I just read a fantastic article by Charles London (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-london/there-are-no-boy-books_b_943623.html), author of The Accidental Adventures series about the perception of boy readers – specifically asking whether or not boy books exist and just what exactly defines a boy book. I think he hits on some incredibly salient points, namely that instead of looking to books in terms of gender, we should be looking at them in terms of topic, and marketing them that way – a great example would be J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which seems to have something for everyone – a teenaged male protagonist for the boys and a teenaged female protagonist for the girls, along with adventure, thrills, humor, death, etc which delight its billions of readers.
What we’re not looking at, though, is an implicit patriarchy and homophobia that’s preventing us from allowing a wide berth for boy readers. Stay with me, now – it’s not a huge stretch. When girls read “boy” books, at most they be called “tomboys,” but more often than not, girls are expected to be able to handle all kinds of reading and so it’s not thought of as remarkable if a girl embraces a book that’s marketing toward boys.
But if an adolescent boy develops an interest in “girl” books, there may be fear that he is either a) a sissy b) “soft” or c) gay. These reasons, propped up by our societal conditioning of boys to act out certain “masculine” roles at an early age, could be why boys won’t reach out to “girl” books – which may include either romances or female-centered stories. Think about it – if a boy read The Sisters of the Traveling Pants or Sweet Valley High series, chances are he’d at least get teased about it at school (if not worse). This, of course, doesn’t just confine itself to reading, but movies, music, television, toys, etc – we’ve prescribed these ideas of gender so early, that for a lot of us, we don’t even know when we’re doing it.
And even if people are somewhat enlightened, they still fall into the trap – I do it myself. For example, I read a story a while back about celebrity chef and food author, Ina Garten who refused a Make-a-Wish Foundation kid’s request to meet; the kid was an 6-year old boy. Immediately my reaction was “What’s an 6-year old boy doing wanting to meet up with Ina Garten.” My gay friends immediately saw inklings of homosexuality in the tyke. What we should really be doing is acknowledging that cooking or interest in food is something that everyone can enjoy and leave it at that. The Ina Garten story, by the way, ends sort-of-okay – the self-described Barefoot Contessa reached out to the kid through a phone call (maybe a visit, not sure), while the Make-a-Wish folks got him a sweet deal swimming with the dolphins (his second wish).
This kind of gendered thinking in literary terms isn’t new – Jane Austen was perceived to be “light” and “fluff” when compared to her male counterparts because her novels dealt with domestic matters as opposed to explicitly social issues (though her books were great primers on gender reality in Georgian society). Books written by men were considered weightier because they often attacked world views through satire and criticism (forgetting for a moment, of course, that most women were confined to the home).
So the solution would be simply to expose both girls and boys to different kinds of literature and let them decide what they like and what they hate. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. A boy may very well find The Babysitters Club series to be wonderful, but because he’s worried his friends will destroy him at the playground for reading them, he may choose to opt for something else. Which is a shame (only nominally, because while I support a child’s right to read whatever he/she likes, regardless of gender, I’d hate to think that the choice would be The Babysitters Club).
And the question still remains what do we do? Well, the answer is up to teachers, parents and librarians – the adults need to stop codifying literary taste according to gender and they need to suppress their knee-jerk reaction to recoil in horror if a little boy walks into a room with a copy of Anne of Green Gables. Let the kid read the book – it’s a lovely tale of a girl who overcomes the crippling societal stigma of being an orphan and becomes a teacher and a writer – a lesson that a boy can relate to, just as much as a girl.
Finally, reading itself may also be seen as a feminine pursuit – boys should be out, playing sports, getting dirty, etc. Well, some should (if they want to, though God knows why a kid would want to do that). What this means is that if a boy opts out of climbing trees, but prefers to sit on a bench reading, that he’s less-manly than his peers. And conversely, the stereotype also constricts girls into acting out binding roles which they may find oppressive, as well – if a girl wants to be a mini-Amazon and play football in the mud, she should be encouraged.
I’m not making the case that boys and girls are identical and that gender has not distinctions (besides the obvious physical ones). All I’m saying is that within each gender, there are distinctions – we’ve got to get used to the fact that there will be lots of definitions of “boy” and lots of definitions of “girl.” By looking at the individual child, and letting him decide on shaping his own identity on his own, he will be able to define his own interests and likes.
Also, one last point (I know I said “finally” a couple paragraphs ago), I think reading is fundamental and beneficial to everyone – boy or girl and even though I’m advocating kids defining their own interests and pursuits, they should be challenged to take up reading – whatever kind it is.