There’s going to be a panel at AASL (School Librarian conference) this weekend called “Boys Reading: A focus on fantasy.” There are six well-respected, very cool middle grade fantasy authors on this panel. And they are all men.
And I have to ask: Why? Why can’t female authors discuss their readers as well? And what kind of image does an all-male panel talking about boys and reading present? What are we saying to readers, boys and girls?
It certainly doesn’t have to be this way—in his Guys Read anthologies, Jon Scieszka always includes female authors. I got to be one of them once, and my strategy for trying to write for an anthology marketed to boys was simply, “Write the best story you can.” I’m guessing most of the writers feel the same way and that more than anything else is the principle that rules Scieszka’s anthologies. Rule # 1 in writing for children: Respect your reader.
You write for this age group because you love your readers—the actual ones and the potential ones. You love the twelve- year-old-boy who hasn’t yet found the book that will hook him on reading, and you love the nine-year-old boy that reads secretly under his covers every night. You care about them, and you think about them, and you want to talk about them with teachers and librarians and other smart people who care about them and love them to. And you are qualified to, even if you don’t share their gender.
It seems like there’s a panel about boys reading at every conference. And, yes, we absolutely should talk about the literary and emotional health of our readers in all their permutations, we should talk about it endlessly. We should talk about boys, the boys reluctant to read, and the boys who love to read.
But we should talk about girls, too.
A couple things happen when we focus all of our collective attention on boys and whether or not they are reading. First, we tell boys that they are not reading, and that reading is not an inherently “boyish” thing to do. We expect them, in fact, not to read, and boys who love reading are outside the norm. Next, we start gendering books and telling boys that they like certain kinds of books, that they are interested in humor and adventure and fun. And they specifically do not like the sort of books that help kids at this age figure out how to be in the world, and they specifically do not like literary books or hard books or emotional books. And they absolutely positively do not want to read a book starring a girl.
When we give panels on boys and reading with only (or even predominantly) male authors, we tell boys they are only supposed to like books by men. (This will be surprising to JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins.) We tell them that only men have something to say to them. When we say boys won’t read books with girl heroes, we are constructing that reality for them. (It gets troubling in all kinds of ways—the act of reading as a child is about empathy for and connection with the protagonist, and it’s quite problematic to tell boys we don’t expect they can empathize with girls.)
And in all of this, we’re telling boys that we don’t expect a lot from them.
And in this conversation, the girls are rendered invisible.
Once, a lovely librarian from a school in Minnesota emailed me about a possible school-wide read of my book Breadcrumbs and wanted to gauge my interest in coming. I told her I’d love to do it and wrote it on my calendar. A couple weeks later she wrote me a very embarrassed email explaining that the committee had changed their minds and wanted a book that would appeal to boys.
Sure, I was bummed to lose the event. But it was the assumptions underneath that really got to me. Because:
a) Breadcrumbs appeals to boys. As do many other books with girls on the cover.
b) And, what about the girls?
We hear studies, again and again, that around fourth grade girls begin to lose their confidence, they stop talking in class, stop participating, and by adolescence their self-esteem is completely shot. Once boisterous girls become quiet, invisible. And as we are talking about the very real crises in boyhood, the girls are disappearing before our eyes.
And maybe we need to pay more attention. Maybe we need to make active efforts to take care of them, too—both to help them, and to show them that we see them, and they are worth taking care of. Yes, there have been studies that show that boys, as a whole, tend to lag behind girls in reading—and we must talk about that. But when we see a marked drop in self-esteem and spike in depression in a category that encompasses 50% of our children, that’s a crisis too.
Those years—from fourth grade to adolescence—those are the middle grade years. And we all—writers, teachers, librarians, publishing professionals—fundamentally are dedicated to helping kids get through these years with books. Fundamentally, that’s what all this is about: we want kids to read not just for the act of reading, but because we believe books can play a profound role in a kid’s life and self-conception and relationship with the world. We talk about getting boys to read because we believe books can make their lives better in so many ways. So let’s open up the conversation.
And we could do fabulous panels on this crisis in girlhood and how we can help through books. We could do a great panel on how fantasy can empower them, and there would be male authors too because why wouldn’t we include them? We can talk about issues specific to female readers and specific to male readers, and we can include all kinds of voices in that conversation, because we want the kids to see that they matter to all of us.
Let’s look at the make-up of conference panels and for every panel on issues pertaining to boy readers, we ensure there’s one for their female counterparts. And lets ensure that these panels show that the issues pertaining to boys and girls are the province of all writers. Let’s keep having these conversations, and include everyone in them.