There’s been a lot of discussion of Scholastic Books’ How to Survive series, books that are labeled “Boys Only” or “Girls Only,” and that purport to teach kids of each gender how to navigate events ranging from being cursed with a brother to a zombie attack. It’s been slammed as sexist, because the boys’ book is ovewhelmingly stacked with chapters that involve adventuresome situations—the sudden appearance of a T. Rex, space travel—while the book aimed at girls deals more with emotional situations. It’s certainly unfair to treat girls as solely domestic creatures who would take a backseat in disaster while boys save them. But the books does a disservice to boys, too, by assuming they don’t face the same sorts of challenges that girls do in finding their places at school and at home.
We’ve spent a lot of pop culture energy telling girls that they can be strong as well as sensitive, that femininity can be a powerful force in the world as well as a way of governing the domestic sphere. But we’ve done much less to let boys know that it’s not unmanly for them to be emotional or sensitive, and to create modes of pop culture masculinity that help boys navigate the disparities between what they’re told they’re supposed to be and what they actually feel.
Scholastic’s books may reinforce old stereotypes about boys being adventurers while girls are focused on their interior lives. But the kinds of advice it advertises as on offer to girls is much more immediately applicable than the scenarios it sets up for boys. “How to Survive a Broken Leg,” “How to Survive in a Forest,” and “How to Survive a Fall” are among the few things that boys might actually be able to use from these books.” It’s not like there aren’t boys out there who couldn’t use “How to Survive Shyness” or “How to Survive a Crush,” and we’d be better off if entries like that appeared in a matter-of-fact way on the boys’ list as well as the girls’ list, and were written to be gender-neutral.
In contrast to the boys who are getting trained up for a science fictional future, girls are getting advice on scenarios they’re likely to face today, from “How to Survive Soccer Tryouts,” to “How to Survive a BFF Fight.” Obviously some of the advice and topics are basic and condescending. But we should be delighted, in an environment where we often talk about women needing to pitch more stories to magazines, ask for raises like their male colleagues, and seek out leadership positions, that girls are getting instructions on “How to Turn a No Into a Yes,” and “Top Tips for Speechmaking.” It’s nice to know that Scholastic thinks that both boys and girls need to figure out how to survive a zombie apocalypse, the one item that overlaps on both lists. But until that grim day arrives, Scholastic is doing much more to treat girls like they’re whole people and to prepare them for real-world success.