Where Have All The Boy Books Gone?

After my post celebrating The Phantom Tollbooth and other similarly glorious children’s books last week, I stumbled upon this article. Take a moment to read it, and then come back. I’ll wait…

(Also, this excerpt from the Washington Post, if you’re interested.)

Are you back?

Good.

The question at hand is: are boy books going the way of the cowboy? Which is to say that they are still real and alive, but in more limited numbers than before. (In case you were wondering, yes, I have been singing “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” to myself all day.)

For Girls Only?

As a young girl I read every American Girl book that fell into my hot little hands, though I never had a doll. (My dad is a prison chaplain, which is like being a pastor only in a prison and not a traditional church. We were not exactly wealthy, so had I asked for a sixty plus dollar doll I’m fairly certain my parents, sweet and loving thought they were, would have laughed at me and told me to use my imagination with a doll I already possessed, which I did. My Raggedy Ann doll did double duty as Molly since they both had red hair, and the porcelain doll my grandmother had given me was Samantha because they both had fancy clothes.)  I also never had a shortage of other reading material, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, The Marvelous Adventures in Oz, anything by E.B. White, and the Ramona Quimby books, and classics like The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, The Wind in The Willows, Heidi, and Rabbit Hill.

I have never, however, to my knowledge, been a boy.

I did have a younger brother though. He devoured Encyclopedia Brown, and Captain Underpants, The Wacky World of Wally MacDoogle, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as some of the same books I had enjoyed before him. (Hand-me-downs are a beautiful thing.)

And then he hit a wall. I remember my mom calling me when he was fifteen-ish, asking me if I had any suggestions for him to read because he just wasn’t finding anything that captured his attention. When I got home for Christmas break that winter the three of us scoured libraries and bookstores, and this is what we came up with:

  • The Redwall Series (I discovered them right along with him, and loved it!)
  • Ted Dekker Books (adult books, but suitable for older teens)
  • The Inheritance Cycle
  • Star Wars books, of which there are over 100.
  • An assortment of books about Arthurian Legend

Putting my brother aside or a moment, this is my take on the problem at hand: in the article, the women say there is a shortage of books for boys, and they also state that they want their boys series to show that it’s okay to break defined gender roles. Ironic, isn’t it? “There aren’t enough books just for and about boys, but tour little men need to know they don’t have to do just boy things.” The don’t have to do just-boy things, but they need to read just-boy books? I have a hunch this was not well thought out.

I have no problem with expanding American Girl to include boys as well, except for the slightly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that this childhood zeitgeist is becoming a monster on parr with the nasty princess phenomenon/problem we’re experiencing. What I do take issue with is the lack of vision and creativity a parent must have to look at the scores of amazing books available to young men and declare that there is nothing for him. I don’t see a lack in the 6-10 years old market at all, which is, I believe, the target audience of American Girl. I understand a boy maybe not wanting to read Little House on the Prairie (though I too have known several boys who enjoyed them right along with their sisters, though they may not have admitted it in public) or Little Women, but the last time I checked Stewart Little , The Mouse in Times Square and James and the Giant Peach, Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes and The Door in the Wall and a hundred other books are all boy-worthy reads, not to mention the newer hits like Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And if you really don’t want your little man to be defined by gender roles, then encourage him that just because Harriet the Spy is a girl doesn’t mean her adventure is not a worthy one or her book does not have something important to say. It will set him up for good relationships with and attitudes towards women in the future.

Coming back to my brother and his teenage reading angst, I won’t dispute that there’s a lack in the teenage department for any teen, boy or girl, who doesn’t want to read exclusively about vampires, but Tripp’s new books won’t help these young adults very much. As an adult trying to help a teenager find suitable reading that isn’t either saturated in sex or blood suckers, you really do have to get creative. But I think this lack of new teenage material presents the perfect opportunity to start introducing classic literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, and the like. It’ll give them a head-start on college, and it will hopefully help them realize that classic literature is not boring. And by their late teens, I don’t think there’s any harm in starting to read general fiction, within reason, of course. (I wouldn’t recommend handing your Harlequin romances off to your sixteen year old , although Jane Austen would probably fulfill that newly budding longing for romance quite nicely.)

So this is what I say to Valerie Tripp and Company: go for it. Make American Boys or Boys Camp or whatever it is you plan to call it.There is always room on the shelf for one more book, and a boy who knits or does ballet would be precious in my mind, though I don’t know how many of our mini-men would agree. (And if you want a boy who cries, as the article noted, check out Bridge to Terabithia.) But don’t pretend that you’re doing it as crusaders out to save boyish literature, because that just makes you look a little blind or foolish or short in the imagination department, and we can’t have a writer short on imagination now can we? As Margaret Hartman said in her article above,

“We have plenty of great children’s books, we just need to show boys that reading is as much a masculine activity as hitting a baseball and playing in dirt.”

Amen, Margaret. Amen.

But that’s just my opinion. What about you men out there? What about parents with boys or teachers or other book nerds? What do you think? Is there a shortage of boy books? Do girls monopolize the reading market? Have I gravely misjudged the situation? Let me know your opinion, because the world would be so boring if mine were the only one floating out there.

7 Comments

Filed under Books

7 responses to “Where Have All The Boy Books Gone?

  1. Megan

    I really enjoyed reading this, Amanda. But then again, you could probably write about dirt and I would be entertained. (you’re just such a great writer!)
    As a fifth grade teacher, I have the top four readers in the grade. Reading the most books, taking the most accelerated reader tests, etc. In fact, sometimes I have to take them away from them during class. Gasp! Don’t worry, I give them back 🙂 But they are actually all four BOYS. Now this is a little abnormal, and perhaps the target age range you are thinking of is a little older than my darling 10-11 year olds, but I see the boys reading just as much (if not more) than the girls in my class.

  2. Great post.

    I don’t have kids or work with kids, so I have no personal experience, but I definitely think there shouldn’t be literature that is “boys only” or “girls only.” It seems to me that everyone would benefit from reading a book where they can identify with a character who demonstrates admirable qualities and then the person/child can emulate those qualities during challenging moments.

    I feel like I am reading a lot of headlines about men fearing women, or feeling left out because there is no “movement” for men. Is this just a similar taste of that trend? I don’t know. I DO know that I am frequently searching for current movies with a female lead that doesn’t make me want to PUKE. I just tried to watch “Post Grad” which should have been a no-brainer cute movie. However, I couldn’t stomach the first five minutes and I shut it off – the character was completely unsympathetic to me and way too cutesy-perfectionist to be relatable.

  3. Amanda, you can do two things at once: make sense and have fun. Hope you get responses from men too.

  4. mauldinga

    I think that there are still boy books out there; however, there is a problem with many boys today. They just don’t know what interest them. Boys go through phases (at least I would like to think so). Some boys enjoy books that have girls as the protagonist. For example, when I was young I didn’t know what the read. I was home-schooled until I was 9 years old so I read whatever my mom gave me. Some books were more feminine ( I remember reading Little Women in 5th grade, I mean 5th grade, come on, what was I thinking, haha) than others, but in the end I did like books with action and suspense. If the book didn’t hook me by the end of the first chapter then I was, more than likely, not interested in it. That’s just an example from my life. My two cents if I may say so.
    Also, I would like to ask did you ever read the Animorphs Series? I fell in love with that series throughout middle school.
    Thanks for the post Amanda.
    Miss you and your wit down here in Puerto Rico.

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