In our last blog, we explored using fiction to build empathy. It is fitting and timely to discuss Idra Novey’s November 2018 essay Beyond Battles, Boogers and Pranks published in the New York Times. Novey shared that her son, a second grader, “and his friends ... are pushed mostly toward shallow books full of battles, boogers and pranks.” As her essay progresses, she observes that “Boys in particular... especially boys labeled “reluctant readers” — find themselves directed toward shelves where it’s hard to make out any reading options that don’t involve competition or some explicit goal.” Implicit in this description of the type of books offered to reluctant readers is that they are “boy” books. In October 2018 best-selling children’s author Shannon Hale noted in her Washington Post essay that “our culture assumes: 1. Boys aren’t going to like a book that stars a girl. 2. Men’s stories are universal, while women’s stories are only for girls.”
Children’s Librarians are charged with teaching a love of reading. We advocate that all reading is good reading, and it is, in that all reading improves reading skills and interest in reading. In our effort to connect reluctant readers, we do look for easily accessible and engaging texts which sometimes results in goofy, “potty” humor, and/or competition, i.e. “boy” books. The rub is, while we may be gaining readers, they are not always accessing the valuable socializing influence of reading fiction that improves empathy and instead could be promoting unhealthy concepts of masculinity.
Many among us probably have also not encouraged boys to read “girl” books in an effort to keep boys (especially reluctant readers) reading. In her essay, Hale recounts observing “the myriad ways adults teach boys that they should feel ashamed for taking an interest in a story about a girl, from outright (“Put that down, that’s a girl book”) to subtle (“I think you’ll like this book even though it’s about a girl”).” She acknowledges the existence of peer shaming but is quick to point out our support as adults. This narrow definition of masculinity alienates boys and discourages developing empathy for girls.
Can Children’s books be used to encourage healthy masculinity and help develop the interior lives of boys? Considering the powerful effect of reading on empathy, I think they can. Here are some books to get children thinking: