Don’t Forget About the Boys
 
Some years ago, when I was judging a book award, I entered
the room and found two other female judges, both librarians. We had three hours
to make a decision. It took us four, even though only two books were on the
table after about thirty minutes.
 
And then came the long stand-off between one of the
librarians and me. One book had a female protagonist and the other a male
protagonist. And the argument went something like this:
 
“But boys aren’t reading, and I can hand this book to a
boy,” said Librarian 1.
“Well, I’m sure that’s true, but it isn’t as well written,”
I said.
“Yes, but…but I can turn a boy into a reader,” said
Librarian 2. “Imagine what he could read. We could have another reader for
life.”
 
We have had many people tell us that boys
are in crisis, that boys don’t read enough.
Guysread
is an excellent website dedicated to getting boys to read. I do think it’s a legitimate
problem; I’m not saying we should ignore it. Instead, perhaps we need to
rethink our approach.
 
To date our approach has been to write, publish, and market
books for boys—books about machines, dinosaurs, and sports, but few—if any—about
other concerns boys have: friendships and relationships. These are typically
considered “girl concerns.”
 
I’ve raised a boy who is a consummate reader and I’ve tried
to figure out how he escaped this epidemic of boy non-readership. My son reads
everything from literary to not, from nonfiction to fiction. He devoured when
he read middle grade. For a short time, we worried as his reading slowed while
at the end of middle school, but he came roaring back into the young adult
genre.
 
I’ve also raised a girl who is a consummate reader. Like her
brother, she reads everything and then some. After reading her brother’s Harry
Potter and Rick Riordan, she got frustrated. “No girls”, she complained. So we
went to book people: libraries and booksellers and teachers. They all quickly
ran out of recommendations. They had been well prepped to recommend male
authors and male protagonists, ready to solve the boys in crisis problem. But
for girls? Well, they’d recommend the same books because, as I was told again
and again, “girls will read anything.”
 
What does that mean that “girls will read anything”? That we
are less picky? That we are less discerning? Less qualified? Or is it a case of:
we aren’t the squeaky wheel? That we don’t need to be catered to and
represented?
 
Either way, this litany of questions sounds to me like a
litany of excuses that reinforce a biased expectation: girls can/should read
across gender, but boys, who need prodding to read, should be catered to.
 
We are afraid to give boys the chance to read “girls’ books”,
afraid we’ll alienate them and they will no longer be readers for life. But who
says that boys can’t read across gender, too?
What if, instead of catering to a narrow definition of boys’
interests, we encouraged boys to read across gender as well? What if, instead
of having essentially pink and blue literary aisles, we claim reading as
gender-neutral territory?
 
A few months ago Laura Ruby showed me Maureen
Johnson’s wonderful post about gendered covers
that visually demonstrated
how marketing skews female covers to look “cute” and “funny” rather than
literary. It’s remarkable to see how these subtle differences change the way
that women are regarded in the field. It’s remarkable to note how people have
suggested that children’s literature is
skewed so heavily to estrogen side of things
when in fact, female novelists
only comprise 56% of novels in published in 2012 Children’s literature
(although the awards don’t represent that, running at only 36% for books with YA
female protagonists
). Having a nearly equal voice, we are told, is regarded
as though we have a dominant voice. This recalls a recent study which
demonstrated that only when women spoke 30% to a man’s 70% did the listeners
feel the talk-time was equal.
 
In choosing fiction for children, we all suffer from
internalized sexism. Certainly I did. I had thought I had been giving my son
books about girls and boys, until my daughter started reading middle grade, and
suddenly the dearth of books became clear.
 
But perhaps most notable for me now is that my son’s
resurgence in reading as he moved into YA was simply this: he started reading
more and more books with female protagonists—that is what brought him back to
reading. While we
frequently hear the complaint that boys leave reading because of the dominance
of female protagonists
, my son came back to reading because of female
protagonists.
 
So, when I say, “don’t forget about the boys,” I don’t mean
we need to prioritize books about dinosaurs and robots, about boy books. We
don’t need to reward boy books because they can reach male readers and female
readers, both. I mean instead, we need to start to recommend “girls’ books” to
boys. We need to stop protecting boys from girly books with girly topics—romance,
sentiments. We need to stop protecting boys from girls themselves. We need to
remember that boys have all sorts of concerns, like girls, and we need
literature that answers child concerns, eliminating the notion that concerns
and interests are gendered at all. And we need to stop thinking of it as
“girl’s literature” just because it has a female protagonist or a focus on
romance or relationships; coming of age requires empathy across genders in
addition to representation. Girls are being taught this empathy; don’t forget
about the boys.
 
 

Swati Avasthi is the author of the novel, Split (Random House/Knopf, 2010), winner of a Cyblis Young Adult Fiction Award, a Parents' Choice 2010 Silver Award, a New Voices 2010 pick by the Assn of Booksellers for Children, and an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults pick. Her second novel, Chasing Shadows, also by Random House/Knopf, was published in September of 2013 and received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and more.

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