perceive children’s books as being either “for boys” or “for girls,” which is particularly problematic because the books we read as children help shape who we become as adults.

The answer, however, isn’t to remove pink from the illustrations of so-called “girly” books. Fancy Nancy, a precocious child with a love of vocabulary and all things fancy, shouldn’t become “Alphabet and Action Adam” to encourage boys to read it. Rather, boys should read Fancy Nancy just the way she is, frills and all. Pink is for everyone (I think Pinkalicious said that).

My five-year-old twin daughters enjoy Fancy Nancy as much as Batman. In preschool, M.’s male peers call her “one of the boys” because she plays superheroes with them. She accepts it as a compliment, and I wonder whether any of the boys would think it’s a compliment to be called “one of the girls.” As far as I know, few boys participate in the games commonly associated with girls — perhaps they need to read more Fancy Nancy.

If boys had better access to Fancy Nancy and similar books at home, maybe they wouldn’t grow up to avoid books with flowers or young women on the cover. Maybe they wouldn’t grow up with the perception that anything associated with women is of lower quality. Maybe they would grow up to respect women more.

Unfortunately, it boils down to adults: We can’t expect parents to read books with flowers on the cover to their sons if they won’t even read those books themselves.


  1. This is interesting… just tonight I read ‘pinkalicious’ to my son (his request) and daughter while he was wearing his sister’s pink satin cupcake pajamas (mainly because I haven’t done laundry in a while).

    I fought this battle a few years back, when my husband said ‘I don’t care if he dresses in girly clothes, but could you please just not paint his nails?’ to which I answered, ‘sure, if you can come up with a logical and fair reason to give him why he can’t paint his nails like his sister can.’ … no answer. So, the kid had hot-pink toenails for a while.

    The girl can dress up as ANYTHING – a cowboy, a ballerina, a fireman, a ninja, or a princess… but the boy is limited to only ‘masculine’ costumes? It’s bullshit! And the same goes for book covers, music, nail polish, and even speech and mannerisms. Equal means equal, and it should work both ways. We (as women) fought too hard for equality to allow a double standard to exist for our children.

    1. Good for you! There’s no reason why a boy shouldn’t be able to enjoy nail polish just as much as the girls do. I remember an incident at my children’s camp last summer. One afternoon, when there were only a handful of kids around, an assistant teacher decided to paint the children’s toe nails if the children wanted to do it (it was “pajama day,” and the teachers had mentioned to the parents that toenail painting was one possible activity, though I’m not sure if they said it to all parents). All the kids lined up, including the boys. At pick-up time, one of the parents got upset because she worried about what her husband would say if he saw their son with toe nail polish (it was creme and very light). The little boy looked so disappointed when the teacher took it off. I felt sorry for him. He’s the child that teaches my girls that there are “boy” toys and “girl” toys, and I must admit that I was relieved to hear he won’t be with my children for Kindergarten (even though he’s a very nice kid).

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Ever since stumbling across a signed copy of Neil Gaimain’s “Blueberry Girl,” I have kept an eye out for gender-neutral or strongly girl-positive children’s books. The question I ask myself, though, is less about the good influences I can give my children (I have boundless energy for this quest) and more about which influences are *clearly* negative and should be banished from the house.

    In an earlier comment, I saw you say that you played with Barbies growing up and it didn’t scar you for life; I had the same experience. Now that I understand what’s flawed about Barbie, should I keep the brand from my children or only allow access accompanied by some child-appropriate speech about beauty standards to try and counterbalance the possibility that they might decide looking like Barbie is the end-all-be-all? I hate the thought of banning anything without a strong rationale.

    1. “Blueberry Girl” is great! It’s been a long time since it’s been at the top of our bedtime reading list, and it’s probably time to bring it out again.

      There are only a few books that I’ve banned from my house, and usually it’s for racial insensitivity (such as in antiquated children’s books like Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo,” which I wrote about here:

      Like you, I prefer to give my children access to all kinds of books and toys (like Barbie), while talking to them about stereotypes and self-esteem.

  3. I agree completely; “concerned” parents shielding their boys from “girly” things really aid in giving them unrealistic expectations of us; the only exposure to women they get is in their teenage years on certain “websites”, and that’s the image that sticks. They’re taught to think that all things feminine are bad, and the boys that DO transcend the gender “fence” are demonized for it. A majority of our science “heroes” are men; very few people have even heard of Rosalind Franklin (who did most of the work for Crick and Watson), nor do they know that SHE discovered DNA for what we now know it to be. They also don’t know that a woman invented the theory that our universe is made of Hydrogen (but the editor who reviewed her research dismissed it, then 4 years later, used it as his OWN). It’s a sad thing, really.

    1. Yes, it’s very sad! Emphasizing differences between women and men makes little sense to me. There is nothing inherently feminine about the color pink or dolls or inherently masculine about trucks. It’s harmful to divide the world this way–we rank these traits and rebuke people who break these norms. It may be better for women who break these norms than for the men who do, but, to use your example, women in the sciences continue to struggle (for example, by not getting tenure). Why? Because there are far too many people who continue to believe, either explicitly or implicitly, that women don’t belong in a lab. It’s awful.

  4. Thanks for all of your well thought out observations.

    Another problem is that we value males over females. So it’s okay for girls to like boy things or for women to like men things. But boys and men better not like anything the least bit feminine. And that really closes off boys and men from half of their selves.

    1. So true. We differentiate between boys and girls and then prize everything associated with the boys. That’s why M’s peers applaud her for liking Batman, while few boys (if any) participate in the games associated with girls.

    1. Thanks! I hope there are enough buyers out there who don’t want stereotypical covers. I doubt publishers will get the message unless sales drop.

  5. There may be some change on the horizon. You’ve got the Bronies (guys who like the series My Little Ponies). But I agree there should be more focus on presenting both “girls” and “boys” books as just books—especially the good ones. I think it’s a difficult balance as there will always be gender differences, but instead of abhorring or forbidding them we should be embracing the differences. If “Sue” or whomever likes tea parties and pink and princesses and all the typical girl things, great. But if “Sue” likes baseball and superheroes and all the typical boy things, that’s fine too. Same for “Joe.”

    I may be in the minority, but I like that there are differences between men and women and what they like and don’t like. I like that there is a feminine and a masculine and I wouldn’t want to get rid of either and I wouldn’t place one over the other. Differences are meant to be complimentary, otherwise we’d all be boring, entirely the same, people. The issue is making sure we promote a culture of understanding and mutual respect for differences.

    1. I’m glad to hear that there’s change on the horizon! I’ve never heard of the Bronies before. I remember playing with My Little Ponies when I was a kid, though I much preferred Barbie (it didn’t stop me from developing my feminist mentality, though I am glad my daughters don’t want Barbies). I’m not so sure there will always be gender differences. There will always be differences between people (in what they like, how they behave, etc), but I don’t know if we’ll always ascribe those differences to one sex more than another.

      1. Hmmm, I guess I view masculinity and femininity differently. I don’t want guys to behave like girls anymore than I want girls to behave like guys. To clarify, I don’t think one is superior to the other. They’re complimentary. A yin and yang. I used to think I needed to prove myself and put off girlish stereotypes and show that girls were every bit as good as boys. But then I realized I was buying into what I perceive as a lie in the first place. If I truly believed I was equal, then I didn’t need to prove anything. So now I often wear pink on purpose and allow guys to treat me like a lady instead of just one of the dudes. Every situation isn’t ideal, obviously. But I’ve noticed since I’ve taken my femininity firmly, and displayed it proudly, not condescending to men, but equal to them with my own unique strengths I find that rarely do I encounter the chauvinist of yesteryear. It’s taught me also to better appreciate men, especially those who better embrace their masculinity. I think we’ve done men a disservice, almost tabooing them from being men. I don’t mean chauvinism, I mean their natural chivalry. I used to hate the opening doors, taking the heavy stuff, etc. But then I realized for most, it’s their way of showing respect. I especially learned that from my father, who never quite knew what to do with my feminist tendencies, poor guy. Glad he was patient with me. 😉

        But this is only my point of view, and I force it on no one. This is just how I view the sexes and I hope in that regard we always see the masculine and feminine. But I am eager to hear more on your own opinions if you would like to share them.

  6. Thought provoking as usual AMB. I’m trying to think back to when my children were growing up (one boy, one girl). I’m pretty sure they were left to pursue their own interests, whether it was books, activities, sports. In most cases they will go with their peers – boys will fight and play football, girls will choose not to do those things but they certainly have huge scope these days to do whatever they wish as they grow older.
    In response to Theo though it is vital that every child grows up with empathy for the opposite sex, and for those of their own that don’t conform with the general pattern. I honestly think we’ve made great strides in these areas in recent years.

    1. Thanks, Roy. I’ve already noticed how strong peer pressure is at my girls’ age, and I’m wondering if there will come a point when Maram will say, “I don’t want to play Batman anymore. That’s what boys do.” I already correct my girls when they start to make comments about “boys’ activities” and “girls’ activities,” and I know that this gendered view of the world comes from school and from TV. We’ve been able to reduce it a little by picking their shows (almost entirely in Spanish) and watching them on-demand (which allows us to bypass commercials for Barbie showing only girls playing with her!), but we can’t control it forever. I doubt I would be different if I were raising a boy, but I haven’t been given the opportunity to find out.

  7. I have raised sons. At first I picked out their books etc. We then picked them out together. Now I am afraid I have no control!!!! He is making good choices and for that I am proud of him.

  8. My niece and her friends love this book! 🙂 I agree..gender stereotyping is something we make, it isn’t some natural’s why we pick certain colors for boys vs. girls rooms etc.

    1. I’m glad to hear that your niece and her friends like Fancy Nancy! It’s a great series for children, and I hope boys aren’t missing out on it.

    1. Yes, Fancy Nancy says it all! Nancy loves anything that dazzles. Sadly, I think Fancy Lancey wouldn’t work for most boys. We have it stuck in our heads that boys aren’t supposed to be fancy!

      1. No, I was guessing not too. It sounds a little on the gay side, but there is nothing wrong with that if 10% of the population is indeed homosexual. A book like that might be great for small kids knowing they are different.

        1. Yeah, gender stereotypes are so closely tied with bias against LGBTQ individuals. I think some parents fear that reading “girly” books to their boys will somehow “make” them gay. First, even if true, I don’t think that’s something to fear, and second, I don’t think it really works that way. I haven’t had an opportunity to raise a boy, but I highly doubt it would be much different from how I’m raising my three girls.

  9. I completely agree! Fancy Nancy is a bit beyond us right now, but I’m so impressed with everything I’ve heard about her. It’s sad when people reject a great book choice for their kids due to stereotyping. I think it’s a lot easier to get girls to read “boy books” than it is to convince boys to read “girl books,” which is sad – good books are good books, period.

    Most of my Emily’s books are gender neutral, since she’s just a baby. But she has a few “boy” books – “Star Wars ABC” and “Star Wars 123” and “Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site” – and we love them. I hope that she’ll never reject a book because she thinks it’s “for boys” and if she ever has a little brother, I’m going to do my darndest to make sure he never rejects a book because it’s “for girls.”

    1. The Star Wars books and “Goodnight Construction Site” sound great! Most of the books we read to Zayla are gender neutral, too (I guess Harold and the Purple Crayon was written before purple became a “girls” color? These days, his crayon would probably be blue or green!). I hope you had a lovely Mothers’ Day!

    1. Wow, that is a disgusting show. It’s concerning that someone would create it, and that both men and women would participate in it (though, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, considering how women’s bodies are judged in Hollywood and in the modeling industry; men are judged, too, but by different standards). Thanks for stopping by and for commenting!

  10. You nailed the problem right there: girls are allowed to play with “boy toys” because boy toys are awesome. Boys still can’t play with girl toys* because girl toys are inferior, not good enough for the boys. Same goes for books, though I never looked at it that way. We shouldn’t have to re-package our stories in a “masculine” way if we want male readers to pick them up, any more than the DaVinci code needed swooning ladies and pretty flowers on the cover for my mom and aunt to go nuts over it. It didn’t need that, and I don’t see why that acceptance can’t go both ways.

    *Well, they can and do in my house, but in general. 🙂

    1. It’s nice to hear from other parents who are actively rooting out gender stereotypes in their homes. So, thank you! There really isn’t any reason that we should re-package our books, movies, toys, or any other product to appeal to one sex. It’s ridiculous and sends such a harmful message.

  11. Unfortunately, the gender divide continues. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen stories about parents who get after their male children for “acting girly.” (Parents don’t often jump on their daughters for acting like tomboys; what’s up with that?) If it’s not the parents, it’s others. Recently, there was an article about a young boy, about five, that wanted to wear ballet slippers to school. Mom supported his choice. The people they ran into did not, feeling they had to say something about it.

    I think everything has to change “of a piece.” LGBT people must be given equal rights; people have to learn to accept the wide range of sexuality humans are capable of; parents have to let their kids be who they want to be as they grow up. It’s slow-going, and some days I have my doubts it’s ever going to happen, but my fingers are crossed.

    1. You raise an interesting and distressing double standard. There are those who applaud girls for emulating the more “esteemed” sex, while ridiculing boys for acting like the supposedly “lesser” sex. It’s awful, and it shows the connection between gender stereotypes and homophobia. I have my fingers crossed, too, for equality under the law sooner rather than later.

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