I'm standing stock-still in the children's picture book section of the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble, facing a decision rife with anxiety and laden with import. Will it be Madeline, or will it be Make Way For Ducklings? Let's back up.
My family has been procreating at an alarming rate recently, and I was there to choose two books (my traditional Yay, You're Pregnant! gift) for my cousin and his wife. Unlike the majority of my friends who've gone through this particular rite of passage of late, they aren't going to find out the sex of the baby ahead of time, and so I went to the store intending to purchase a couple of classic picture books.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, one of the best books of all time, was sitting on a display table up front. One book down, one to go.
In The Night Kitchen is a favorite of mine, both since I loved it so much as a child, and since I plan to teach as many children as possible to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch in as horridly messy a fashion as possible. But they didn't have it in stock, and I was due at dinner---in Brooklyn---in two hours. I desperately scanned the shelves for Babar, but they only had a couple of the later books from the series, and I couldn't give this kid a sequel without the original. And then there's the Velveteen Rabbit, but the edition on offer was cheesy and unworthy of the tragedy held within. Plus, do I really want to be the one who makes the baby cry real tears for the first time? No. No, I do not.
They did have Make Way For Ducklings, which I understand is a seriously famous children's book, but I have no emotional connection to it whatsoever. And unfamiliarity doesn't seem right for the very first gift I'll ever bestow upon this new human being. But it was pretty, it was hardcover, and it wasn't spotted with drool or spitup, which, frankly, made it a rare find.
And then, I spotted it: yellow spine, Belemans' distinctive brush stroke font, and twelve little girls in two straight lines. Madeline.
But wait, I thought: what if this baby turns out to be a boy? And then I died a little inside. Because, honestly, it pisses me the hell off that the notion of gender neutral books even occurred to me. What makes a book gendered? When it features a female protagonist?
Well, yeah. In our culture, it does. I grew up reading books about boys and girls, romances and sci fi, Gone With The Wind and Star Trek novels (oh yes), but the vast majority of the books my brother read (with The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle being a rare exception) were about boys and "boy" things.
And this is a pattern that continues into adulthood. Women gladly read books with male protagonists, but the reverse---especially if the book is written by a female novelist---is rare. Just last week, I was at my high school reunion. Dan Brown---who graduated 25 years before I did---gave a little talk, and one of the questions he got from the audience was whether he had any advice for a woman looking to write a mainstream (read: not romance) novel about a female protagonist. His response? That the success of his Robert Langdon novels with women prove that people will buy books featuring heroes of the opposite gender.
My high school prides itself on teaching critical thinking skills, but methinks they let Dan down that day. After all, male is the neutral gender in our culture. Large numbers of women buying books about men is nothing to write home about---the reverse, though---that would be remarkable.
All of this flashes through my mind in an instant, in the way that only righteous indignation can, and I spin on my heel, jog up to the cash register and pay---proudly---for Madeline and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs before I lose my nerve. And I'm kind of hoping it's a boy, if only for the opportunity to buy him the Little House series when he's ready for chapter books.