Are Teen Girls Seeing Themselves Reflected in What They Read?

Back in March, Kelly at Stacked wrote a blog post about why it’s important to talk about girls reading. I read this and it unsettled me. Instantly I began wondering if I’m doing enough for the girls in my classroom. If I’m focusing too much on the boys and their reading. If I’m reading enough books that will resonate with all of my girls. I’m thankful that I read Kelly’s post because while I know that I truly am thinking about ALL of my students while I read and when I make reading choices, I realized that maybe I need to be a little more focused.

Something that Kelly pointed out that I hadn’t really thought about before is the large amount of attention we pay to our boy readers. Educators are rightfully concerned about their reading abilities and their (general) lack of interest in reading. I have an entire blog page devoted to Books Guys Dig. I’ve written posts about books that hook my boy readers. When I choose a read aloud, I choose something gender neutral. Is this wrong? No. But her post made me realize that we don’t appear to be focusing this much attention on the girls in our classroom.

I sent Kelly an email after reading her post thanking her for bringing this to my attention. It ended up turning into a lengthy stream of emails as we discussed our thoughts on the issue. Eventually I decided that I should poll the girls in my classroom to find out what they think about reading, themselves in terms of reading, gender, etc. Kelly and I constructed a survey with six questions for my girls to answer.

A couple notes about the survey and what my girls said. First, I have mostly seniors, so that’s where the majority of these responses are coming from. Second, the required reading material in our curriculum offers little to no choice and sticks primarily with the classics.

I’m going to have each question in bold and a sampling of their responses will follow each question. I’m not including all of their responses to all of the questions because this post would never be finished.

1. What book(s) have you seen yourself in? Why?

  • “I am currently reading Insurgent and can see myself in the main character Tris because as she goes into her new faction, she separates from her family and all she knows. She is excited and terrified by this, as I am about going to college.”
  • Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant–Tris reminds me of myself because I feel like I’m different from a lot of people and wouldn’t be categorized into one section.”
  • “Hunger Games because Katniss likes to be independent and do things herself and that’s how I am.”
  • Something Like Fate–same situation & Pivot Point–has an indecisive feel to it and that’s how I am.”
  • “I see myself in books where the girl is troubled and questioning the things around her.”
  • “I’ve never really seen myself in a book because when I read it’s to get away from where I am or what’s going on.”
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory–similar home life w/dad.”
  • Forever–she is in love and really cares but in the end it’s realistic. She doesn’t end up with him and her life moves on. & To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before–caring about someone so much yet they have no clue.”
  • “I could relate to Breathing Underwater because I have known people in that situation.”
  • “I really connected to Perks of Being a Wallflower because it was about the awkwardness of high school. I also related a lot to Pattyn in Burned because I like how she feels her life is valuable and she can do more than people think. Also Alaska because she’s bad*ss! (Looking for Alaska)”
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s a coming of age story and the main character finds himself. I have really come into myself this year.”
  • Beautiful Disaster–a girl trying to come out of her shell, falls for the bad boy.”
  • Beautiful by Amy Reed–not to this extreme but I have changed myself because I wanted to fit in.”
  • If I Lie by Corrine Jackson. I only really saw myself similar to the character because she was in a relationship with a marine that was going through boot camp like my boyfriend was doing at the same time I was reading it.”
  • “All of Miranda Kenneally’s books relate to me because her girl characters seem to act/like the things I do.”
  • Rival. It’s about teenage girls and their drama. There’s always drama in girls’ lives.”
  • “I read Bittersweet and I saw myself in her because she was trying to figure out her life.”
  • “I like upbeat, positive novels as well as romance novels. One of my favorites was The Fault in Our Stars. Even in a sad situation, I thought it was a happy story line.”
  • “I’ve seen myself in Reality Boy because I have a sibling that I absolutely can’t stand.”
  • “There have been quite a few Sarah Dessen books that I have strongly related to and see myself in the girls’ shoes and even them in mine.”
  • “Uninvited, a couple characters in Ellen Hopkins’ books, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, the Uglies, The Book Thief. I feel connected due to the outcasted and imaginative feel.”

2. In which book(s) haven’t you seen yourself? What was missing?

  • Hush, Hush because I thought the main character Nora acted stupid at times and seemed oblivious to the danger she put herself in. She was too much of a damsel in distress.”
  • “I really see myself in most books I read, other than the ones I read at school. They never pull me in enough.”
  • “Books I haven’t seen myself in are books that are all love story or books that have lots of dramatic, cliquey girls. I try not to get involved with that stuff so I don’t relate to them at all.”
  • “I tend not to see myself in books where the girl is having the perfect life with lots of friends and does whatever she wants.”
  • Mortal Instruments–Clary seemed to need Jace to survive. I would prefer her to be able to be alone.”
  • Thin Space–it was cool but wasn’t something I would see myself doing or even being real.”
  • Across the Universe, that book is just not a book you can relate to. I’ve never been in a situation like that and the character doesn’t show teenage thoughts.”
  • “I didn’t connect to Bella from Twilight because I wouldn’t sacrifice so much for one guy, love the books though. Also I don’t relate to sports books in general cause I hate sports.”
  • Beautiful by Amy Reed. It was a good book but I lost the sense of self with the main character. She really didn’t know who she was.”
  • Love & Leftovers by Sarah Tregay–She was kind of two-faced when it came to her guys.”
  • “The books we read in school. I really don’t think anybody can relate to them, making them boring for us to read (or leading us not to read them at all).”
  • I read While He Was Away and could not relate at all to the girl or her situation. The character was missing any interesting feelings. It was boring for me.”
  • “I can’t relate to books that are sci-fi or fantasy because I don’t like the unrealistic factor in it.”
  • “In any books that aren’t from a girl’s point of view I haven’t really seen myself.”
  • “I don’t like dark plot lines. I tried reading The Hunger Games but couldn’t get into it. I don’t like action novels.”
  • “In Sweethearts, I didn’t see myself because the main character changed herself for the people around her.”

3. What do you like to see in girl characters? Please explain and provide examples if possible.

  • “Strength (mental & physical), different sexuality (the battle of it), strong willed, loving, can take care of themselves, loyal, stubborn”
  • “I like to see well-rounded girl characters: Tris in Divergent, Hazel in TFiOS, Alaska in Looking for Alaska.”
  • “In girl characters I like to see them falling in love because I enjoy reading about that. Or about girls breaking out of their shell because it’s kinda like me.”
  • “I like girl characters who are independent and strong. I like when the girls are intelligent and always thinking of the possibilities ahead.”
  • “I like to see a sense of independence and outgoing girls. I want to see girls that have gone above male stereotypes and made something of themselves.”
  • “Girls who are tough and can handle being by themselves. I Am Number Four–all the females can handle being alone. Actually they are really the ones who take control.”
  • “I like to see girl characters that can hold their ground and be equal to men.”
  • “I like them to be independent and hard working. They make things happen for themselves without much help. It’s motivating to read about that.”
  • “I like when girls are less popular or attractive yet still accomplish what they put their minds to.”
  • “More down to earth love stories.”
  • “I like unsure girls with new experiences. The Embrace series & The Catastrophic History of You and Me
  • “I really like love stories, so I like to see a girl character that can change a boy’s life for the better or vice versa.”
  • “I like characters that are sporty but romantic or live life on the line like Whitley in A Midsummer’s Nightmare. I can relate to these characters or relate them to people I know.”
  • “I like to see girl characters that are independent and strong. Girls that are more interested in sports or nature rather than the normal girly things.”
  • “Girls who are carefree or romantic and not too emotional.”
  • “I like to see girly girls but can be tough when they need to be.”
  • “I like seeing strong independent girls. Sometimes it’s okay to be ‘rescued’ but sometimes it’s nice to have a character that takes charge and can fend for herself. Times have changed so it’s nice to see how women are becoming more confident in themselves.”
  • “Girls that are in love or were in love and they solve their personal or internal issues on their own.”
  • “I like to see sassy, independent and smart female characters. I like the girls in the Vampire Diaries.”

4. What kind(s) of girls would you love to see in the books you’re reading that you haven’t seen before? Please be as specific as possible.

  • “I would like to see girls do martial arts or swordplay. I think those are things I haven’t see girls do in books.”
  • “Most books I’ve read have that strong female lead, right next to the male lead. Honestly, I want to read more books about a soft sensitive boy that’s searching for love instead of the female.”
  • “Girls that have no need for someone to constantly rescue them and maybe are constantly rescuing someone else.”
  • “I want to see girls who are techy and are journalists. I’ve never read a book about them. Same with girls who go away to college, including the process of getting into college.”
  • “Girls that aren’t dramatic and don’t worry so much about guys because books like that get on my nerves.”
  • “I would love to read a book where the girl is really into music. I feel like there aren’t enough stories where the girl likes to make music, listen to music, etc.”
  • “I would like to see a girl who takes it upon herself to protect others, like Katniss, but without a love interest/triangle thing. Preferably in a dystopian government setting.”
  • “I would love to see girl characters that are maybe more outspoken & fiery instead of the typical quiet but intelligent character I constantly see.”
  • “I want to see girls not always having a male base in their life.”
  • “Ones that don’t take people’s crap yet is still a loving and kind person deep down. The type that truly doesn’t care but deep down has a lot of love to give and get.”
  • “I wanna see girls that aren’t ‘strong’ like every girl character is nowadays. Not every girl is strong. I wanna see girls that have weaknesses or need a man. Real girls.”
  • “I would like to see female athletes in books because there are more female sports players now-a-days. I think this might allow us to relate to them and possibly be hooked on that book.”
  • “I love sporty outgoing girls (like me). I like the girls with conflicts with relationships because I enjoy seeing how people solve their problems.”
  • “Girls that are more down to earth or maybe more athletic.”
  • “I would love to see a girl that is more adventurous than normal. It would be cool to see a female character that has more power over a male as well.”
  • “Funny girls that tell it the way it is to other characters.”
  • “A shy girl who learns how to break out of her shell.”
  • “I feel like sometimes girls are always portrayed as not a ‘nice’ character or something is wrong with them. So I think just having a ‘normal’ girl character in a book would be nice.”
  • “I would like to see maybe Gypsie girls or Native American books with women in them, or possibly mermaids.”
  • “More sporty girls. Like not cheerleading, but like basketball or track and field.”

5. Have you seen yourself in any books that are required reading for school? If so, which book(s)? For which class did you read the book?

**Overwhelmingly I received various types of the answer “No” to this question.”**

  • “I don’t know. I think I could have seen myself in the girl that died in Fahrenheit 451. I read that for Lit & Comp I Honors.”
  • “Maybe The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I read them for English class.”
  • “In The Stranger I felt a connection with him because I share some of the same views on life.”
  • “There have been books I’ve seen myself in, in small ways, but I can’t remember what they were.”
  • “I guess that I could kind of relate to the book Siddhartha that we read for LC3 because it focuses on the idea of him basically finding himself which I could relate to.”
  • “I think I see myself in The Great Gatsby, in both Daisy and Gatsby.”
  • “I liked Siddhartha (lit junior year). I felt he really followed his dreams and learned from his mistakes.”
  • “No, usually the books we read at school don’t relate to high schoolers.”
  • “No, they’re all older books and are not really targeted towards girls.”
  • “Not really. I normally don’t like the books we are required to read.”
  • “Nope, we mostly read books that focus on boys.”

6. Have you read any assigned books that are written by a female author or that features a female that sticks out to you? Please explain and provide examples.

**Overwhelmingly I received various types of the answer “No” to this question.**

  • The Scarlet Letter and To  Kill a Mockingbird. Both have a strong female lead who’s life has been shakened and they stick through and survive.”
  • “I don’t think I have. Most assigned books are written by guys, I think.”
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee with Scout. She was young but adventurous and strong in her beliefs.”
  • “Lady Macbeth really sticks out in my mind. She was a power hungry woman doing anything and everything to get what she wanted.”
  • “I’m not sure I’ve read any with a female author…”
  • “Many of the novels I have been assigned feature a male rather than a female, and the author is more commonly a male.”
  • “Not really. I don’t like almost any school assigned books. I’m probably one of the only girls that hates Romeo & Juliet.”
  • “Honestly, I cannot think of a good assigned reading book written by a girl or about a girl. The only book I can think of with a large girl character is Romeo & Juliet. And Juliet was a manipulable character.”

Comments

  1. It is neat to see how they responded, I wish educators would listen about their required readings . Thanks for sharing.
    Dkistner

    • Mrs. Andersen says:

      I hope educators will listen to students more as well. There’s such a variety of both classics and YA with strong female characters that we could/should expose our students to.

  2. Man I would have loved to do this with my students when I taught. Some of my favorite memories are when I would just sit and chat with them about what they were reading. Thank you so much for this.

    • Mrs. Andersen says:

      I’m really thankful that I did this. I look forward to talking to my students about the books they’re reading and learning from them every day.

  3. Sigh. Another blog post slamming the classics based on the idea the students can’t connect with the characters. Perhaps if teachers genuinely tried to show the timelessness of the characters and issues in the classics when they teach, students could see the value. Many of the books listed in your survey as relatable could be paired with something you’ve listed as not interesting. However, the polarizing way this has been present will just be fodder for the choice only advocates. When teachers recognize a combination of classics and new material will serve the needs of students is when students will really be learning how to be literate in class. The options shouldn’t be limited to one or the other.

    • I think you missed the point. It’s not about slamming the classics. Rather, the questions asked whether girls had seen themselves in the reading assigned in school (classics or not). No where does it suggest getting rid of the classics. Instead, the sorts of responses indicate perhaps it’s worth reexamining curriculum in such a manner that looks at classics that are being used and builds from that — more classics written by women or pairing classics with modern stories. In other words, exactly what you just said in your comment is what the takeaway should be: “When teachers recognize a combination of classics and new material will serve the needs of students is when students will really be learning how to be literate in class.”

      • It sounds like you and I are on the same page. However, too much of the time, the takeaway for too many teachers from this type of survey isn’t what both of us stated. Instead, the YA-only proponents jump on the idea that current students can’t relate to classics, and classics-only advocates feel attacked and refuse to consider YA. Too many teachers I know seem to see this as an all-or-nothing issue. For me, the read flag in this post is the “**Overwhelmingly I received various types of the answer “No” to this question.**” I discussed this post with a colleague this morning who believes the result support the idea that YA-only is the way to go. I know she’s not alone.

        • Mrs. Andersen says:

          Many of my blog readers, Twitter followers, and NCTE colleagues know that I worked extremely hard to bring balance to the curriculum in my former district. After years of work, I was able to work with my department to find ways to offer choice and find ways to pair the classics with YA. I’m in a new district this year and am working with my administration and department to help us find ways to do this here as well. That’s why I stated in the beginning of the post that we primarily stick to the classics because I have posted about my work at my former district in past posts.

          It wasn’t my intention to “raise a red flag” when I stated the amount of “no’s” I received. If it does “raise a red flag” then it should be discussed here and amongst teachers and their departments.

          • I apologize if this seemed like a personal attack. I brought my personal experience into this discussion, which includes a middle school that includes eighth grade teachers who tell their students assigned reading is worthless and all classics are boring. Those students then move to a high school with a classics-heavy curriculum, and some teachers who refuse to recognize YA as valid. Those of us who try to bridge the gap definitely feel the challenge. I believe that both YA and the classics offer readers something important, and I am frustrated by others’ inability to bend. I still see the read flag in that note, because the middle school teachers would be loudly proclaiming your survey was more evidence that classics are a waste of time. Thank you for explaining your ideas in greater detail for me.

        • I guess I’m late to the party, but I just wanted to add that I think one of the issues was really that none of the girls could relate to the classics they were reading in class as a result of only reading male authors. There are a ton of female authors educators could choose from – Austen, the Brontës, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, H.D., but teachers tend to stick with male authors who have been on the curriculum and pass over equally talented female writers from the past.

          • Mrs. Andersen says:

            I’m glad you made this comment because that’s really what I was hoping would be a big takeaway from this survey. They’re not seeing themselves reflected enough in what they read in school. They’re seeing themselves in many of the books they choose to read for SSR, but not really in what we require them to read. This could be an argument for choice, more YA, and more classics written by women.

      • I agree with Kelly. Sarah is asking us to consider assigned reading. Whether it is a classic or not is not the issue here. Even Sarah mentioned at the beginning of this post that she’s been spending all this time worrying about her boy readers, to the point where even her read aloud choices reflect that. So what does that mean for our girls? This isn’t a classic vs. YA issue, though I’d certainly be happy to have that debate when the discussion pertains to that topic.

  4. I love that you wrote this piece. I teach at risk middle schoolers. Even though they are strategic, they are looking for the same thing. Girls want strong characters who aren’t perfect, but the also want to experience through these characters. They want to feel the “falling in love,” “heartbreak”, “mixed emotions”, “confusion and trepidation”. I thought about this when I wrote my first book, “This Girl Climbs Trees”. Growing up isn’t easy, and I think girls in particular want to read about characters they can relate to. On the other hand, I’ve found the boys want the ideal – the hero, the genius, the code cracker. However, they also want a little romance.
    Thanks for the piece!

    • Mrs. Andersen says:

      Exactly! They want to see pieces of themselves represented in what they read and they also want to see girls who they can look up to and learn from.

      • Yep. As a teacher, mom, and English Lit major, I’d also add that I think it’s important to continue reading the classics. I think we as a race, as readers, need some collective literature conscience to draw from and relate to. When will kids read Shakespeare if not in school? Bottom line – we need to mix it up. We need to seek balance. More than anything, we must invest in creating and continuing a love for reading in young people.

        This is an important conversation to keep going.

        Thanks to everyone for spending a minute here and talking with other kids and educators!

  5. I would love to see Octavia Butler added to more school reading lists. I found her quite by accident when I was young and working in a bookstore, and she was an inspiration to me. She was a black, female, hardcore science fiction writer in a field traditionally dominated by old white men, and if you need more strong female writers to worship, she would be at the top of my list (I am just so sorry she passed away, too soon).

    I would have a hard time picking out which is my favourite series of hers, the Parable series or the Lilith’s Brood series. In the first, the lead character is a young black girl in a near-future American banana republic, founding a new religion where she believes man’s destiny is to go to the stars. In the second, a woman named Lilith finds herself the proverbial mother of humanity’s next evolutionary step. Grade A work, both of them, and so too are many of her other single pieces such as Survivor and Kindred.

    Robert Sawyer is another author I would recommend. He’s a guy, but he writes a lot of interesting parts for women in his books. Students might actually identify well with Wake, which is about a highschool girl who accidentally discovers a conscious AI developing in the worldwide web.

    I could go on and on, listing books with interesting female characters, from Jean Auel, John Irving, Anne McCaffrey, Jacqueline Carey, even George RR Martin. There’s lots of good ones out there! They’re just… well buried, many of them.

  6. This is a fascinating read! As a writer, it does my heart good to see that female readers are looking for so many different things. I wish I could make personal book recommendations for your students! There are some wonderful books out there that don’t get as much attention and would totally satisfy your students!

    Thanks for sharing your findings!

  7. What an absolutely fabulous post and conversation! ~Sheri

  8. This is truly interesting. Thank you for taking the time to post these results.

  9. I love this! Listening to students, asking them what they think and letting them share their opinions is so great. Thanks for sharing!

  10. As a high school librarian, I have enjoyed watching this discussion unfold. It is always a challenge to get the book in the hands of my students that will “hook” them. We often don’t know what will click!

  11. High-five to the girl who loves mermaid stories! :-D I could recommend Lost Voices, by Sarah Porter — it’s the first in a trilogy (I haven’t read the other two yet), and I see it as partly a twist on Peter Pan, as well as a fascinating explanation of how/why mermaids exist. I also love that the book focuses on friendships between girls whose concerns — at least for most of them — don’t involve crushes on boys. A Bechdel Test winner, for sure!

    I also very highly recommend Katya’s World, by Johnathan L. Howard (the mermaid connection is that it takes place on an all-water planet called Rusalka — named after the mermaids of Russian folklore). It’s the first YA I’ve read, as far as I can remember, with no romantic subplot whatsoever. Perhaps even better — the book doesn’t make gender an issue. When certain characters doubt Katya’s abilities, it has nothing to do with her being female — rather, it’s because of her age. And of course she constantly proves them wrong.

    Both books have complex, relatable characters; even the antagonists (except maybe Anais in Lost Voices) are shown as complex individuals instead of through-and-through villains.

  12. I did. I read Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. I identified with both. I read numerous books with strong female characters (still do). I was lucky to have English teachers throughout school who made sure we read diverse lit. I forgot I kept the journal. I love that you’ve reminded me. Today, kids have Instagram, Twitter and even Goodreads to keep track. Awesome!

Trackbacks

  1. […] reading Mrs. Andersen’s blog post Are Teen Girls Seeing Themselves Reflected in What They Read?  it really made me think back to my time in high school.  While in high school I never really […]

  2. […] wish I’d kept a book diary when I was younger so I could compare it to this (very limited) survey of female teen readers, which asks if they’re seeing themselves reflected in what they read (via @RebeccaSchinsky). […]

  3. […] Teacher surveys female students: do they see themselves in what they read?  […]

  4. […] These books are products of their times, of course. But in a recent survey educator Sarah Andersen conducted with her high school girls, she found teen girls aren’t seeing themselves and aren’t connecting with the books that they&#8217…. […]

  5. […] These books are products of their times, of course. But in a recent survey educator Sarah Andersen conducted with her high school girls, she found teen girls aren’t seeing themselves and aren’t connecting with the books that they&#8217…. […]

  6. […] in April I posted the survey results about whether my girls see themselves in what they’re reading. One of the questions I asked them is what they’d love to see in the books they’re […]

  7. […] Sarah did a survey to see if her female students in class were finding themselves in the books they read. The results showed that many of her students want to read books with strong independent female protagonists. They want to see girls playing sports. They want to see girls not relying on guys all the time. But many also want love stories. They are diverse readers and want diverse stories that appeal to them. This made us think about our readers as a whole. […]

  8. […] “Are Teen Girls Seeing Themselves Reflected in What They Read?” from YA Love […]

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