A recent article in the New York Times by Robert Lipsyte has set off a firestorm on boys’ reading. He argues that there is a major lack of books for teen boys. A lot of people (mostly women, to be honest) have had complaints about it, decrying the whole issue as sexist. Since the issue is the bread and butter of our blog, we figured a comment was warranted.
There are tons of books for boys in Children's Lit, and lots for adults, but there is a huge gap in the teen publishing area. No one is claiming that there are zero books for boys -- we can make a list of teen books for boys (and some have), but that list is far shorter than the list would be for girls. Seriously, go to a bookstore and open your eyes. It's not that boys hate girls or are sexist or that 'society' has told them that it isn't manly to like that stuff. It's because, generally speaking, they actually don't like that stuff. It strikes us as a fairly simple issue.
Would you really recommend Rainbow Magic to a six year old boy, or a Harlequin romance to a 60-year-old man? Of course not, though we doubt anyone would stop them if they wanted it (nor should they). Why should it be different for 16-year-olds?
No, the problem seems to be that there is an impression that there is something wrong with society in general, that there is social pressure for boys not to want to read certain kinds of books. While that may or may not be true, it is beside the point. If true, how is forcing boys to read something that doesn’t appeal to them anyway going to help? They already hold the biases of boys. (And by the way, don’t pretend girls don’t have equally ‘evil’ biases. Try giving her a Halo or Mass Effect novel. Good luck with that.) They don’t want it, and they will resent you and reading in general for trying to force it, and then game over. You’ve killed a reader.
The real task is to nurture reading in general, by giving them what they want, what they are comfortable with, what they are familiar with, even if you don’t like it. Your definition of bad may not be the same as theirs, so you need to be flexible. If there is something you really like that you think they should read, that’s great, but you need to work with them, create a certain level of trust where they know that you understand what they want. That way, they will take it from you, even if there is a girl with a big fancy dress on the cover. Besides, it is not the role of the librarian to change boys’ interests by making them read what we consider books with “literary merit” (or to battle sexism by making sure readers go beyond stereotypes). Constantly evaluating and therefore judging what boys are reading may have negative effects. In fact, some research even suggests that not only is society undervaluing what boys are reading, but that boys themselves pick up the same attitude. A 2009 Canadian study by the University of Ontario that examined the personal book collections of boys aged 4-12 found that the majority of these collections were made up of science fiction, fantasy, sports stories, humorous tales and non-fiction (e.g. joke books), comics, magazines, toy books, puzzle books and gaming manuals. Boys described their favorite books (most of them chose non-fiction titles) as “not really being reading” and made a distinction between “real books” and information books. This was partly because things like computer magazines, role-playing game manuals, comic books and joke books were not held in high regard by libraries, schools and parents.
We at Boys Do Read do ‘stereotype’, because in our experience, there is a marked difference in what boys want and what girls want, though obviously there are lots of exceptions. And remember, 2 of our 3 current contributors are women.
Ultimately, Lipsyte is asking for more books. Since when was having more books a problem?