Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where the boys (and girls) are

I was catching up on my magazines this week and noticed that two of my favorites featured pieces on tween reading, boys reading and boy characters, in particular. My immediate reaction was joyous: in my mind, nothing is more truly feminist than caring about the well-being and equality of both boys and girls. In case you don't have these periodicals on your night-stand or at your local newsstand (for shame!), here's a little recap and my own take...

Bitch magazine's most recent issue, "Art/See" winter 2009, features an article "Paper Boys" on "news" of boys' reading abilities and author/former teacher Jon Scieszka's literacy program, Guys Read. U.S. Department of Education statistics report boys are behind girls in reading development (or maybe girls are improving at reading, and boys are the same?). Scieszka founded Guys Read to help boys discover reading as an enjoyable activity by showcasing books that they might want to read: categories listed on the website include "classics that actually hold up," "people being transformed into animals" and "repairing shoes, but are only written in Spanish." (That last is Como Reparar Salzado). The article's author, Jonathan Frochtwajg, commends the program, and other books and institutions focused on literacy, but notes that "recommending books to boys as books for boys risks reinforcing the notion that boys naturally like certain sorts of reading material, when, of course, socialization largely shapes their preference." He describes reading as a vessel to learn about others' perspective, gender in particular here, and while I agree with that, I think that's only one part of reading. Why can't we (educators, families, booksellers, whatever), help boys (and girls!) learn to read for reading's own sake? Maybe what really needs to change is how reading education is approached in schools and at home, with lessons adapted to each child's individual intellectual development, and good books written that kids are excited to read. Of course, this is my own opinion as a wee bookseller, and even just now I got into a not-quite-heated-but-almost discussion with our book and merchandise buyers about "boy books" and "girl books."

If you're interested in Guys Read, check out their website, blog, and their book, Guys Write for Guys Read, a collection of favorite authors writing about being boys.

The other article I read was in the fall 2009 issue of Ms. magazine: "The Kid Wimps Out" written by Allison Kimmich. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is an acknowledged giant in the tween reading world, an admittedly entertaining, funny (hmm), graphic novel style chapter book that Kimmich says her own "emerging feminist" daughter reads. While I do agree that Greg (the eponymous wimpy kid) isn't exactly the best role model for boys or girls, nor do I find him even remotely likable as a character, I found Kimmich's caution on Greg's attitude and behavior a tiny bit reactionary. Yes, he is selfish, treats his friends and girl classmates rudely, and there are no girl characters beyond goodie-goodie stereotypes. Yes, readers (boys and girls) should be critical when reading (or viewing any media they encounter, for that matter). But I think she underestimates or misunderstands kids and why they read what they do; when she says there are few girls who may be "savvy enough" to see Wimpy Kid as not worth reading, it reminds me of women, admitted feminist women, reading the Twilight saga. The Washington Post ran an article, Twilight: the love that dare not speak its shame, about all the reasons women shouldn't/won't/don't want to read the vampire romances, but do anyway, and become inexplicably hooked. To arguments against Bella and Edward, the feminist woman who reads Twilight simply says, "I know." Not every book feminist women read is purely feminist or woman-friendly literature, nor should we chastise women for not constantly rereading Simone De Beauvoir. Neither should we censure kids too harshly for reading books that don't always hold up ideal relationships or attitudes. My opinion, as a bookseller, reader, and book-buyer for my nephews, is that if a reader (of any age!), is happy reading, and reading a variety of things they like, then I'm happy, too. Right now I could be reading some adult non-fiction, or perusing the picture books for my book club's mock Caldecott discussion, but instead I'm rereading Pullman's His Dark Materials, for about the third time. Since I'm a grown-up (ish), no one is telling me I should be expanding my reading horizons...well, except for our book buyer, who just likes to tease me regardless.

I will give good credit to Ms. for their list of book suggestions alongside the article, that included the Penderwicks and The View from Saturday - some of my favorite chapter books. Once we start thinking of good books for both boys and girls, plenty of titles jump speedily to mind: Clementine; The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; Holes; My Most Excellent Year; Julie and the Wolves...I could go on for hours. I can see where Ms. and Bitch are coming from: we've come a long way from Dick and Jane and TinTin in the Congo, but there's still a ways go.

And in the end, I'm happy that two great feminist magazines, dealing with pop culture and politics - "grown-up" turf - both found children's literature as important to write about, and take as seriously, as Sonya Sotomayor and Yoko Ono.

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