Boys and Books

It feels like there are a lot of conversations going on out in the blogosphere about boys and books in the last couple of weeks.  Over at The Diamond in the Window, a question about boy and girl who needed book recommendations prompted a post about boys and books and some discussion, some of which was contributed by me.  At Fonograms, the author, who also has an amazing series of lectures posted about boy books blogged about how just because the main character is a boy doesn’t make the book a “boy book.”  Then, over at YA author Hannah Moskowitz’s blog, Invincible Summer, she ranted about the boy problem in YA fiction and made what I thought were some amazing points, such as about how YA books have empowered girls by disempowering boys.

There are a lot of strands to this.  First off, while I think the boy book thing is an issue, I don’t think the situation is as dire as some might say.  There are lots of boy books across the board in children’s literature, in my opinion.  I got frustrated recently by the lack of boy books in the early chapter book aisles, but then I went out and found some so while I’m still a little overwhelmed by all the pink sparkles in that section, I’m feeling better about what there is.  YA also has a lot of great boy titles so while I get that there are a lot more sparkly vampire romances, I don’t see the dearth of options that everyone seems so keen to point out.  There should be more and we should think about how to bring boys to those titles, but they are there.  When the Invincible Summer blog entry asked when since Eragon boys were last allowed to save the world, I thought, well, Alex Rider did that in Crocodile Tears just last year.  I would also argue that Libba Bray’s amazing Printz award winner from last year, Going Bovine, is a boy-friendly title, with it’s trippy philosophical journey and slacker protagonist.

Also, I think there are larger issues at play here.  Girls will read books with male protagonists, but there is an expectation that boys won’t read books with a female protagonist and I think this is part of a larger problem our society has with gender conformity and stigmatizing boys who show any interest in anything even remotely associated with girls.  How much of this is about the books and how much is about wider questions about gender?  Do boys read differently than girls?  If so, why?

Anyway, just some thoughts to chew on.

5 thoughts on “Boys and Books

  1. Thanks for the link to my blog. As you may have noticed, I’ve been chewing on this for a while myself.

    I’ve sort of fallen into studying boys and reading as a bi-product of learning how to write for children and young adults, and while I think we’ve a way to go before we know the answer conclusively, I do believe boys read differently than girls. I believe boys crave something different in their story structure and content than girls, and as a result they are presented with “good” books by adults who mean well but only instill a lack of interest in boys who come to feel books offer nothing for them.

    I think the “why” of the question is complicated and has as much to do with biology as it does society, and because of that (and the resistance to the idea that there can be a physical explanation) it may take some time before we really understand what the disparity is between boy and girl readers.

    That said, I see video games as an example of the types of narratives boys crave (engaging, evolving stories with clear goals/objectives, generally first-person, open to interpretation) though this sort of thing is difficult to replicate in a traditional book. Mind, I don’t believe video games is a substitute for reading, only an example of the way boys prefer to engage in story that differs from traditional books. Perhaps digital narratives with hyperlinked storylines will turn out to be what engages boys?

    In the meantime, boys are reading, just not as much fiction. And maybe that’s the real question here: why do we insist that it’s important to read fiction at all? What is it that we expect from boy readers that has to be satisfied with fiction?

    1. I’m totally willing to accept that there’s a biological component, I just think it’s hard to tease out what it is. I also think there’s a certain way in which people can assume things about gender that really rubs me the wrong way. I wonder how often teachers and parents assume that boys are wired differently so they just don’t read, end of story. It’s so defeatist and I refuse to buy it.

      As you say, boys aren’t reading fiction as much. In studies about reading, especially studies that decry our reading habits, reading fiction is generally weighted heavier than other kinds of reading which is just absurd. A lot of those video games require a book-length amount of reading – how should that be weighted for boys? I’ve been wondering how successful with boys all the new nonfiction I’m seeing, especially in the YA section is. I’ve seen what looks like an increased number of biographies (at least in the stores, marketed to teens) and all the YA editions of adult popular nonfiction, like the young readers’ version of The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the illustrated young reader’s version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

  2. I have a problem with grouping all girls together in one category and all boys in another. From my years of teaching and parenting I’d say kids fit into many, many different categories as far as how much they read and what types of reading appeals to them. I feel like American society puts enormousness pressure on girls and boys to conform to gender stereotypes– stereotypes that aren’t truly based on biology. Kids would be a lot better off if they were treated as individuals with their own unique needs.

    When my son was young, I can’t tell you how many people insisted to me that he wouldn’t like reading because he was a boy. Seriously! His pediatrician actually told me this while he was 4 years old and sitting right there in the room with me– and listening to a book I was reading to him. Needless to say I switched doctors immediately.

    Both my teens (a boy and a girl) love reading but they’re pretty particular about what they like to read and I fill the house with the types of stuff they enjoy. When my son was little he really didn’t like beginning readers, so I filled the house with comic books and nonfiction reading. He loved Calvin and Hobbes and read them throughout 1st grade, along with tons of gaming manuals. By 9 or 10 years old, he was able to read fantasy and starting reading tons of fiction. By high school, I introduced him to a bit of realistic and romantic fiction, which he turned out liking too. He has friends who have completely different preferences– despite the fact that they are all boys.

    I’m with you Farrar and think that boys would be better off if we didn’t stigmatize them for liking things that we think only girls should like. Girls and boys are both humans and humans like a lot of the same things.

  3. I’m not able to find it at the moment, but there was research done where researchers used fMRI scans to determine that when adolescents read, boys and girls used totally different areas of the brain while reading identical texts. They have been very reluctant to draw too many conclusions about this information for fear of their research getting bogged down in a gender war, but if repeated tests show that reading affects different hemispheres of the brain depending on gender that could lead to a very large shift in our assumptions not only about reading but about education as well.

    I will grant that we shouldn’t box up children by gender, but I also think we need to be open to the possibility that the reason we see gender-based differences may be biological, and that assuming boys can and should be able to accept fiction as readily as girls is akin to insisting all children be right-hand dominant.

    1. I think it would be important to see this entire study in detail before making any judgments. I’m currently reading the book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain and one of her biggest points is that much of this research doesn’t say what the media says it does. The conclusions are often murkier, less dramatic, and far more complicated that the boy/girl dichotomy that is often reported.

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