I was recently on a plane, chatting with the man sitting next to me. He told me he had a little girl who loved to read, and mentioned several books she had devoured lately. He said he said was always looking for new books for her, and asked me for recommendations. I gave him several, and then asked about his son, who he had also mentioned to me earlier. “Oh, he’s not so into books,” was the reply. “The occasional comic book, but there aren’t many books he actually likes, much less finishes.” I went to recommend a few books that might help his son enjoy reading a little more, and realized I had very few ideas for him. I mentioned the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the Boxcar Children series, and Choose-Your-Own Adventure books. He was surprised I had any recommendations at all, and made notes of them in his phone.
For many years, there has been an overwhelmingly positive push for books for young girls. It’s become a tremendous, commendable mass effort on the part of writers and publishers alike, and I love that when I walk into a bookstore, I see great titles and characters like Madeline, Amelia Bedelia, Olivia, Judy Moody, Imogene, etc. And of course there are classics like Matilda, Little House on the Prairie, The American Girl books, Harriet the Spy, and so many others. I remember reading so many books as a little girl and learning about social interaction, history and culture, vocabulary and creative language usage (Black Beauty is written from the 1st person perspective of a horse. Nine-year-old me was BESIDE HERSELF.). Books contain not only stories that drive imagination and wonder, but also developmental content that’s so important. While we’ve achieved our goal of crafting uplifting and encouraging content for our young girls, we’ve created a problem.
When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Girls,” this is the result:
When you Google, “Best Children’s Books for Boys,” this is the result:
This brings to light an interesting problem: in our focus on encouraging, educating, and uplifting girls, we’ve developed some tunnel vision and have forgotten about the boys. I’m talking about books and stories specifically tailored for boys, not gender neutral books that can be enjoyed by all kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which, I might add, is about a boy protagonist who is not only “wimpy,” but generally a screw-up). If we’re going to give girls the Disney Princess books, why don’t the Disney Princes get books? There’s an absolute cavern of possibilities for “Disney Prince” books, because they don’t have backstories already established. Why can’t we have a book series called “Wood Shop Wilson,” about a kid who solves problems through building awesome stuff, or “Undercover Andy,” a boy detective who solves neighborhood mysteries a la The Hardy Boys? I believe the root of this problem is two-fold.
First, the fact of the matter is, writing for girls is cake. It’s easy to write meaningful stories for girls, because girls have more interests to be creative with. You can put a girl protagonist into almost any environment, and girls will think it’s really cool so long as the storyline is interesting enough. You can make her royalty, or an astronaut, or a mermaid, or a schoolgirl in another time period, a cowgirl, a sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, or a high-flying Amelia Earhart. You can essentially just spin the wheel, because there’s an infinite number of plot/protagonist/environment combinations that will capture and keep the interest of little girls. Boys, however, require a different kind of interest and encouragement. Frankly, it’s harder to keep them entertained, so it requires a different method of storytelling. It requires a new, and more intentional way of story-crafting that no one seems willing to bother with. Bob the Builder only cuts it for so long. As they grow and develop, our boys need literature that will grow with them, and provide them with the same kind of lessons that we’ve poured so much heart and effort into for our girls.
The second factor will be a largely unpopular opinion, I imagine: the lack of decent literature for boys falls at least partially to the fault of the cultural emasculation of young boys. While we never want young boys to embrace fighting, violence, or needless destruction, I find it a grave mistake to assume we can reprogram those tendencies out of our young men. There is a significant difference between encouraging boys to develop good habits to control those tendencies, and encouraging boys to be more like girls in demeanor. Boys need male role models that teach them it’s OK to be a boy, and to like dirt, explosions, speed, risks, etc. But those same role models need to be the ones to show them the consequences of liking those things, and how to enjoy them in a moderated and safe manner. I’d like to see a boy’s book where a young man dares his younger brother to jump off the roof, and the younger brother breaks his arm. That book can still have a happy ending, and can wrap up with a lot of hugging, apologies, and forgiveness. But it’s a valuable lesson in considering the safety of others, and the price of some kinds of fun. These are the kinds of lessons boys need, and they’re the kind of stories that will hook boys from beginning to end. Give a boy a book about survival on a long-term sea voyage – teach them about the importance of preparedness, and how adventures sometimes don’t go how you planned them. Give a boy a book about asking someone to the school dance – teach them about polite and fun social interaction. Give a boy about a book about trying out for the football team – teach them about rejection, and how to handle it gracefully. Give a boy a book about how sometimes it’s OK to break the rules if it’s to take care of another person – teach them good judgment and independent thought. Give boys books that cater to them, and the way they’re wired.
I’ve heard it said too often that if a young boy doesn’t like reading, it’s just because he’s lazy, or thinks books are boring, or doesn’t want to try. It is my opinion that child has just not been given the right book. As the parents, writers, and publishers of the world, why have we given up on them so quickly? Why do we consider it their fault, when it is firmly our responsibility to guide and encourage? Why are we not crafting literature they will love, and that will kick-start their literacy in the same way we’ve done for girls? Why do we treat them as hopeless cases when we’ve only been giving them books that were likely written to entice and encourage girls? Even when they get older, they’re faced with popular YA series like Hunger Games, Twilight, etc. “Oh, but there’s politics in The Hunger Games! That’s interesting,” you say. Sure, but the male characters in many of these books are essentially just romantic options for the female protagonists. That sucks. I wouldn’t want to read that either. Emotions are being manipulated in very specific ways in many YA series, and boys a) are already uncomfortable with their emotions and don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole, and b) aren’t as heavily affected by the emotional drama that’s being manufactured (often poorly, in my opinion). Don’t even get me started on The Fault in Our Stars. If you break it down: those books are written in a style that is more interesting and effective for girls.
While there are some great books out there for boys, they are few and far between, and don’t get even half of the publicity and praise that girls’ books do. I also believe many of them are classics, and it’s hard to get kids to read classics when they hate reading in the first place. Not to mention, the younger boys, maybe ages 5-9, often aren’t developmentally at an appropriate level to read Narnia or Sherlock Holmes yet. There needs to be a concentrated effort for our little guys. They need books that work with their brains, and their interests, and their difficulties. Writers and publishers, we have a new challenge.