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?
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.)
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.