This morning I read an article in the August 27, 2018, issue of The New Yorker called “Ladies’ Choice” about the history and staying power of Little Women. Joan Acocella explains the rationale for Little Women‘s creation on page 76:
If there were tales written specifically for boys–adventure tales–why shouldn’t there also be stories about girls’ concerns, written for them? Girls liked reading more than boys did. (This is still true.)
I almost spewed my coffee. This parenthetical aside got me frustrated enough that I wrote my first letter to the editor. I emailed it earlier this morning. I wrote:
Joan Acocella in her analysis of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women asserted that girls formerly and currently like reading more than boys. Most enthusiastic teachers of reading would claim a student, girl or boy, who does not like reading just has not found the right book yet. Moreover, categorizing any book as being exclusively for boys or girls reinforces dangerous stereotypes and dissuades some students from the picking up the very book they may need at the moment.
I could have gone into more detail, but I didn’t want to be long-winded. I guess that’s why I have a blog! I can write as much as I want.
Two reading myths need to be dispelled.
- Girls like to read. Boys don’t.
- There are girl books and boy books.
In my thirteen years of teaching English, I encountered many students of both genders who liked to read. From my early years of teaching, I can still think of three boys–Leighton, Tyler, and Aaron–who were voracious readers. Leighton read Lonesome Dove (864 pages!) as an eighth grader. Tyler read the Inheritance cycle like it was nothing. Aaron could buzz through any book he found or I recommended.
I also knew a healthy amount who did not–from both genders–despite my best efforts to convert them into readers.
Perhaps it is true that more girls than boys choose reading as a hobby. It’s quiet and requires focus and maturity, traits that girls tend to have more of than boys at a younger age. Reading also tends to be feminized in popular culture, although there is a tumblr called Hot Dudes Reading. And if we’re talking test scores, girls regularly outperform the boys almost every time. In every country tested for the PISA in 2015, girls scored higher than boys on the reading section:
Source: OECD (2018), Reading performance (PISA) (indicator). doi: 10.1787/79913c69-en (Accessed on 25 August 2018)
I was a little boy who loved books. My parents read to me as a child before I started school and continued to do so once I began my educational career at Harmony Public School in Atoka County. My second grade teacher, Miss Rice, read Charlotte’s Web aloud to us, and I was so moved by the ending, I cried. I knew then the power that books held. I soon began devouring series like Little House on the Prairie, Ramona Quimby, The Boxcar Children, and Encyclopedia Brown. So maybe I get a little defensive about boys not liking to read because I did.
The idea that certain books are for boys and certain books are for girls is very dangerous. It reinforces stereotypes and makes students feel unsafe in exploring themselves and worlds, real or imagined. A good book is a good book. Who are we to decide a book is only good for one gender? That’s why I would encourage teachers and librarians to not categorize books as “chick lit” or “lad lit/boy books” in their school or classroom libraries. This sends a message to students that something is wrong with them if they want to read a book from the opposing gender. If Nora wants to read a book about two boys who get lost on a camping adventure, let her. If Jackson wants to read a book about a girl who has a secret crush on one her classmates, let him.
Pernille Ripp has already written an excellent blog post, taking down the idea of boy books and girl books. In her conclusion, she writes:
So I am wondering if we for once and for all, can we all agree that there is no such thing as a girl or a boy book? That kids need to be exposed to characters that inspire them, no matter their gender. That kids need to be exposed to characters that will expand their worldviews and invite them into new worlds that they knew little of before, no matter their gender.
Reading is for everyone: girls and boys, women and men, and those caught in the middle–little women and little men–the teenagers in middle schools and high schools across our country.