Book publishers cannot figure out why boys don’t read. An industry that is churning out books written by women for girls cannot understand why boys do not rush into these empathy-laden ouvrages. It cannot imagine why boys do not want to get in touch with their feminine side.
The hidden question here is, why don’t these books help girls to get in touch with something other than their feelings? At a time when most women want to participate in the world of business and professions the books on offer do nothing to prepare them for that world.
Robert Lipsyte wrote a whiny piece about the problem for the New York Times several years. Martin Cothran took up the issue recently on the Intellectual Takeout blog (via Maggie’s Farm.)
When Lipsyte addressed the problem he missed the point completely. What he saw as the solution was really the problem. He thought that reading was a good thing because it helped boys get in touch with their feelings. In truth, boys refuse to read such books because they recognize that being in touch with their feelings will make them weak and ineffectual. Remember when they refused to eat Michelle Obama’s famous lunches of grass and weeds.
If we’re to counter this tendency and encourage reading among boys who may collectively resist it, boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.
Heaven forfend, boys do not feel comfortable exploring emotions and feelings in fiction. Did it ever occur to these whiny weepy souls that there is a lot more to fiction than exploring emotions and feelings? And that perhaps people should be reading fiction for some other reason than to become more sensitive? Boys are surely more interested in historical fiction and nonfiction-- about fiction based on facts-- than they are in books about girlie boys.
On his Web site, guysread.com, the teacher and author Jon Scieszka writes that boys “don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction. . . . Boys don’t have enough positive male role models for literacy. Because the majority of adults involved in kids’ reading are women, boys might not see reading as a masculine activity.”
Boys don’t read because so many books have been written for girls. Whatever happened to the Hardy Boys?
Michael Cart, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, agrees. “We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become,” he told me. “In a commercially driven publishing environment, the emphasis is currently on young women.” And then some. At the 2007 A.L.A. conference, a Harper executive said at least three-quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires.
Again, the world of young adult publishing is a pink ghetto. Its inhabitants do not understand why boys are not attracted to books that have predominantly female characters. This form of mind control has not been working:
The current surge in children’s literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from M.F.A. programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction. Their novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers. It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.
So, boys are left with their video games and sports. And perhaps with the news. They prefer a world that corresponds more faithfully to the real world, the world outside of the salon or the kitchen or the boudoir.
Boys prefer video games and ESPN to book versions of them. These knockoffs also lack the tough, edgy story lines that allow boys a private place to reflect on the inner fears of failure and humiliation they try so hard to brush over. Editors who ask writers of books for boys to include girl characters — for commercial reasons — further blunt the edges.
Of course, one suspects that most of the books that would appeal to boys have already been removed from school reading lists because they are politically incorrect. How many children are still allowed to read about Huckleberry Finn? Do you think that anyone assigns A Clockwork Orange or The Catcher in the Rye?
The attempt to feminize the culture has run up against the burgeoning masculinity of teenage boys. Unfortunately, if the books being produced are luring girls into thinking that the real world is a pink ghetto, it is doing them a disservice too.