The question of boys and reading is one that comes up from time to time, and always brings about strong reactions based both on the actual article in question and the personal experiences of those reading the article.
Take, for example, Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope? by Robert Lipsyte at The New York Times. Lipsyte states his thesis: “author Jon Scieszka writes that boys “don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction. . . . Boys don’t have enough positive male role models for literacy. Because the majority of adults involved in kids’ reading are women, boys might not see reading as a masculine activity.” But I think it’s also about the books being published. Michael Cart, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, agrees. “We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become,” he told me. “In a commercially driven publishing environment, the emphasis is currently on young women.””
Some people got upset at what they viewed as a slam at both girls who read and the females in publishing and libraries and bookstores. Because then Lipsyte went on to say, “The current surge in children’s literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from M.F.A. programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction. Their novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers.”
Lipsyte noted a lack of books like in the good old days. Which, well, it’s easy to put together book lists to counter the lack of existing titles: Saundra Mitchell addressed this at The Problem is Not the Books and added a long list at And This is Why the Problem is Not the Books.
I confess; I wasn’t a fan of some of what Lipsyte said. But I’m also not of fan of gendering reading with boy books and girl books; I’ve seen girls get as happy about world record books as boys, and boys love Twilight. I’d much rather talk about books for those who want action, or quick reads, or emotional exploration, etc., than talking “boy” and “girl” books. I’m especially not a fan of statements that seem to imply that so-called girl books are “lesser” — written by those females who otherwise would be midlist authors and of a lesser literary value: “the next spate of Y.A. fiction tended to be simplistic problem novels that read like after-school specials, and soon split along gender lines. Books with story lines about disease, divorce, death and dysfunction sold better for girls than did similar books for boys. The shift seemed to fundamentally alter the Y.A. landscape.”
A detailed response in that vein is NY Times to YA Publishing: Stop Being So Girly by Aja Romano at The Mary Sue. As the title shows, it goes into detail about gender; here’s a snippet: “Reticence on men’s part to read about girls isn’t some kind of inevitable byproduct of the inferiority of “women’s stories,” whatever those are. It’s the social upbringing that boys undergo that teaches them that anything women like is inherently inferior, just as it teaches women that if they enjoy the things that men like, they may not be real women.”
While Maureen Johnson did not blog about this particular article, a past post of hers is applicable: Sell the Girls. As she states, “So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart.”
I’m not saying, take the adventure book away from the boy and make him read the romance or vice versa. I’m saying, adventure books aren’t boy books, they are adventure books. Romance books aren’t girl books, they are romance books. Girls, gasp, may want adventure books and not romance books. What are we saying to both boys and girls when we say from the start, adventure=boy and romance=girl?
I’m not denying that if we ask 100 boys and 100 girls to list their favorite books some titles that are popular on the boys list won’t be on the girls list and vice versa. However, that does not make those books boy or girl books. What such a list does is make things “easy” in that a person can say “book for twelve year old boy” rather than what that individual wants from a book. I’m also not denying that books and readers are complicated, but that’s part of my point — they are complicated. Much more complicated than “boys like xxx”.
To be honest, not everyone reacted the way I and others did. Some people were very much “this is a great article!” I’m not linking to those only because I saw that reaction mainly on Twitter or listservs; I think people are less inclined to blog agreement, anyway. Lipsyte does make valid points and I think it’s good to be aware of the need for a balanced collection and readers advisory that goes beyond one’s own personal likes and opinions. For example, let’s look real quick at booktalks. Some people insist that booktalks should only be about books the librarian likes, and I disagree, because then you get the favorites of grown up females (that is, the librarians) and that is not going to be a wide enough appeal for all the people in the classroom. My personal belief is that most librarians today realize that, and do a lot to make sure their collection and booktalks etc are balanced. An article like Lipsyte’s is a good reminder of the different things out there that appeal to different readers, and a need to keep those needs in mind.
If you have links to other reactions to the New York Times article, leave them in the comments, please! And also share your own thoughts and reactions.