Opposing Viewpoints

The question of boys and reading is one that comes up from time to time, and always brings about strong reactions based both on the actual article in question and the personal experiences of those reading the article.

Take, for example, Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope? by Robert Lipsyte at The New York Times. Lipsyte states his thesis: “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.” But I think it’s also about the books being published. 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.””

Some people got upset at what they viewed as a slam at both girls who read and the females in publishing and libraries and bookstores. Because then Lipsyte went on to say, “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.” 

Lipsyte noted a lack of books like in the good old days. Which, well, it’s easy to put together book lists to counter the lack of existing titles: Saundra Mitchell addressed this at The Problem is Not the Books and added a long list at And This is Why the Problem is Not the Books.

I confess; I wasn’t a fan of some of what Lipsyte said. But I’m also not of fan of gendering reading with boy books and girl books; I’ve seen girls get as happy about world record books as boys, and boys love Twilight. I’d much rather talk about books for those who want action, or quick reads, or emotional exploration, etc., than talking “boy” and “girl” books. I’m especially not a fan of statements that seem to imply that so-called girl books are “lesser” — written by those females who otherwise would be midlist authors  and of a lesser literary value: “the next spate of Y.A. fiction tended to be simplistic problem novels that read like after-school specials, and soon split along gender lines. Books with story lines about disease, divorce, death and dysfunction sold better for girls than did similar books for boys. The shift seemed to fundamentally alter the Y.A. landscape.”

A detailed response in that vein is NY Times to YA Publishing: Stop Being So Girly by Aja Romano at The Mary Sue. As the title shows, it goes into detail about gender; here’s a snippet: “Reticence on men’s part to read about girls isn’t some kind of inevitable byproduct of the inferiority of “women’s stories,” whatever those are. It’s the social upbringing that boys undergo that teaches them that anything women like is inherently inferior, just as it teaches women that if they enjoy the things that men like, they may not be real women.”

While Maureen Johnson did not blog about this particular article, a past post of hers is applicable: Sell the Girls. As she states, “So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart.”

I’m not saying, take the adventure book away from the boy and make him read the romance or vice versa. I’m saying, adventure books aren’t boy books, they are adventure books. Romance books aren’t girl books, they are romance books. Girls, gasp, may want adventure books and not romance books. What are we saying to both boys and girls when we say from the start, adventure=boy and romance=girl?

I’m not denying that if we ask 100 boys and 100 girls to list their favorite books some titles that are popular on the boys list won’t be on the girls list and vice versa. However, that does not make those books boy or girl books. What such a list does is make things “easy” in that a person can say “book for twelve year old boy” rather than what that individual wants from a book. I’m also not denying that books and readers are complicated, but that’s part of my point — they are complicated. Much more complicated than “boys like xxx”.

To be honest, not everyone reacted the way I and others did. Some people were very much “this is a great article!” I’m not linking to those only because I saw that reaction mainly on Twitter or listservs; I think people are less inclined to blog agreement, anyway. Lipsyte does make valid points and I think it’s good to be aware of the need for a balanced collection and readers advisory that goes beyond one’s own personal likes and opinions. For example, let’s look real quick at booktalks. Some people insist that booktalks should only be about books the librarian likes, and I disagree, because then you get the favorites of grown up females (that is, the librarians) and that is not going to be a wide enough appeal for all the people in the classroom. My personal belief is that most librarians today realize that, and do a lot to make sure their collection and booktalks etc are balanced. An article like Lipsyte’s is a good reminder of the different things out there that appeal to different readers, and a need to keep those needs in mind.

If you have links to other reactions to the New York Times article, leave them in the comments, please! And also share your own thoughts and reactions.


22 thoughts on “Opposing Viewpoints

  1. I share your reaction to the article and appreciate your ability to express it.

    I have long felt that the whole “oh no! there are no boy books” issue is a really a nonissue. I often (as a former teacher at an all boys’ school and a mother of three boys) hear “Do you have any good book recommendations for boys?” and have no problem coming up with suggestions because I read a lot of MG and YA and simply recommend what I or one of my children think is *good*. I think if adults are recommending, when asked, only what they *think* will appeal to boys, surely that limits the selection of “boy books.”

    Some of my children’s favorite books have been books that feature a female protagonist… in fact, the first *long* chapter book my oldest took out of my hands (we had been reading it aloud together) and finished reading to himself because he couldn’t wait for the next read aloud session was THE STAR OF KAZAN by Eva Ibbotson, which is certainly not what most would deem a “boy book.” He also prefers my old Trixie Belden mysteries to the Hardy Boys. (Though, to be honest, he would not hardly recommend Trixie at school to his friends.)

    It is true that I only read the first Charlie Bone book and my son is hooked and is currently reading the seventh (which happened with Gregor the Overlander, too)… it isn’t as if we all love the same books all of the time. But in these two cases, *I* was the one who wasn’t interested in continuing with the two series, while he was more than happy to continue reading aloud with me all of the Little House books… and, after reading THE SATURDAYS and GONE-AWAY LAKE together, he went on to read all of Elizabeth Enright’s books himself. My middle son, after reading all of the Stink books, glanced at me in the book store and said he will probably start reading about Judy Moody next.

    I think if adults are reading aloud/recommending/book-talking to children all types of *good* books, boys and girls alike will find that they can find books that appeal to them from all different genres. I have read the EVERYTHING PUDDING chapter from Maud Hart Lovelace’s BETSY TACY & TIB to classroom after classroom of children (as has my husband, a grade school principal) and, never fail, the boys love it just as well as the girls.

    Okay, I’ve rambled long enough and will find some coffee now. Thanks for your post… great as always.


  2. I was a girl who really enjoyed and read a lot of what were labeled “boy books” in my youth, and I was extremely self-conscious about it, to the point where I deliberately would not let my friends see what I was reading most of the time. Instead of leaving books out in my room, for instance, I’d put whatever I was reading in the dresser. And forget taking whatever I was reading to school. Please. So is something I try to be aware of in my work, to not be perpetuating those kinds of attitudes. As you say, Liz, people’s reading tastes are complicated.


  3. I wasn’t a fan of some of what Lipsyte said. But I’m also not of fan of gendering reading with boy books and girl books; I’ve seen girls get as happy about world record books as boys, and boys love Twilight. I’d much rather talk about books for those who want action, or quick reads, or emotional exploration, etc., than talking “boy” and “girl” books.

    This, I think, is the crux of your point. If we’d stop stressing gender (of the characters or the readers) so much, I think we’d have more success in marketing books to the kids. It’s not what the book’s about (my girls adore Percy Jackson and Diary of a Wimpy Kid), but how the kids connect with the book.

    Conversely, it seems like the sub-point here is that there really aren’t that many men writing for a younger audience. Or teaching them. Or working in publishing houses. Somehow we’ve relegated anything to do with children to women, and then expect, magically, for there to be “boy books” out there. It’s a double standard. (Though, the counter argument to that is why can’t women writers, teachers, publishers reach a male audience? Does it have to be men connecting with boys and women connecting with girls? I don’t think so.)


  4. From the title of this post I thought, Geez, am I going to have to start booktalking “Opposing Viewpoints” to boys? Is that all that’s left for them to read?

    I think there’s a perceived lack of “books for boys,” but I don’t find that to be true in reality. My personal reading tastes tend toward fantasy and romance and the intersection thereof, but as a librarian it’s my job to read for *all* my potential patrons. Because of that I’ve read Darren Shan, Robert Muchamore, Charlie Higson, Ridley Pearson, David Levithan, Ron Koertge, Pittacus Lore, etc., etc. And, yes, I enjoyed the books – even if I might not have picked them up without making a conscious effort to do so. A lot of YA-reviewing bloggers don’t seem to read outside their comfort zone and mostly I don’t blame them because it’s a labor of love done on their own time. It does, however, add to the perception that there aren’t any novels boys might want to read.

    I patiently await the day when we can lay to rest the annoying “boys won’t read books about girls” thesis. The Hunger Games and kickass Katniss are hugely popular with guys around here. Even Twilight, which is less action-packed and features a rather passive female lead, is popular. I can see where guys might not be lined up around the block to read Anna and the French Kiss (although they might well enjoy it), but if there’s enough action the book is going to go over just fine regardless of whether the protagonist wore pink or blue as a baby.


  5. I hope most of us librarians are savvy enough to ask a kid ( of either gender) what do you like to read and respond appropriately. I do read outside of my comfort zone, but some of my comfort zone is more in sports and techie action spy stuff than in the fashionista cooking boarding school arenas. I am female, but I hope many of us females are not so limited in what we like and appreciate that we can’t advocate for a broad spectrum of titles. Maybe the real issue about lots of females in publishing and librarianship has to do with pay and not with the variety of titles we come up with.


  6. As a kid– it wasn’t THAT long ago (was it?) — I was a girl who HATED romances but ALSO hated reading books with male viewpoint characters, so I’m totally not what people assume about girl readers. And yet I still ended up finding plenty for me to read and become a total bookworm over. Somehow I think there are plenty of books for every possible taste in books, boy or girl or whatever.

    And as has been mentioned? Hunger Games is TOTALLY as popular with boys as girls. Though sometimes when I read comments on non-book-people sites about the movie adaption, I get REALLY ANNOYED at the assumptions made by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, that by virtue of it being YA about a girl that it’s going to be crappy and also romance-heavy… and I sometimes worry that it’s only people loudly blaring their assumptions that is convincing other people that this no-boy-books thing really is a problem.


  7. I was annoyed by Robert Lipsyte’s essay because he seemed to have a very narrow view of how a boy should think and act (and also because Mr Lipsyte didn’t seem to know much about contemporary YA literature). Saundra Mitchell’s and Aja Romano’s responses to his essay are brilliant, and I completely agree with your idea, Liz, that it’s much more useful to say, ‘This book is about X and Y and Z’ than to announce, ‘This is a Girl Book’ or ‘This is a Boy Book’.

    I wrote a blog post about the issue last year, after getting very irritated about some YA book reviews that labelled particular books as ‘Girl’ books: http://michellecooper-writer.com/blog/2010/10/just-a-girls-book/ . One of the reviewers subsequently contacted me and we had a discussion with some other Australian writers, reviewers and librarians. An edited version of our debate has just been published in the latest edition of ‘Viewpoint’, an Australian YA literature review journal. Sorry, there isn’t an online link to our article – but I think it’s terrific that people are discussing this issue.


  8. The crux is the larger issue of gender stereotyping in all avenues, not just publishing/education/librarianship. Books are just a subset of the bigger picture. Stereotypes and assumptions are just that. My colleagues and I are continually surprised by the book choices of our students (because we have bought into the whole gender thing to some degree…it’s inevitable, I think). Good readers’ advisory is individual…not gender specific.


  9. I do think that there are some stories written with a female audience in mind (see: Babysitters Club, Twilight, the entire romance genre) and some that are written with boys in mind, with a LOT of overlap in between.

    But I still say that anyone who claims, “Boys can’t read girl stories” has never heard of the internet phenomenon that is “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” It’s latest installment in the girliest of girly franchises, created by a feminist with the intent of empowering young girls. And it has a HUGE male fanbase.

    So yeah, boys can enjoy girl things and it doesn’t make them less of a boy. Case proven.


  10. I think part of Lipsyte’s frustration may also be that his own books (contemporary, realistic fiction aimed at boys) is just not in vogue right now. Many readers, boys and girls have been gravitating more toward fantasy. There will always be room for all genres, but it must be harder for writers who want to sell straight up stand-alone titles when so much is about multi-title series set in fantasy worlds. There was a period when realistic “problem” novels were the life blood of YA, the same period Lipsyte is a little nostalgic for.


  11. It’s a shame that realistically, the stereotypes are fairly accurate and make life a lot easier, but we still spend so much time trying to deny it. Some boys might like romances, sure, but generally they don’t. So why should we give it to them? There *are* differences between genders, and there *is* a lag in male reading and development. And attitudes like this aren’t helping matters. Girls generally seem to be fine reading anything, but that is decided not true for boys. Do we wish it was otherwise? Maybe. But what we want and what is are two different things. Let’s serve boys by serving them what they want.


  12. Interesting comments here. It’s a good point to get across that perhaps the stress on gender appeal limits a book and the focus should be on topical appeal. I admi, I tend to call out a book that would be more appealing to a boy or a girl on occasion I think I have to be more careful in how I present that. Not that it’s only appealing to such an audience.


  13. Darsa, I think problems arise when librarians/teachers/parents don’t have a full idea of the range of possible books available and also, well, try to make “fetch” happen. That is, they aren’t really thinking about “what books do I have that boys (ie this reader in front of me) will read” but are thinking “I want this boy (this reader in front of me) to read & like this kind of book.”

    Adrienne, it would be nice to live in a world where kids didn’t care that their reading choices were judged by others, but it’s not true. And especially because we still live in a world where a boy who likes ‘girl’ books (and vice versa) may be mocked for reading choices, I’m that more hesitant to label the boy/girl books. What I would really like is to somehow have covers that can be less “boy”/”girl”, and I wonder if ereaders will allow readers more freedom for reading choices (on a reader, no one can see your reading choice) and also publishers to create mutliple covers for one book to appeal to multiple readers.

    Melissa, it’s odd how early the strict gender lines appear in today’s culture. Ever try looking for neutral baby clothes? They don’t exist anymore. And JC Penney thinks that t-shirts for girls about not doing homework etc are acceptable. It would be nice to see more balance in all professions; but it’s getting into more complex areas than a comment. Still, at the end of the day, Rick Riordan is published, etc. It’s not a shut out of so-called boy books.

    Lisa, the paranormal with romantic triangle books are huge, with big girl appeal, and because those books are bought, more are sold, etc. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other books out there, as you said; (and is mentioned, these are not de-facto girl books). The sections of bookstores, the blogosphere that is very female, may add to that — but not all bloggers are female, or read/review the same way, etc. And if more women want to blog about their reading experiences, what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as long as it’s not taken to mean that boys/men aren’t reading. Complex.

    Carol, absolutely, pay matters. And, of course, there is the usual bias for adults whose work involves children: you do it because you love the kids, so respect/pay is less, somehow less real…. Though I do wonder, and I’d love to find out — how the pay in publishing, and gender makeup, changes based on genre/imprint.

    rocknlibrarian, yes, yes, yes, about assumptions. I think there is also sometimes people not seeing the forest for the trees, or there never being “enough.” I’m sure I’m not the only librarian who has had one parent complain that all the middle grade fantasy has female main characters and then next parent compalin that all the middle grade fantasy has male main characters….

    Michelle, thanks so much for the link! I’ll see if I can track down a copy of the Australian journal article, I’d love to read it. Also interesting to see just how global this issue is. Or isn’t.

    Stacy, same here! And just as I think we’re making great strides and I love seeing my niece’s reading choices not influenced by those gender concerns, I still also fear it’s going to happen at some point — because we live in the JCPenney T Shirt world.


  14. Addy, I’ve only just heard of My Little Pony and I’m interested in looking further into it. I think there is also something to be said for how readers read the book they want — how that experience, that need, impacts what they read and changes every book into “their” book. I am trying to do this without saying girl/boy book!

    Kelly, I can be sympathetic to that frustration to a point. Fashions and fads in books come and go, and this is one reason I think libraries are so important and why we as librarians have to fight for libraries as “book warehouses” — libraries aren’t about just what is in print this year. It’s what was in print 5, 10, 15 years ago so those books that aren’t so popular now but where a few years ago are there for the kids / teens / readers who want those books now.

    Steven, I think reading and gender is complex and I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. That said (ha ha), I think it’s good to have books that appeal to those who want sparkly covers and content and those who want world records. I think, though, there is more a spectrum than either “boy” or “girl”. What I want, ideally, is to be able to both “serve the boys what they want,” as you say, but without adding to a the belief that there are indeed “girl” and “boy” books, because I think then we get to close to the “math is hard, only boys do math” type of logic. I think we can respect what the reader wants, and not force them to change, without the labelling.

    Michelle, it’s often easier said than done, as most things are. But (because I’m glass half full girl) I think just being aware of it, realizing to look at various appeal factors, is half what we need to do.


  15. I too dislike the gendering of reading materials. I understand, as one person said, that boys might worry about being ridiculed for reading a story about a girl, but I think we need to help them move past this fear. One of the easiest ways to do that is to stop categorizing books by gender and, through this categorization, implying, as Aja Romano says above, that books about girls are “inherently inferior.”

    There are many great stories with female protagonists or male/female leads that some boys will skip over simply because they are deemed to be “for girls.” Many recommended reading lists intended for boys exacerbate this problem by including only books with male protagonists. With so much talk about boys falling behind in reading, why not encourage boys to broaden their reading lists, rather than narrow them by ignoring excellent stories that feature a girl as the lead character? Boys might just find something they like among those “girls’ books,” if given the chance. I maintain a website with recommended books, ostensibly for boys because I write about boys and gender issues, although, as I say in my introduction, I really do not like labelling them that way (http://bit.ly/oHxixX). They are stories that have broad appeal and many of them have female leads—The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Rapunzel’s Revenge, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to name just a few.


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