As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
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March 5, 2011

Crossing the Great Divide: Appealing to Men and Women

Art by Charlie Pulsipher

By Charlie Pulsipher, Blogger at

I resisted reading Harry Potter for years while the world around me buzzed with excitement over the little wizard. Then I heard my young nieces and nephews talking about the books, whispering about their favorite characters in corners or arguing loudly about why Ron didn’t deserve Hermione. I watched them lug the huge hardbacks around with them, stealing chances to read after finishing chores. I saw my brothers and sisters pick up those same books and lose themselves for hours, sometimes days.

Something finally clicked and I decided that any story that got the youth of our world to read such thick, pictureless books, deserved my attention. I read the first three in four days.

At the time I worked on my own novel, loosely outlining it and hammering out characters. This made me deeply interested in what appeals to large audiences. Even without knowing exactly what in Harry Potter worked, my novel began to morph and change in my head. I will share what I have learned, guessed, and hoped to know to help you find those books that will become a part of you, that your spouse will pick up and read, that your children will discuss with you at the dinner table without much rolling of eyes.

I will be making some generalizations. I know they don’t apply 100% of the time. Even I do not fit snugly into the typical man box as I garden, cook, dabble in interior design, avoid watching sports, and I’m thinking of getting into canning. Yes, my wife is very lucky to have me and I am very lucky she puts up with my crazy. Know that, as I paint with my broad brush, I know how thick the paint is.

Men and women are fundamentally different from one another, but also from the boys and girls they used to be. I’m not just talking about the physical aspect. There are major differences in brain chemistry, personalities, and the way we look at the world. This influences what we are drawn to.

Wonder and romance for girls. Wonder and adventure for boys. Romance and suspense for women. Adventure and suspense for men.  Humor tends to be a universal draw, but the type of humor may be different for boys, girls, men, and women. There is more to it than that, of course. Boys are more interested in romance than you would think. They want to understand how to get girls to like them, but they will not read a story for the romance alone. Boys and men also have a hard time reading stories about girls while women struggle less with following a male protagonist. Children have a hard time reading about adults and adults have much less trouble following a young protagonist. In many cases this is just a mental block, but it is big enough to stumble over.

Let me give you an example. I speak fluent Spanish. I lived in Mexico for a while. One day I spoke with a gentleman who continued to look at me blankly and repeat, “I don’t speak English.” I kept saying back, “Yes, but I’m speaking Spanish.” I looked over at another native. He shrugged, “You hardly have an accent. I understand you fine.” This first man could not get over the fact that a white American stood in front of him. He was convinced he would never understand me and so he did not.

The same thing happens for us readers, especially us men. We pick up a book and see a female protagonist. Something freezes in our brains, “But, I don’t speak girl. I will not understand her or her motivations.” Women get over this block easier. I believe women are quicker to empathize, allowing them to see past the gender of a character.  Men tend to get stuck in their sexual identity, finding it difficult to step into a woman’s shoes for several hundred pages.

Great crossover books take advantage of this knowledge, providing male and female characters of differing ages, wonder, romance, humor, adventure, and suspense. J. K. Rowling really is a genius when you look at how she built her books. Her main character is male, but she has strong female characters too. Harry’s parents are dead. As teens slip into the mind of the protagonist, they do not want to read about their own parents. They will, however, identify with a friend’s parents much more readily. The Weasley family brings in older siblings and parents, widening the audience even more. Then we have the adult teachers, giving older readers even more people to identify with. She injects all the draws I’ve mentioned above into every book, often switching from one to another on the same page.  Wonder and adventure as Harry enters the Great Hall, suspense as the Sorting Hat decides his fate, wonder again as the food appears, humor in Ron’s reaction. Pure genius.

Hunger Games bent the rules I’ve provided by having the main character be female, but, at the same time, Suzanne Collins gave us several great male characters. She also gave her female character tom-boy attributes, and had her connect more to her dead father than her living mother. She managed to get male readers over the “but, I don’t speak girl” moment very quickly. Very smart.  The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare does the same thing.

Movie advertisers have known these things for years. Look closely at what a trailer does. Flashes of adventure, humor, a touch of romance, flipping back and forth from male to female characters, wonder, more adventure, maybe a kiss with stirring music while people sword fight all around the couple.

Art by Charlie Pulsipher

Your pulse is racing and you look to the person next to you, “We have to see that one.” They stick as many of the draws into those thirty to sixty seconds as they can, often using the only bits of romance or humor in the entire movie to suck in a larger audience than the movie warrants. How many times has a trailer betrayed you, leaving you feeling suckered as you walk out of the movie? trailer betrayed you, leaving you feeling suckered as you walk out of the movie?

So, if you are looking for a book to start sharing with your boyfriend, husband, son, or brother, look for strong male characters, wonder, adventure, and suspense.

If the book doesn’t have these, don’t try to get your husband to read it unless he expresses interest. He will walk away from the book with that same suckered feeling. But, if you come across a book that fulfills the things I’ve described, feel free to recommend it to the men in your life. They will love it, the author will appreciate it, and it will give you something deep and enriching to talk about.

What do you think? Am I totally off base?
What do you believe makes a great crossover book?


Anonymous said...

Great post, Charlie. We need more guys on Bookshop Talk!

A great crossover book series is the How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell. The main character is a boy, but there are several strong girl characters. Lots of suspense, adventure and wonder. I bought the series last fall and my hubby picked them up and started reading them out loud to our girls. My 35-year-old husband and our 6-year-old daughter were entranced.

Amy Finnegan {} said...

I totally agree with the Harry Potter series! What makes those books even more unique is that they have fans that are equally as dedicated, anywhere from five years old to 100!

The Mortal Instruments series, as you said, is also a good boy or girl series.

The Da Vinci Code had to cross all kinds of divides to be as wildly successful as it was. And I also like Patricia Cornwell books (medical/murder mysteries), and even though the protagonist is a woman, my husband likes them a lot too.

Oh! I just remembered another book! Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! My husband read it first, and when he was finished, he actually wanted to watch P&P with me!! So, hello, of course I had to read the book myself after that. I mean, I couldn’t have promised him any number of things to watch P&P with me before that point :)

GREAT POST, Charlie! Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Charlie! I love the story about when you lived in Mexico! And I agree with you that the Harry Potter books are the perfect example of amazing "Great Divide-Crossing" fiction.

I'm reading Terry Pratchett's NATION for the multipleth time, and the two main characters are an island boy named Mau and a British gal named Daphne (well, Ermintrude, but you'd change your name, too, if you were named that but then got the chance to change your name because you were shipwrecked on an island). I LOVE this book, and I think it appeals equally to males and females. Adults, too!!!

Also, Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci series, which shares some similarities to the HP books, is also a nice series for this topic.

Roald Dahl's books make me laugh like crazy, and my husband loves them, too. Some of them might be more geared toward a particular gender, but overall, I think they're gross/shocking enough for boys and have enough girl characters to make for some great fun.

I also recommend Edward Eager's Half Magic series, pretty much anything by Richard Peck, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, Peter Pan, Inkheart, The Seven Wonders of Sassafrass Springs, Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series (start with THE THIEF--again, this series has a lot of adult appeal), The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (a female protagonist, but enough piracy to keep boys well-entertained), The True Meaning of Smekday (aliens! Who knows what gender they are?), A Wrinkle in Time, and A Tale Dark and Grimm (heads ROLL in this book--but Gretel is a force to be reckoned with, too).

Then again, maybe I have no idea what boys will like, because I'm a girl!!!

Great, fun post, thought-provoking post, Charlie!

Anonymous said...

The Percy Jackson series, too! Percy's friend, Annabeth, is a strong female supporting character.

Unknown said...

Another good crossover series is Dean Koontz Thomas Odd. I loved it for the great story telling and the sense of humor, and my son loved it for the face pace and the ghosts' that appears in Odds life!
Infarrantly Creative sent me, and I’m following you on (Google

Aimee said...

My husband and I love to read together! We just finished reading the whole Narnia series and we both really enjoyed that. I've been trying to find something good to read next and have found some great ideas here. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Ooh, great topic! I'm an avid reader with a anti-book brother, so I have some experience with this. I love the books listed already, and would like to add: Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C Wrede (this one surprised me, but both my brother and my father enjoyed them), and Jessica Day George's Dragon Slippers trilogy (this one also surprised me a little, though it's one of my favorites, but both my brother and one of his best friends loved them). Oh, and Brian Jacques' Redwall series!

Valette M. said...

It has to be genuine and lifelike. Life appeals to both genders, and I think the book that do it the best are more realistic (I use that term loosely.)
"I want to win a book."

Jaina said...

I'd think Island of the Blue Dolphins fits the bill pretty well. The MC could just as easily be a boy! My brother is incredibly hard to entice with a book, so here are some books that worked for him surprisingly well:

The Candymakers by Wendy Mass (he was interested enough to inquire about her other books!)

all the Rick Riordans, especially Percy Jackson

Harry Potter (wait, scratch that, he loves the movies but refuses to read the books - sigh)

Septimus Heap (another series he gobbled up, and is even listening to again as I read them to my younger siblings!)

The Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix

many of the Dan Gutmans (he particularly loved Frindle)

And that's about it. So many books haven't worked that I thought would, including the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.

Julie said...

Holes by Louis Sachar is my go-to. For many people, especially boys, Holes is the first "book-I-loved-and-couldn't-put-down." Another one might be Unbroken by Laura Hildebrand (I think I spelled that name correctly!).

I want to win a book!

Michelle, Tales Untangled said...

I recently finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and was very interested to see why a man liked reading this novel. I loved the book and it had been recommended to me by my friend's husband. I thought it would appeal more to women because it feels very Jane Austen. I'm so glad to know of at least two men who also loved it. My own husband said that any author that can't write a book in 400 pages has nothing he wants to read. I would like to share your thoughts on cross over books between the sexes on my book review blog with your permission. I've enjoyed perusing your blog.
- Michelle, Tales Untangled

Amy Finnegan {} said...

Sure, Michelle! Go ahead :)