NR Digital

Athwart

Snips and Snails and Oppressive Tales

by James Lileks

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, unless it’s pink and sparkly. Then it’s marketed at girls, and we can’t have that. They should be reading Chilton’s car-repair manuals. But not the one whose cover indicates it’s aimed at boys, because that’s just as bad. This, apparently, is the new policy of the book-review editor of the British newspaper the Independent:

I promise now that the newspaper and this website will not be reviewing any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys. Nor will The Independent’s books section. And nor will the children’s books blog at Independent.co.uk. Any Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses that crosses my desk will go straight into the recycling pile along with every Great Big Book of Snot for Boys.

The problem? Such books are gendered, a prerogative term applied to things that don’t realize children are nebulous blobs of brain goo who are warped by a heteronormative society to adopt “girl” or “boy” traits. Left alone and shielded from the psychic emanations of the Great Penis in the Sky, girls would play with dump trucks and boys would put on tiaras and totter around in heels. Well. I can only speak from firsthand experience, but my daughter was not given Barbies or princess books or anything like that, mostly because I find them inane at best, and a whitewashing of the realities of the feudal system at worst. Yet she wanted them.

Me: Don’t you realize that princesses did not lead idyllic lives in magical castles with birds braiding their hair, but were part of a crushing, rigid caste system? They were mere pawns to be married off to some gouty brute who got his title because his father stabbed the king in his privy. I won’t buy it.

Daughter: [sad look]

Me: Oh, all right.

As for the books she read, there were series aimed at girls. They all looked alike. Juniper Junie’s Mystery Adventure Bus (432 books) or Molly McMinifer and the Puppy Pound Detective Crew (3,264 books) or something like that. She gravitated to an interminable series of books about cats at war with other cats. They formed clans. You know, as cats are wont to do. There were dozens of YouTube channels devoted to fan art and animation, all of them run by other girls.

“Did you know any boys who read the series?” I asked her the other day.

[eye roll/shoulder shrug] “No. Not any.”

Why? Perhaps because the covers had a cat face, and boys prefer pirates or soldiers, if such things are permitted on a book jacket these days. Now, if the cat was a boy who turned into a cat to be a secret agent in Star Wars, then we’re talking.

When I was a kid, I read Tom Swift novels. They were all the same. Tom Swift and His Atomic Repellator. Tom Swift and His Ionic Masticator. Tom Swift and His Hydraulic Depilator. One of my favorite covers had Tom driving a levitating machine over the jungle, incinerating forests and laying down highways. At the time this was seen as progress, but nowadays it’s like seeing the Boy Genius vaporizing polar-bear cubs with his Levitating Floe-Melter.

In each book Tom and his sidekick Bud, along with their Slim Pickens–type cook Cookie, would fight off nefarious agents who wanted to steal Tom’s invention. (There was a volume called Tom Swift and His Patent Attorney, but it was the least successful of the series.) In each book Tom and Bud are hit hard on the head and lose consciousness. Tom sustained more concussions than Muhammad Ali but got brighter and smarter as the books went on. You wondered whether he ever got stumped for a new invention while sitting in his Flying Laboratory and asked Bud to hit him on the head with that wrench over there on the table. You know, the Percussive Inspirer.

These were boys’ books, just as the Hardy Boys were boys’ books, and Nancy Drew was a girls’ series. It would have been nice if there had been a series of scientific-fiction books for girls — although you suspect that Tomasina Swift would not be paving the Amazon but finding ways to protect endangered species.

Why? Why couldn’t she be a paid agent of the government, determined to open up the interior to logging and grazing? Why couldn’t she be blind to anything but the fascinating problem of making the asphalt ribbon adapt to the tropical climate without melting? Don’t tell me it’s because girls care about the planet and its creatures more than boys, who just want to bend nature to their will, preferably while standing on a hill, observing the toil of the armies, arms akimbo, laughing.

That would suggest there’s something innate, that there are differences between men and women. Which, I know, is ridiculous. Remember that female Marine in the second Alien movie? Tougher than any guy. Case closed.

In the perfect world soon to come, boys and girls will be raised without any reference to gender whatsoever, but in this fallen, benighted dystopia in which we still struggle, some boys are still interested in disgusting stuff. How to Light Snot on Fire and Blow Things Up in Space would be a best-seller. But the Independent wouldn’t recognize its existence, and disapproves of the very idea that such things are produced. They’re not helpful.

It’s necessary for boys to read books that understand what it means to be a boy. To which the Independent’s book editor might say with impatience: No idea what you mean by that.

No. Didn’t think you would.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

Send a letter to the editor.

Get the NR Magazine App
iPad/iPhone   |   Android