I read an article a few days ago, mentally sputtering as I went through it (if I was actually sputtering, the coworkers around me—I was on break, eating lunch—would probably have looked at me funny). At the time, I couldn't really get past a few key quotes to speak on it analytically, but with a few days' worth of separation, let's see what comes up.
[A note before we begin: I don't really like using "boy" and "girl" to describe teens and above, but in this case, it's used for the sake of easy understanding. Figure when I use either, I am referring to preteens and teens, middle grade and YA readers.]
First off, the article was called "Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?" from The New York Times online. [Answer: Yes, of course there is. And I'm a pessimist saying so.] The article was about the current "trend" of girls reading more than boys, and how to help the "overwhelmingly female" numbers in the industry get boys reading.
Robert Lipsyte, the author of the article, begins by describing a panel at a conference in 2007, wherein he and other male writers were demystifying the audience about boy readers. My personal feelings aside about how they felt like "a sideshow," and turned into a "pack" of boys, Lipsyte uses the experience to explain that boys do the same, build packs. So when the pack resists, boys must be approached as individuals, with "books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives."
Absolutely. I agree. Of course, the same applies to girls, as well. They can create pack mentalities (Team Edward/Jacob, anyone?) that affect their reading habits. If the pack snubs something, though, bringing it to them as individuals can still work to encourage reading.
He goes on to say, and to quote Professor Donald Gallo as saying, that there isn't a dearth of good YA books, just that boys aren't reading the ones out there. This could be due to a preference for nonfiction, schools favoring classics rather than contemporary fiction (which boys apparently don't like, though I can immediately think of an exception from my own high school years), teachers being unaware of what's available for boys, or 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" (Scieszka qtd. in Lipsyte).
These last two strike me as the beginning of a bad trend. Although Lipsyte says simply "teachers" here, the article emphasizes the female teachers, female libraries, female readers, etc. that influence boys to read. He essentially puts the responsibility/blame (pick which one you will) for boys reading or not onto the women in their lives. This is emphasized by the second point, the assumption that boys' role models in reading are primarily women.
So although they should be approached as individuals with books that allow them to explore their emotions and possibilities, etc., they don't want to explore? The contradictions make me sputter.
Lipsyte adds that it can also be due to the books themselves, that there aren't enough that "invite boys to reflect on what kind of men they want to become," according to Michael Cart. The current market is geared towards young women, who apparently want to read about "mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies, and vampires." [~twitch~] A friend of mine, from whom I found out about this article, notes that there are plenty of examples to counteract that, such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Harry Potter, and The Lightning Thief series. There are also fantasy and YA fantasy books that have male protagonists, such as Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon Lexicon series, Mark del Franco's Connor Grey novels, Jim Hines' goblin books (for the young adult goblins, of course), and for a slightly younger audience, Dianna Wynne Jones Chrestomanci books, which have male protagonists in almost every case (in a few, I'd argue there are male and female protagonists). These are just the ones that occur to me off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are many more for a variety of age ranges.
Here's the thing: As far as studies can tell (though I have yet to see the actual studies, so I'd be interested in that—their methods and raw results), boys aren't reading as much as girls.
This is bad.
We want to change this.
Not so that boys can have books that help them figure out what kind of men to become, but so they can figure out what kind of person they are, and what kind of adult they want to become.
I feel that--
1. We are too focused on the gender lines. There's stereotyping happening in almost every discussion about this topic, not limited to this article.
2. The gender of the editors, writers/authors, teachers, and librarians shouldn't matter. Female editors aren't chasing after books because they only want ones for girls on the shelves. There is a business factor of course, so the fact that the stories geared towards trends girls are reading right now are getting more shelf space makes sense, but it doesn't mean agents and editors aren't looking for wonderful books that boys will also enjoy. Those librarians and teachers aren't only recommending "girl" books to the boys, but whatever books they think that individual will enjoy.
As a writer, my stories vary in their protagonists. One is an urban fantasy with two main male characters, but a number of female characters in important roles. Another UF has a female protagonist, an epic fantasy has two female protagonists. I am writing a YA steampunk ghost story with a female protagonist, but a YA fantasy about pirates and magic with a male protagonist.
Would none of these appeal to boys simply because I am a female writer? Do the ones with female protagonists have less action, or suspense because of the gender of the main character?
The article ends will a discussion of "edgy" books for boys being blunted or not published/written. That "supernatural books about space-and-sword epics" and sports books are catering to the lowest common denominator, I take issue with. The sci fi/fantasy/UF books are what I write, and I prefer them because they can include all of the complexity and struggle of a contemporary fiction, with the added struggle of demons, dragons, vampires, changelings, etc.
[It reads as if talking down to genre, which irks me. But is slightly beside the point.]
A final cause of edgy boy books being blunted is the addition of female characters. Somehow their very presence makes an edgy story less so. But he then adds that a book banned by many schools was still being slipped to boys by female teachers and librarians.
This about sums up my issue with this article, and the general discussion of the number of boys reading versus girls. Because, the females with all the control, not writing or publishing or teaching the books that will get boys to read, are in fact the ones getting boys to read.