When I found out that I was pregnant with my second son, I didn’t despair (as some of my friends have) about never having a daughter. But I did have a small flutter of panic—about books. I’d been looking forward to reading with my own kids the stories that I loved most. What if my sons balked at some of the books that I adored—the Betsy-Tacy series, All-of-a-Kind Family, Anne of Green Gables, and of course, the Little House series?
The conventional educational wisdom holds that boys don’t like to read about girls. If a book has a girl on the cover, it’s toast, no matter how adventure-filled or well written. And this isn’t a phenomenon of puberty. The prejudice supposedly starts early in elementary school, if not before. I decided not to believe it. While my children aren’t the literary equivalent of boys whose mother makes them wear frilly collars, I often pull a beloved “girl” book off the shelf of the library and bring it home. And to my surprise Eli, who is 6, has been with me all the way.
For this reason, the recent fretting that boys are laggard readers makes me nervous. I don’t like the idea of teachers or librarians steering my sons toward some preconceived notion of “boy-friendly” reading material. Don’t tell my boys, subtly or directly, that they’d probably prefer a book with a boy for a hero. Don’t even point out the distinction.
To my relief, I’ve found that most advocates of boy reading aren’t so narrow-minded. They are not trying to direct boys toward a list of masculine titles—in fact, they’re refreshingly skeptical about assigned reading in the first place. Instead, their aim is to enliven the standard fare for both genders. What they have discovered is that many boys like so-called “girl” books, but for different reasons than girls do.
Ever since Nancy Drew outperformed the Hardy Boys in the 1930s, it’s been clear that boys will read some stories about girls. Publishers have marketed titles to take advantage of this fact. The Amazon entry for Little House in the Big Woods, for example, urges boys to “take another peek at their sisters’ shelves.” This Little House book, it promises, “is full of the thrills, chills, and spills typically associated with ‘boy’ books.” The real appeal of Little House for many boys probably isn’t the narrative, but rather the precise and detailed descriptions of how to tap a maple tree for syrup or load a musket. Betsy-Tacy and All-of-a-Kind Family, too, are full of information about their worlds. According to Eden Ross Lipson, the author of The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children, boys read on a need-to-know basis: To generalize wildly, “They don’t set out looking for story and relationship. They set out looking for information.”
Why then do a lot of boys get turned off from reading sometime in elementary or middle school? The blame partly lies with librarians. They are mostly women, they tend to love stories, and they also have a thing for books that teach moral lessons. (Take a look at this list of the winners of the Newbery Medal for children’s literature awarded by the American Library Association.) Librarians also play a hugely important role in children’s book publishing. “You don’t get a walloping success without that institutional support,” says Lipson, who is the former editor of the children’s section of the New York Times Book Review. Authors like Jon Scieszka ( The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!, The Stinky Cheese Man) and Gary Paulsen ( Hatchet, the Tucket adventures) have hit home runs with books whose humor or historical element appeal especially to boys. But they’re the exceptions. Librarians and teachers often look down on boy humor or nonfiction, and their disdain seeps through to the boys who crave those things. “What we’re doing now is pushing one thing: fine literature,” says Scieszka, a former teacher. “For some kids, that doesn’t do it.”
To address this shortfall, Scieszka started the Web site guysread.com and put together Guys Write for Guys Read, a collection that includes Stephen King’s memories of a farting babysitter. Other boy-reader advocates are agitating to fill a gap on the nonfiction shelf. As a toddler, the author Marc Aronson’s son was obsessed with cars. Aronson found him My Car. From there he could go to Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, but that was about it. “For a boy like my son who would love to start with the diagram in My Car and move on to learning to identify the parts of a car, and to getting a sense of how a car works, there is almost nothing,” Aronson writes. “Our books should be the dad who once-upon-a-time lifted up the hood and explained how it all worked.”
Aha. Now I understand why Eli and my younger son Simon, who is 3, choose over and over again to read what they call “The Huckle Book”—Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? “But there’s no story!” I have whined to them. Nevermore. What the Scarry book has in abundance are diagrams that show how to build a house, construct a road, log forests to make paper. In addition, some experts think that watching men in the family read makes a difference. Which means, I guess, that every time my husband lies down on the beach with a book he’s doing his part for our kids, though I’m sure they’d prefer he’d stick to what he does best: building sand castles.
While I’ve still got Anne of Green Gables on my library list, sorting out the boy-reader critique has broadened my horizons. It helped me make my peace with Cowboys, the book Eli brought home last week when his school gave out books in celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. “Did someone tell you to take that book?” I ask, my own nose wrinkling, as I imagined a teacher wresting a book with a girl on the cover out of my son’s hands. “No, I picked it,” Eli said. Of course. When we opened the book, Simon wanted to look only at the page with an array of cowboy equipment—hat, lasso, saddle, bridle, three different guns, and a holster. “Win-ches-ter Rifle,” Eli sounded out. “Rem-ing-ton 44.” “How do guns work?” Simon wanted to know. Good thing we can turn to Little House for Pa’s step-by-step instructions on how to load a musket.