22 July 2009

How Come They Can’t Find Any Boy Books?

Diantha McBride's article for School Library Journal described several disparate things she as a school librarian would like to see from publishers, including:

I need more books for boys--as do most librarians who work with young people. I've noticed that lots of books with female characters aren't really about being female. In fact, in many cases, the main characters could just as easily have been males--and that would make my job a lot easier.

Our young guys love Anthony Horowitz's “Alex Rider” series (Philomel), Dav Pilkey's stuff, and Jonathan London and Frank Remkiewicz's “Froggy” books (Viking). But a novel like Ann Halam's Siberia (Random House, 2005) could have included a male protagonist. (Sorry, Ann, but it's true.) And Gloria Whelan's The Impossible Journey (HarperCollins, 2003) could have featured an older brother and a younger sister--instead of 13-year-old Marya and her younger brother, Georgi.

Am I being silly? Probably, but some of our boys have never read a complete book in their lives. It's important to offer them good, appealing stories, and, sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters.
Martha Brockenbrough at MSN Movie News, of all places, replied to McBride with an essay titled "Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?" Her main point:
the problem isn't the books, it's the way we're raising our boys. If they aren't willing to read about girls, and if we're indulging that sort of nonsense, then we are raising boys who will have a hard time functioning in a world where girls play serious roles. In other words, the real world. . . .

We need to teach them to take an interest in all sorts of stories, not just the ones that feature kids like them. This means exposing them to a lot of different stuff. We should, of course, encourage kids to find themselves in books. That's a wonderful and powerful thing. But we should help them find people who are different, too, so they learn to value other ways of being in the world.
I agreed with that sentiment, but as I considered my response to the discussion I felt something nag at me. It took a while before I realized what it was. McBride's complaint is based on a false premise: that we're drastically undersupplied with books about boys.

There are hundreds of new children's books published each month. And older books don't expire at the end of the year; they're still on shelves, too. Plus, the internet has made more books more widely available than ever in the history of literature. Surely among all those thousands of books there are enough with male protagonists for a boy with that requirement to read for an entire year. He just needs to know about them. But publishers aren't hiding that information.

Furthermore, McBride works at the American School of Madrid, which is hardly representative of American school libraries. I suspect the boys there come largely from the upper and upper-middle classes, with cosmopolitan parents who value education and have the means to provide it. If those boys "have never read a complete book in their lives," even when their librarian knows about Pilkey and Horowitz, then they must be making an effort to resist.

McBride is apparently willing to spend her budget on new, unproven books with male protagonists because her male students tell her they can't find anything interesting to read. Those are probably the same boys who stand in front of an open refrigerator complaining that they can't find any food.


Mordena said...

I'm also disturbed by the idea that if a protagonist could be male, then he SHOULD be male. As if life was so much better back when girl heroines were few and far between.

max said...

I appreciate any efforts to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it.

That's because I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

My blog, Books for Boys http://booksandboys.blogspot.com recently reached # 1 on Google.

Keep up your good work concerning reading.

Max Elliot Anderson

BJW said...

I still do that, with the fridge I mean. Good thoughts.

Susan said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you. As a parent of both boy and girl children who are active readers, there are already plenty of fabulous, exciting, and funny books featuring a male main character.

Boys are also willing to read books with girls as the main character quite frequently. The Inkheart trilogy is a great example of a book with a female main character that appeals as much if not more to boys than it does to girls. What would be gained by making that character a boy? Why should authors feel pressure to change their art? Why should we revert to 1950's sensibilities?