Yesterday, I talked about how I’d misread Georges’ gender in the opening pages of Rebecca Stead’s forth-coming novel, LIAR AND SPY. Georges is a first person narrator who doesn’t reveal his name until page 6, so I assumed he was a girl based on my assumptions about how a typical girl or guy would act or speak.
I mentioned yesterday that I’d made up a written quiz to see if kids saw things the same way I did.
I recognize that the most accurate test would have been to have the kids each read the first six pages of the novel and tell me if they thought the speaker was a boy or girl, but we didn’t have a lot of time.
So here are the quiz results.
I gave my team of 5th and 6th graders the quote from page 1, “One person in the room is going to learn his or her own personal fate: true love or tragic death,” and asked whether they thought a guy or girl said it.
Answer: Ten of twelve said girl.
OK, so I wasn’t completely nuts.
I asked who would high five a female gym teacher.
Answer: Eleven of twelve said girl.
So I was two for two.
However, when I asked about whether a mom would push her son or daughter to smile, both boys and girls said son. There must be a lot of frowny boys around.
It wasn’t just Georges’ actions that threw me, but the language he used. His voice isn’t strongly masculine.
Here’s an example of a very masculine voice. This is the first line from PLAYGROUND, by 50 Cent:
“Don’t call me that.”
The voice is unequivocal, and whether it is a boy or girl talking, that character is ready to fight back.
Compare this to the first line in LIAR AND SPY:
“There’s this totally false map of the human tongue.”
The line is intriguing and quirky. As a reader I want to know more. But the narrator feels gender neutral.
Now, if the narrator had said, “There’s this totally bogus map of the human tongue,” I would have thought a male was speaking, because “bogus” is more forceful compared to “false” which feels more measured or objective.
Back to LIAR AND SPY.
Page 3. “In the morning, the cafeteria smells fried and sweet, like fish sticks and cookies. But after lunch, it’s different. There’s more kid sweat and garbage mixed in, I guess. Or maybe it’s just that, after lunch, the cafeteria doesn’t have the smell of things to come. It’s the smell of what has been.”
There’s a dreamlike quality, a tenderness, or vulnerability to the last line that made me think girl.
My young quiz-takers were evenly split. Half said girl, half said guy.
I also threw a question in the quiz about a passage I’d a read a few weeks ago in another novel where a 7th grade girl commented to a boy that another boy was an “a–hole.” It struck me, because she wasn’t the victim in the scene, and that’s pretty strong language for a girl. It didn’t feel true to me.
What I learned was that my quiz-takers felt that either a boy or girl would call a boy a harmless name like “turd,” but they unanimously agreed that only a boy would call another boy an “a–hole.”
I can’t claim that these results are scientific or statistically valid, but I was glad to find out that I wasn’t alone in how I interpreted Georges’ words, actions, and gender.
Tomorrow: How friendships reveal a character’s gender