Last week, President Barack Obama announced a new $1 billion teacher program, the Master Teacher Corps, to aid and promote education in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). We’ve spent a good deal of time on science and math content this summer. We’ve also talked about the importance of connecting literature to science and math. But we haven’t directly addressed the gender gap in science fiction, a genre that tends to appeal to boys more than girls.
A blog from the New York Times earlier this year cited a 2010 study from the Codex Group, a consulting group for publishers found that 50 percent of young men cite science fiction titles as their favorite genre compared to only 26 percent of young female readers. The trend continues into adulthood as well. Thirty two percent of adult male book buyers report being science fiction fans while only 12 percent of adult women report an interest in science fiction titles. What is it about science fiction that appeals to males—but not females?
One explanation might begin by looking back on science fiction’s ambivalent and somewhat limited gender constructions in media—something that really began in the 1960s with TV shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Sure, Jeannie and Samantha had power that transcended mortal men (more specifically, their husbands), but ultimately, their power was, as cultural critic Marleen S. Barr puts it, “tempered at the request of the men in their lives.”
Of course, the role of women in science fiction has apparently changed for the better by providing female viewers with an alternative to the traditional male, sci-fi hero. Think about characters like Scully from The X-Files or Ripley from the classic Aliens trilogy.
But strong, “female-centric,” sci-fi characters don’t begin and end with film. There are numerous science fiction books that appeal to girls that teachers can use to encourage them to try the genre:
- Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle) This beloved, classic science fiction tale turned 50 this year and continues to draw a wide fan base of both boy and girl readers. The heroine of this tale, Meg Murry, is transported through time with her brother and friend in an effort to rescue her father from his evil entrapment on another planet. During the story Meg evolves from an awkward, shy young girl to a brave heroine who will boldly fight to save her father.
- The Girls from Alcyone (Cary Caffrey) Published in 2011, this story is set in 24th century Earth and chronicles the tale of Sigrid and Suko who are sold into slavery by their families to prevent full financial collapse. As servants of the Kimura Corporations they discover a secret inside themselves that is paramount for the survival and freedom of all girls in Alcyone
- Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind 1 (Hayao Miyazaki) Set in a post-apocalyptic time this story revolves around the protagonist Nausicaa. As a princess, warrior, and peacekeeper she fights to save her small nation from environmental devastation. There is a second book in the story of Nausicaa that is equally as compelling and riveting as the first book.
- Feed (M.T. Anderson) The classic boy meets girl story is updated to science fiction proportions in this tale of digital corporate dystopia. Centered on the themes of individuality, education, and consumerism the story explores a world in which "Feed" (a type of world wide web) affects and controls society.
This is obviously a short list of titles that may appeal to both boy and girl readers of science fiction. There are many more comprehensive online lists of youth and young adult science fiction that provide even more quality titles, including:
Where to Start with Young Adult Science Fiction
9 Best Science Fiction Novels for Young Adults
Connected Youth: Science Fiction
How do you inspire your students to try a new genre that isn’t their favorite? We’d love to hear from you.