Things in Print Thursday :: fighting the gender divide in getting kids to read

23 Apr

So in one of my classes, my graduate-level classes full of intelligent people, the topic came up today: how do you get young boys to read more?  And the general consensus seemed to be that too many of the books that kids are made to read in school are… well, girly.

This seems… off to me, for one.  Looking at the statistics:

  • this list of top chapter books is 40/100, and respectable; I would say that I personally remember reading at least half of those books in grade school, but maybe eight of them were books I read For Class)
  • this list of children’s books is 12/50 (I read a majority of them, but maybe one For Class)
  • this list of children’s books is 21/100 (same applies)
  • this list of children’s books is 28/100 (same applies)
  • this list of children’s books veering more toward picture books is 16/100
  • regarding SparkNotes (i.e., books commonly read in school – not always by young kids, but in school) at the time of my last tally the books about women were 140/563.

I personally don’t remember a lot of the books I read about boys in grade school, because they just weren’t as memorable to me apparently, but I also remember being the kid who, when we had a choice of 4-5 books to read in small groups, always chose the book about girls, of which there was usually only one or two.  (This lasted all through my school career).  But I also don’t remember anyone in grade school being as interested in reading books as I was most of the time, so maybe I just am not the person to be asking about it.  And as I’ve mentioned, by the time I got to junior high and high school, well.  This.  Less than five books I recall reading that featured female protagonists.

Shannon Hale (who has written, among other things, Princess Academy, The Princess in Black, and the Books of Bayern series) brings up some really good points in this blog post – she, as a female writer of books about girls that have covers that look like this and have “girl” or “princess” in the title, is seen as a writer of “girl books.” Whereas male writers with books about boys, and books with boys on their covers, are seen as “books for everyone.” She details multiple experiences she’s had of speaking at a school and, when she noticed all of her attendees were girls and asked about the absence of boys, she was told that the administration felt that boys didn’t need to be at her presentation (and in one case, that one boy had wanted to come and gotten special permission to do so, but felt too embarrassed).

Later on in her post, Hale explains that the problem with this line of thinking is damaging because it illustrates how society teaches boys that what girls have to say doesn’t matter, and that they don’t need to bother trying to understand or empathize with them. Teachers don’t offer books about girls to boys, because they assume that boys don’t or won’t read them, or they “just don’t think about it.” But girls reading books with male protagonists is fine, even expected! After all, Harry Potter is practically required reading for elementary schoolers, and that’s about a boy. See also: Percy Jackson. (Shoutout to Rick Riordan for at least doing a better job understanding this whole “inclusivity” thing and including multiple main characters of color and an explicitly queer character in Heroes of Olympus, though!) From an early age girls are encouraged to read books that showcase the male perspective, because…that’s the average experience, or something. But the same consideration isn’t extended to boys. And so, boys don’t learn to empathize with girls, they just learn to regard them as strange and alien beings that they could never understand. Which leads to…well, things like the Isla Vista shooting, to name one recent example.

And another problem, one that was mentioned during the discussion but wasn’t particularly analyzed or even disputed, is the notion of librarians, libraries, and even just reading as a more “feminine” profession/pursuit.  One, I do know that my chosen profession is one that is predominantly female, two, why is reading considered “girly” when, let’s face it, the majority of renowned authors and literary figures and book characters are men, three, why is “girly” seen as a bad thing, and four, why aren’t we talking about how to help kids understand that reading is a verb and has no gender and even if it did why is that still stigmatized to this day. (One answer, of course, is that the literary world got infected with ~girl cooties~ once women started to gain recognition as writers, and once schools started teaching both boys and girls to read. Because apparently letting any girls into the playground at all ruins it for everyone.)

Another point that was brought up: boys just like reading graphic novels and nonfiction, where girls like reading fiction books.  This is the biggest nonsense I have ever heard.  One, I don’t remember a single boy I knew growing up who would actively read nonfiction but shunned fiction on principle, two, one of my very best friends, who is a boy, was always the most voracious reader I knew and almost entirely of fiction, and three, graphic novels are most likely fictional and therefore the argument against boys reading fiction is skewed.

On the other hand, I have a younger brother who tends to prefer comics and graphic novels to prose. But it’s not because he’s a boy – it’s because he has sensory issues that make it difficult for him to focus on a page if it’s just words. Pictures help him to understand what’s going on. So my mother, who homeschooled him for most of his academic career, would either find graphic novel adaptations of the books she wanted to discuss with him, or she would read them to him out loud and they would watch a film adaptation. Again, this isn’t a gender thing, it’s a processing thing. I also have several male friends who read fiction voraciously. And I have known multiple girls who preferred, if not graphic novels necessarily, than books with plenty of illustrations in them, because too many words on a page was overwhelming to them. It’s anecdotal, but I’d be willing to bet that that the statistics aren’t as clean-cut as they seem.

And finally, the discussion turned to how so many curriculums are chosen by, well, women.  Not enough men to choose manly books for the boys to read.  Well, I will say this: when I was in elementary school, the split of teachers for each grade was generally about 50/50, and likewise for junior high.  In high school there were generally more male English teachers than female.  And beyond that, I couldn’t tell you.  I don’t know how many women versus men are on school boards, or the AP boards, or whoever else decides statewide curricula; I know that my high school had a majority of female librarians, but I also know that the librarians at any school I attended had no say in what the students’ required reading lists comprised.  And even if there were too many women on the deciding committees (which, uh, stop, that’s a bad way of thinking about it almost certainly), the earlier statistics show that kids are still reading a lot more books about boys than about girls.

I think my point from all of this (certainly the point I was thinking but not sharing during this discussion because I wasn’t in the mood to argue over the internet today) was that ways to “get boys to read more” should be focused less on what the adults are making available or aren’t making available and more on the kids’ attitudes.  Teach them that it’s okay to read books about girls even if they’re a boy.  Teach them to read more even though someone else is telling them they should be playing soccer instead.  Teach them that you know what, it’s probably even okay if they don’t like recreational reading that much because sometimes people are different, but there’s probably a book out there that they will enjoy and maybe teach them how to find it.

And really, the key here is that they need to find it. It’s okay to give kids recommendations, of course, but if you just let them wander around in the library or bookstore, they’ll probably find something they want to read. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a movie tie-in novel or Captain Underpants or an Archie comic, because you know what? If they’re enjoying themselves, they’re eventually going to want to branch out and find more things they like. Trying to take options away from them (as long as they’re not age-inappropriate or something) just because they don’t fit into your expectations of what your kid should be reading is a surefire way of making your kid resent reading.

–your fangirl heroines.

not amused

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