May 16, 2007

Books, Boys, Boy-Books...

Kelly over at Big A reports that British Secretary of Education Alan Johnson has come up with the Official Boys Bookshelf List for UK secondary schools... I blogged about his views on education and boys before, and had a hard time articulating exactly what was so... wrong about him saying that boys needed 'special books' that were more active and rowdy than Jane Austen, whom he quoted as the antithesis of an author for boys. His actual quote was "We need an educational strategy that builds a positive identity for working class boys, instilling in them pride and a love of learning."

Okay, point taken: Jane Austen's audience was middle-class 19th century girls. BUT, Secretary Johnson's specially singling out books for working class boys as opposed to for children assumes that working class girls must be all alike, that is, 19th century-focused and demure. Ridiculous. Two, he seems also to assume that all working class boys are alike, that is, with a hatred of learning, no identity and no pride. Allegedly they are also all James Bond wannabes. (Apparently the upper class boys need no assistance, and their literature is preselected from the shelf of How To Stay Rich and Rule the World.) When I look at the bookshelf list and see so many that I have read and would have enjoyed even in school...

It's so great to have somebody, anybody pushing reading to kids, whatever their class, - and to boys. But why is he trying so hard to divide and define boys, girls, their genders and needs here? It seems to me that any time you make a statement of something specific for boys or for girls (outside of, say, bathrooms in elementary school), you should probably think twice...

Yesterday, S.A.M. sent me a piece from PW on a cookbook publicist. Who knew there were any such?! He believes I might find some interesting marketing angles with a culinary publicist. Intrigued! Meanwhile, the editorial department is excited about my novel, and yesterday I finished the task of writing bio information for the jacket flap and acknowledgments.

I hate writing acknowledgments. There are simply far too many people who are the proverbial wind 'neath my wings. And I have to admit that I rarely read other people's acknowledgments. So, I went for the Academy Award forty-five second rule, and kept it as short as possible.

Those of you to whom I am grateful: please say you already know, okay?

6 comments:

Kelly said...

As you know, TadMack, I find it weird too. Weird and unnecessary.

But the big thing is...congrats on editorial excitement. That's awesome :)

RyanBruner said...

I'm afraid I tend to agree that there need to be more books that TARGET boys.

Like it or not, in general, boys and girls are different. Their interests are different, and even the way their brains work is different. While you can find boys who will read anything, it is much harder to get boys into reading than girls.

It is a well-known fact that girls master language skills at a much younger age, and this continues well into adulthood.

Boys are different. And so, finding books that will interest a broad range of boys is tricky. While you might find girls reading, say, Star Wars books, you'll be hard-pressed to find many boys reading Little Women.

As a writer myself, even if I write stories with a female protagonist, in the back of my mind I try to make sure there is a certain level of action that will draw in boys.

Targeting boys doesn't imply that girls won't like it. It is, instead, suggesting that boys are far harder to please than girls in certain ways. Even as adults, men tend to read very different, and limited, types of books compared to women, who will read a far broader range of styles.

a. fortis said...

Really interesting points, Ryan and TadMack.

To me, the difference in reading interests between boys and girls is especially pertinent when you're looking at materials that will try to interest kids in reading in the first place; when it comes to the more literary "required reading" you usually see in English classes, I'm honestly not sure how much difference it makes whether one chooses Pride & Prejudice or Treasure Island (to make a whirlwind comparison)--students of either gender who are not already engaged in reading are less likely to get something out of literature regardless of whether it's "girl-focused" OR "boy-focused."

It would be an interesting curricular experiment (but more work for teachers, I guess) to compile a list of literature which appeals to a variety of readers--boys, girls, or both--and then allow students to choose a selection of books that interest them to study for the year, as well as studying other books as a class.

I remember doing individual or group projects--in junior high, in particular--in which each person or group is assigned a short story or novel and then must prepare an oral or visual presentation for the rest of the class. I would have loved to be able to have some say over what my chosen reading material was--even if I'd had to choose from a list. I wonder if that could ever work, given the increasing restrictions and decreasing budget for our education system...

TadMack said...

I think you're missing my point. Ryan, to me this isn't about targeting books to boys. The is about adults dividing them by class and gender.

Yes, we know all of these "facts" about boys, but why would we single them out in a classroom setting as dumb or challenged or, worse, as gender-identified readers who we EXPECT to be unable or unwilling to sit still or unable to read fiction without explosions, spies, or chase scenes? Boys are not learning differenced, they're male.

In a world where so much of what we are expected to achieve comes from other people's expectations of our gender and sex, it seems limiting and wrong to be building a negative expectation as early as primary school. (You are this, you will read this; you are unable to do this and this.) It is just one more label on a group of students by gender rather than seeing to their individual needs. As both a former teacher and a YA writer, that gets on my nerves.

Incidentally, it's intriguing that people keep dragging out books from the 19th century for their examples of "girl's books." Jane Austen and now Little Women?

C.K. said...

"In a world where so much of what we are expected to achieve comes from other people's expectations of our gender and sex, it seems limiting and wrong to be building a negative expectation as early as primary school. (You are this, you will read this; you are unable to do this and this.) It is just one more label on a group of students by gender rather than seeing to their individual needs. As both a former teacher and a YA writer, that gets on my nerves."

Tad, you are my hero! I think this bookshelf idea is terribly confused. Is the idea to teach boys and girls or to teach them how to be boys and girls?

TadMack said...

Bless you, C.K. - you have put it in the most succinct of terms: are we teaching boys and girls, or are we teaching them how to be boys and girls? And to whose standards are we thus teaching them to adhere??? As much as the UK folk may admire Secretary Johnson, does anyone want him determining that for their children?