I have been all in a mental turmoil for the past 24 hours or so about two sessions being presented this weekend at the American Association of School Librarians.
Here's the description of a panel entitled Boys Reading: a Focus on Fantasy: "A myth persists that boys don’t like reading, but most of the time engaging young male learners is only a matter of finding the right books to hook them. Exciting fantasy draws boys with its dramatic action, imaginative worlds, and adventure. Authors will talk about what drew them to fantasy and how they lure boys into reading." ( list of the panelists (all male) here).
This was troubling (ie, made me swear) for several reasons.
For starters, if it's a myth, which I do think it is, that boys don't like reading, why perpetuate it with a panel that implies that boys are Special Snowflakes who will melt if they are not spoon-fed books that cater to a particular set of stereotypes regarding boy personalities? I have also found in my own experience with a reluctant reader that it isn't necessarily a matter of finding one category of "right books" and all problems are solved, and lo, they are hooked. Every time he loves a book, I think "now I can relax" but it doesn't work that way. There is no universal magic formula that works for everyone. And maybe some reluctant readers aren't hooked by the type of book described above because no matter how many of them you offer, they just aren't the type of book that kid likes (which is to say, kids are individuals).
I am tired of "dramatic action" equals "boy appeal." How about this: "exciting fantasy draws in readers who enjoy exciting fantasy." And I am tired of "exciting" being the only good thing. I am tired of the fact that there are lots of fantasy books in which girls subvert gender stereotypes of "girl-ness," and participate in dramatic action like crazy, but very very few books in which boys are allowed to be "un-boyish"--to be quiet, contemplative learners and thinkers, valuing and nurturing relationships, having inner lives, and other non-dramatic-action sorts of things. (Which makes me think of how our culture values extroverts more than introverts).
Well-written fantasy, regardless of how "exciting" it may or may not be, draws boys in with its compelling characters and mind-blowing insights about what it is to be a person. That is because boys are not all that different from girls, or anybody else who finds a book that works for them.
If boys are always given books full of dramatic action, sure, they might enjoy lots of them, but they will miss out on a lot. If boys are given books in which boys do things other than have Exciting Adventures, it will expand their concepts of what it is to be a boy.
Which leads to troubling Panel Number 2--"Overcoming Adversity: Helping Real Kids Learn Resilience through Fictional Characters"
"This discussion will be framed around three main talking points that will provide teachers and librarians with tools to help students discuss adversity, to foster empathy, and to become advocates in the classroom. Authors will include Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Kimberly Newton Fusco, Cynthia Lord, Karen Day, Jo Knowles, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Erin E. Moulton and Leslie Connor."
Note that in this session, the writers are all women. Women, it seems, being the ones in our culture whose job it is to foster empathy. Men, as in session one, are stuck writing adventures.
Noes. Men, lots of men, write books that foster empathy. Boys read them. Girls read them. I read them.
Here's a panel I would love to see: "Fostering empathy in young readers through science fiction and fantasy books" with both male and female panelists.
And here's what I'm going to do as a book reviewer and a parent.
One: I am going to question the choices I make in which books to offer my boys (10 and 13).
With regard to my 10 year old: Do I offer my avid fantasy reader fast-paced, adventure-filled stories, that aren't that great at being thought provoking, just because I know he'll enjoy them? Answer: yes. Am I glad that last year his school reading pushed him outside his comfort zone, introducing him to Wonder and Out of My Mind, both of which he loved and talked about avidly? Yes.
With regard to my 13 year old, an incredibly picky reader who mostly enjoys graphic novels, I can't really question my choices much, because he only reads 1 in 20 of the books of all types that I offer him. But I can make sure that those books include ones that will foster empathy.
Two: I will be more explicit in my reviews about distinguishing those that have action and adventure stories that are simply fun and exciting, and those where there may well be action and adventure, but which also push against societal expectations of gendered behavior, and which have the potential to foster paradigm shifts in the mind of the reader. As it is, I have a habit of briskly tossing off statements like "jam-packed with adventurous fun" which just means there was too much action for me to really like it myself. I think I need to avoid falling into handy little self-referential shorthand like that, and think a bit more critically.
Three: I will try harder to combat the whole "if you want a boy to read it there can never be a dull moment" idea.
With that in mind, here is a short list of relatively recent fantasy books for ten to twelve year oldish readers, with boy protagonists, that many boys (not all, because not all boys are the same) will like that do have some excitement in them, but which give their boy protagonists something else to do and think about besides charging around having adventures:
Jinx, by Sage Blackwood
The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu
Odd and the Frost Giants, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Only Ones, by Aaron Strarmer
The Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas
The Crowfield Curse, by Pat Walsh
The Shadow Hunt, by Katherine Langrish
And....uh... That's all I can think of right now, with apologies to the books I'm missing!
Here's Anne Ursu talking about the thoughts the first panel inspired in her, which takes a different angle--what disservice does this do to the girls?