Boys and Reading (Yes, We’ve Been Here Before)

Thanks to Elissa of the Mixed-Up Files blog there’s now a Thursday night #mglitchat. The topic this week was “boy books vs. girl books,” which people describe as “heated.”  I didn’t think it was that heated, but it was so busy I might have missed something. I did find myself getting heated but I mostly restrained myself.

People want to speak in  generalities. Boys like ____. Girls are like _____. I’ve opined on this before, and I’ll say what I always say: when you generalize like that, you don’t just describe boys and girls, you set expectations. You make it so. What if a boy likes bunnies and flowers, and hears boys don’t like those things, that boys like trucks and robots? Well, the boy wants to be a proper boy, so he conceals his interest in the softer, nicer things in life and takes up with rougher toys. And over time, his pretend interests become his real ones. Like the folk tale narrated by Sekou in Mamba Point, the mask becomes the mask-wearer’s new face. And the prophecy has been self-fulfilled. I don’t doubt boys conform to our stereotypes about them.

Like Jim said, when we talked about this last year (emphasis mine):

It’s not about the books — there are so many, many great books out there — it’s about the collective perception of boys and what they are capable of, what they may one day become.

The perception becomes a reality. Kids are plastic. They are constantly looking to us for cues about who to be and what to become. When it comes to books, the self-fulfilling prophecies are that boys don’t like reading, that they are not inclined to read at all, and will need to be tricked into reading with fast-paced, humorous, and undemanding books. I can’t  help but think that perpetuates the problem, no matter how books about farting super heroes we through at them in the hopes they’ll at least flip through the pages. Besides selling boys short, such a tactic communicates nothing about the rich power of literature. When boys are given lesser books and lower expectations, they understand that they are not cut out for literary lives.

So when my old grad school friend Alanna sent me a link to this story, I opened it with a feeling of dread. The mainstream media has an article about once a month about those hopeless boys who love video games and hate books, the heroic teachers and their armfuls of undemanding books. But this one turns out to be right on the money.

If we’re to counter this tendency and encourage reading among boys who may collectively resist it, boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.

And that’s it. There is no mystery about boys and reading. There is no real crisis when we already know the solution. It’s what the research tells us, and it’s the impetus behind Guys Read book clubs. Men need to take an interest in reading, and share that interest with boys. That’s all.

Here’s an exchange from #mglitchat with John Auxier.

Me: if you ever begin a statement with “boys like” or “girls like” you are already wrong. No matter what comes next.

JA: How is that less totalizing than the previous statement?

And yeah, I know what he’s saying. Limited by 140 characters and in a stream of rapid posts, I fired off one that was brief and pointed and likely to be noticed. So with a tip of the hat to the Peter Nimble author, I’ll concede that such constructions are not always wrong…

“Boys like it when caring adults take a real interest in them.” “Boys like books that meet their emotional needs.” “Boys like to feel safe with a book.” “Boys like to have choices.” “Girls like all of those things too.”

One thought on “Boys and Reading (Yes, We’ve Been Here Before)

  1. Bang on. Characters that challenge and inspire KIDS OF BOTH GENDERS are what will drive them to read. Don’t dumb ’em down – give ’em something to live up to. Now off to find your books (for my boys, of course🙂 )

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