Thursday, December 4, 2008

Now we are blaming the fathers

Is it open season on teens and reading this week or what? There was all the Caitlin Flanagan fun a few days ago and now we have School Library Journal telling us that mothers read too much to their children and that is why boys stop reading. Or alternately they feel compelled to stop because of some need to separate fully from girls and all things they think girls like and thus can no longer read after elementary school just like they can no longer be friends with girls.

I'm not making this up, and here's the proof:

Boys loved being read to when they were tots. Now, as teens, they still like somebody reading to them. But somewhere between third and fifth grade, there was a disconnect between boys and books. Aha! Isn’t that when gender consciousness bursts into full flower? When the lines are drawn between the sexes? Sure, before then, in the schoolyard, boys played with boys and girls with girls. But back at home, in the neighborhood, things were different: young boys and girls still played together. In fact, some were best friends. But by the time boys hit third grade, those who played with girls became the butt of other guys’ jokes. So instead, they did boy things—and reading wasn’t one of them.

Someone's going to have to tell me just what that magic button is that gets pushed in the third grade because I bet a lot of parents would like to dodge that "girls bad" bullet.

Here's the other fun part:

Moms frequently read to their young sons at bedtime. Elementary school teachers and media specialists, who are primarily women, read to their classes. And in movies and on TV, it’s women or girls who are typically rushing off to their book clubs. Men don’t read—instead, they do. For instance, men don’t read books about hunting, they hunt. They don’t devour novels about race-car driving; they go to drag races—and often take along their sons. For many boys, reading becomes a chore that prevents them from pursuing manly things, like playing sports, fishing, rock climbing, and, later, chasing girls. Testosterone keeps guys running and gunning, and if they don’t see members of their own tribe reading—trust me—they won’t deem it important.

Leaving aside the cliches about what men and women like that are thrown out in this paragraph, (Okay I can't leave them alone - men hunt and race cars while women read books? Did Sarah Palin leaning over that bloody moose carcass and the ten zillion pictures of Barack Obama with a book in his hand show us anything about modern gender roles at all??) This argument - and lord knows we have all heard it before - does not work for me because if it was true there would be thousands (and thousands) of more female writers in this country then male. Men would not grow up reading and thus they would not pursue writing careers. And yet, we know that is not true. This makes me wonder then where all the male writers come from in America. (Europe? Canada? Are they secreted across the borders at the age of 18?)

Also, why - FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY - do people feel so comfortable making huge sweeping statements like this? In my house my father read as much as my mother (if not more according to my brother) and my brother is still a voracious reader. All the guys at the comic shop I frequent are just that, guys. I worked with guys at the bookstore in Fairbanks, I went to grad school with many many guys (all of whom had to read tons of books just to stay in there) and most of my teachers in college were - wait for it - guys.

Men read. Can we just acknowledge this once and for all? Men read.

Having written all that, yes I do know that girls seem to read more than boys in the teenage years. There are studies and I did read them and part of that was why Guys Lit Wire was created in the first place - to find a way to get teenage boys reading more. However, I have a critical difference of opinion with this article. I do not think that boys (or girls) read or don't read because of what other people do (or don't do) in their homes. My parents, as I mentioned above, were huge readers but they each came from parents who never read anything when they were growing up beyond the local newspaper (and even that was not a given). So why did they become huge readers? Who knows - but they did. And they aren't the only kids who grew up in houses without reading parents who still managed to crack open a book.

Should we encourage more teenage boys to read? Yes - in any way, shape or form (and that includes comics) just as we should encourage teenage girls. But blaming it on the parents this way? Saying one reads too much to their kids and one reads too little? How does that help exactly? Why not just suggest taking the kids to the bookstore for a treat? (My parents did that.) Or taking them to the library and letting them get whatever they want (and hanging out perusing the books yourself and waiting for them and making it a family thing)? (My parents did that too.) Or letting them grab an Archie comic at the check out stand? (Yep - my folks again.)

You don't have to be a reader to raise one, you just have to be an interested parent who encourages your kid to read. And you know what else? I graduated from high school with a close friend I made in the first grade - and one from the second - and several from the seventh and the eighth and all of them, a dozen or more, were boys. Some of them were readers and some weren't but all of us managed to still enjoy going out for pizza, watching movies and hitting the beach to surf in spite of the fact that we weren't the same gender.

Will wonders never cease?


Unknown said...

Well, we have to admit there's a problem somewhere or else the purpose of this blog doesn't make sense.

Anecdotally, it's easy to say that there is a problem of parental influence because it appears to break down along gender lines. The problem is that we know boys are different than girls when it comes to reading -- and everything else -- but all of the research tends to grasp at social causes.

I think it's in the brain. I think it's a question of different wiring. Instead of looking to blame external factors let's accept that there is an internal situation at hand and work toward addressing that.

We generally accept that there are four modalities of learning -- auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic -- and if we want to use these general, sweeping ideas we can say that girls are more auditory and visual while boys are more tactile and kinesthetic. In other words, the girls are more verbal and the boys are more active. That said, if all of our instruction, if all of our attempts to engage a reader relies entirely on appealing to only half of those modalities then the other half are going to fall off, and be written off, as disinterested. From there we can make the observation that like-attracts-like, and then it simply becomes dad's taking sons to the drag races.

The question then, as I see it, isn't how to make a book physically more tactile and kinesthetic (the interactive Ology books, for example, or a choose-your-own-ending type story), but how to write books that appeal to that active mind.

Non-fiction is the easy answer because it satisfies the active curiosity by explaining how things work or happen. Its details are concrete, they're tangible things, about stuff that can be manipulated. The problem when we talk about boys and reading is always a problem with fiction. The problem is the very nature of what we accept as fiction, "good" fiction, versus a type of fiction that will appeal to the boy mind.

Here's where I get myself in some hot water.

I'm in school, working toward an MFA in writing for children and young adults. There isn't a month that goes by where I'm not reminded that the secret, the focus, that the whole of good writing is character-based and loaded with emotions. Character is story, I'm told, and we need to know what the character is thinking and feeling. There is a character, and they want something, and obstacles in their way, and we have to get them into and out of situations under their own steam, and that, I am told, makes good fiction.


So if every "good" story is about a character setting a goal and overcoming obstacles, and if that one accepted model doesn't appeal to boys, then maybe boys are right to reject reading. If time and again boys are told "this is a good book" and all books follow the same formula, then don't they learn over time to hate the formula?

It's the "date movie" problem. The boys want action movies where things happen and blow up and no one is talking about feelings; girls want the exact opposite. But the fact is that both types of movies are out there, and in measure, boys and girls (and men and women) will cross the line to see the other side. But where is the other side in fiction if there are no pure action stories? Or rather, what is the message we send male readers when we say "feelings good, action bad" in terms of what is acceptable?

Look, boys will read and enjoy stories about characters struggling to achieve goals, and that express their feelings, but we have to recognize that they want something more. We have to acknowledge that plot-driven stories are as legitimate as character-driven stories and not make every book a lesson. Those of us who know better know that reading is fun, but we have to teach that to readers -- all readers. And to do that we have to acknowledge that different genders have different ideas about what constitutes fun.

Terry Doherty said...

I had not read the SLJ article; based on your exerpts, benign neglect may have been the right choice.

Your examples of making books and reading are not only simple to do, but are gender neutral. They don't require a two-parent household and they are very simple things to do. As parents we're always looking for 5 minutes of "me" time, so why not let a book help you?

David - Your points about the four modalities of learning really struck a chord. My first grader loves to read, but is one of those "more active" students and is being written off not for disinterest, but for disruption. As a sensory-seeker, she needs tactile and kinesthetic input to keep her engaged. Yellow Socks and Red Socks doesn't work for long.

We need to present information with as many dimensions as possible (and which make sense). Once you move beyond touch-and-feel books, the story has to carry the load. Books that illustrate action (or create it through words) create a bridge and show readers-to-be that there are lots of ways to tell a story: sometimes its a character, sometimes it's the action (plot).

Thanks for the food for thought this morning.

Kimberly/lectitans said...

I took an informal poll of my students after reading this. Out of 20 students, 10 said they read fiction for fun. 7 were girls, 3 were boys. (Ethnicity might be a topic of interest too, but I'm leaving that aside for now.) 5 said they read non-fiction for fun, 1 girl and 4 boys. (There was significant overlap with the fiction readers.)

I then asked who read magazines, and almost all hands went up.

The part of this article I take issue with the most is the notion that girls read and boys do. The specific examples of hunting and race cars immediately led me to think of how many students I've known who read magazines on those topics: clearly it's not the reading that is the problem. It is, maybe, the modality of that reading. Nonfiction describes specific things and tells you how to do stuff. If fiction can incorporate these, I think it would appeal to a wider audience of both boys and girls.

Little Willow said...

Oh my gracious.

I had friends that were guys in elementary school, middle school, and high school. I still do now. Some of my closest friends are male, some are female.

I will definitely be re-reading this and reacting it at my blog next week, when time allows.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I think the original article was in the ballpark, but muddled the point. I grew up with two families. My bio dad was a voracious reader (as was my mom) who never told me I HAD to read. He just had these monster bookshelves filled with books that he read and re-read and I figured that if he loved them so much, I probably would too, because he was my dad and I looked up to him. When my mom re-married, her husband didn't read at all. He had two boys and they didn't read either. My reading was looked upon with disdain and confusion. My step-dad didn't get it (until my report card came in) because he didn't do it, and the boys wouldn't do it because their dad didn't. Even when my mom tried to encourage them to read, they resisted because they were simply not brought up in a household where reading was considered masculine.

I wouldn't fault their father, but fathers DO have an effect of how their boys view the world.

But in the end, I don't think boys are THAT much different from girls in what they want to read. Boys want good books. I think the barrier to getting boys the books they want to read resides in the fact that boys are often embarrassed to be caught reading because it's usually not considered masculine (at least it wasn't when I was in middle/high school). I think if we're going to get around that, we have to write books that boys are going to feel secure reading, books they won't be embarrassed to read. Why do boys like non-fiction? It's because no one's going to make fun of them for reading a book about how tanks work. Or about the life of a great general. But a book about magic? Princes or princesses?

Joe Cottonwood said...

When I was a boy, the last thing I wanted was to be like my father. Fortunately, somehow, I ended up reading books anyway.

And here's what I read when I was a tween and young teen: action/adventure, and - brace yourselves - softcore porn. Because I was trying to figure out girls. The softcore porn didn't really help any, but it was the best I could find.

At some point boys want to figure out girls. The gatekeepers of children's lit don't want to acknowledge sexuality until the boys are of an age where they'll read adult books anyway.

Vampire books are an attempt to get sexual stuff to younger readers. That's why they work.

All right, get out the smelling salts, a lot of youth librarians are going to faint, but the fact is that action and sexuality are going to interest boys.

Joe Cottonwood said...

And quickly let me clarify that I'm not advocating porn for kids. But books that deal honestly with sexual issues - at ages younger than we squeamish adults want to acknowledge - will get boys to read them.

Colleen said...

Just to clarify, the reason we started this site was because we thought part of the problem was that books that are touted for teens are more aimed at girls than boys. Using Harry Potter as the example - which even with a male protag is a pretty gender neutral story - it is clear that middle grade readers get a lot of books recommended to them that work just as fine for boys as girls. But as they become teens the books skew heavily in the girls' direction (gossip girls, Twilight, etc are all the best sellers these days). Boys do seem to like nonfiction better, or genre fiction such as SFF, mystery, westerns or comics. And these books just don't seem to capture as much media attention.

(I'd love to know the gender breakdown on "Little Brother" for example - I bet it is more boys than girls reading that one.)

I do agree that parents matter in this area as they do in pretty much all others but the notion that your mother reading to you can ruin your chances to become a reader for life just seems laughable to me. And further I agree very much with Kimberly that certain types of reading don't seem to count as much as others. (For example, should reading "Popular Science" or "Racecar Engineering" two technical magazines my husband enjoys be valued as less significant than "Twilight" merely because of page count?)

I also agree with David on different types of learning but I will say that I think books are out there to make boys happy. We just need to let them know about them - which is something Guys Lit Wire is uniquely qualified to do.

gonovice said...

From the article: "Men don’t read—instead, they do. For instance, men don’t read books about hunting, they hunt... For many boys, reading becomes a chore..."

I'm a hunter (for mushrooms). And reading helps me be a better hunter. In the library, when moms tell me their son is a "reluctant reader," I ask the boy what he's interested in (and get him away from the anxious mom if possible). Then we find books (or magazines) concerning his interests - some fiction, some not.
The very small percentage of children's librarians who are male is a problem.

Unknown said...

gonovice, thank you. This is also true in the retail sector as well. As a former male bookseller in a children's book store (I'm still male, just not a bookseller) I was such a rarity that sometimes adults would flinch.

And when I say parents I meant women, because it was equally rare to see men with their boys shopping. This is another one of those cultural elements that underscores the problem. If men don't teach their sons the value of reading and buying books by example then culturally the message sent is that it is less important; or, that it is something that only women do, reinforcing a stereotype.

In the store I would have to find a way to do exactly as you suggest - separate the boys from their mothers. The trouble was, if I found a book that interested them their mothers would scoff because it usually wasn't high literature. Or worse, nonfiction.

We can't only blame the fathers here. It's much larger than that.