Unpopular Opinion: Boys and Reading

Earlier this week Maureen Johnson tweeted about this article which talks about a school library that created a “boy cave” in order to encourage boys to read. Johnson expressed her concern for one quote said by the librarian involved in particular: “‘part of my concern is that girls will check out books from a boys’ area, but I’m not sure how many boys will check out books from a girls’ area. We don’t want to restrict books.'” Johnson explained her issue with this quote:

“Please never get me wrong: I am ALL FOR getting boys to read. But there is a constant reinforcing of the idea of ‘girl books’ (and who even knows what that means) as some kind of ‘other’ thing. And in the publishing, they are now a LESSER thing. It perpetuates.”

As I often do, I find myself agreeing with Johnson, and I think it’s the idea that there are “girl books” and “boy books” that is a large part of the problem. I have a real issue trying to distinguish between these genres. Is it based on the sex of the author? The sex of the protagonist? The genre? As a female reader, I’ve read plenty of novels by men and women with protagonists who were male and female and nearly every genre imaginable.

But apparently male readers can’t do this. They need “boy books.” They need “gross books” as the librarian in the article stated. Am I the only one wondering why they supposedly need those specific kinds of books? Are girls born with the ability to read and enjoy anything and boys born with a more specific reading taste? Somehow I doubt taste in reading is part of our DNA.

Reading taste based on gender is a social construction, just like gender itself. Society teaches boys that they should like bugs and dirt and bodily functions. Society decides what is a “girl book” and then it tells boys that if they read that book it makes them “girly,” and of course being anything like a girl makes a boy less than what he was before. Girls on the other hand can only improve themselves by reading “boy books,” or at least the higher forms of boy books that are the classics, so we don’t feel any pressure not to read “boy books.”

When it comes down to it girls are still viewed as less than in our society, and anything connected with femininity is on the bottom too. Separating boys may promote their reading, but it’s not going to fix the real problem. If anything, it’s only going to make it worse.

About megtao

Student. Writer. Nerdfighter. Fights for love, justice, and awesome.
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27 Responses to Unpopular Opinion: Boys and Reading

  1. SailorEm says:

    This is my opinion too! By segregating things like books, you’re only widening if not creating the gap between genders. It’s so, so dumb. (It also reminds me of why J. K. Rowling is known as J. K. instead of Joanne Rowling or whatnot). What ignorance our society lives blanketed under. Grrr

    • megtao says:

      Yeah, it’s really sad that she had to change her name to appeal to a male audience. Though the fact that Suzanne Collins isn’t listed on THG as S. Collins gives me hope that things are slowly changing.

  2. Miss Anderson says:

    As a librarian, I do not separate my books. I have boys asking me for romance and taking home books with pink covers and all is well. I promote the general idea of reading for curiosity as much as for enjoyment, and that seems to cover anything anyone would want to check out. Even with my liberal attitude, there are trends among the genders in what each checks out — but there are also a good number of kids who don’t follow these trends.

    However, as a teacher I do see the huge gap between reading score for boys and for girls. I hate that gender is even an issue, but you can’t ignore the data. For all the time we spend trying to raise the math and science scores of the girls, and help the gender balance in these fields, we need to spend just as much time working on the reading skills of our boys. I do see the good intentions of the librarians and teachers trying to do anything they can to promote reading to this group, even if it is sometimes not the “best” solution in terms of the bigger picture of gender equality. It’s a tricky topic, and I’m interested in hearing what others have to say!

    • megtao says:

      I can definitely understand the need to encourage boys to read, but I don’t see how hurting one group of people (I.e. Girls) by emphasizing gender discrimination is the thing to do when trying to help another group. If we were to focus on the issue of womaness being viewed as less than, then boys wouldn’t be afraid to read “girl” books (or reading in general which is a passive and therefore female activity), and higher literacy rates for them would follow.

    • It’s interesting (and strange) to me that reading is no longer cool to boys. It seems to be part of a larger trend I’ve seen, in which doing well in school in general is not cool for boys. I don’t have any explanation for this. Just an observation. And it makes me sad.

  3. I’m not opposed to the idea of a “boys cave” for reading. I think it’s kind of neat. BUT I also think a similar space should be set up for girls and that it should not be a pink castle (nothing against you if you like pink castles).

    I do think there is a problem if you put different books in each of these sections and label them as “boy” or “girl” books. You’re right Meghan when you say “Society decides what is a “girl book” and then it tells boys that if they read that book it makes them “girly,” and of course being anything like a girl makes a boy less than what he was before.” It’s frustrating and annoying and it makes me want to pull my hair out. When I was a teenager I loved the classics and last time I checked they were almost all written by men. And I’d say most of them were about men. And did you hear me complaining about only having “boy books”? No, because no one used such a silly term to describe them to me.

    I really think that if you (the adults) don’t identify books by gender, children won’t either. They may still be drawn to certain types of books for a variety of reasons but that doesn’t mean we need to fold and enforce those gender stereotypes as well.

    • megtao says:

      “They may still be drawn to certain types of books for a variety of reasons but that doesn’t mean we need to fold and enforce those gender stereotypes as well.” THIS THIS THIS!

      And the thing about women being raised on “boy books” aka the classics is true too. We don’t get a choice in the matter though. I feel like we’re taught from the beginning just to accept that you won’t be able to see yourself in the kind of literature you’ll find on a school reading list, though this is improving. Slowly.

  4. I agree with ALL OF THIS POST! I mean, I think we should get boys to read books, absolutely. Reading is fundamental no matter the gender. But at the same time, we shouldn’t do that at the expense of girls. And we shouldn’t be encouraging sexist attitudes and gender discrimination.

  5. Candice says:

    What I don’t get, going back to the article, is how the school thinks it’s okay to have a separate reading area for boys that has books in it that will appeal to boys. I have a hard time accepting this and if I were a parent with kids at this school, whether it be a girl or a boy, I’d probably be pretty miffed. As a kid I read just about anything I could get my hands on, but they were mostly books that appealed to girls. Would I have labeled them as “girl books?” No… because I don’t really buy into the “girl books” and “boy books.” I agree that they exist and that certain books are marketed to different genders… but I think there are just those books out there that appeal to girls and not to boys (and vice versa). But I digress… I think this particular school is on the right track, but to limit boys to other literature and hinder girls from wanting to go into the “boys only” section (although they were welcome to go in there…) to me is counterproductive. If you want to have a “boys” section and a “girls” section of the library, fine. Do that. But instead of putting the books in the section, why not list books and subjects that will appeal to either sex, forcing the students to go search out the books? That way no one feels funny going into another sex’s section.
    When it comes to reading subjects, we (people in general, not us awesome book bloggers and avid readers) tend to gravitate towards subjects that interest us. I personally am not interested in reading books about boys having adventures and there not being any girls, so reading something like Huck Finn was never appealing. However, boys and girls together having adventures is hugely appealing to me, so a series such as Percy Jackson is very interesting. But I think about where the Percy Jackson series may fall if it has to be categorized as either “girl” or “boy” and unfortunately it would probably get stuck in the “boy” category. If I were younger, I probably wouldn’t have ever picked this up because my librarian told me it was a “boy” book and was in the “boy” section. There are so many ways you can get kids to read, but making subjects of appeal of books as different or lesser really sets readers back and doesn’t let them experience things that could probably make them greater individuals and members of our society.
    Annnd… soapbox over.

    • megtao says:

      I’m not sure if girls have as much of an issue reading books that are targeted at boys because if we did we wouldn’t read books like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, and I don’t see that happening.

      I’m not sure how listing books under the category “boy” and “girl” would help because it’s still pushing that stereotype that boys should like this kind of book and girls should like this kind of book. That’s not how reading should work. Yes, individuals will gravitate toward certain kinds of books. Like me, I love fantasy, but will not go near a horror book. I also tend to avoid the purely romance novels. Does this make me more masculine because I generally don’t read the “chick lit” genre? No, I’m still a girl. It’s okay for people to be individuals and not have everything they do be based around what sex they identify with.

      • Candice says:

        Totally agree – I don’t think books should get identified as “girl” and “boy” books. I was offering making lists of books each sex may enjoy as an alternative to designated areas that may list similar genres, but maybe different books in the genre that would be more appealing to the sexes. Essentially it could be the same thing as a librarian saying “What subject do you like? Oh, robots? Here are some books that you may want to check out.” Clearly there’s not a perfect solution when it comes to designating what books each sex prefers, nor should we push certain subjects on the different sexes because of their sex; but I do believe that both sexes want certain things (such as identifiable characters, subjects that expand their minds, etc), regardless of genre. Boys shouldn’t only be exposed to action and adventure while girls only exposed to princesses and ponies.

  6. I completely agree with what you and many of the commentators said, about reading preferences being mostly a social construction, and terrible idea that boys reading girl books makes them lesser. I don’t see why they don’t just make a special reading area for ALL the kids, boys and girls, to encourage them ALL to read anything they want to. I like the idea of a special area. I think that would seem cool to kids, like a secret hide-out. But why does it have to be gender-segregated? That’s only going to increase gender separation and encourage stereotypes.

    Thanks for starting this discussion.

  7. Briana says:

    Just to put out a thought, I think it is the case that many “boy” books are books about adventure–and the main character happens to be a boy. In contrast, many (not all, of course) of what one might consider “girl” books address “girly” issues–gossip, fashion, how to talk to your guy crush. Books like The Hunger Games and Uglies–which have plots full of action–are great evidence that books will eagerly read books featuring girls–as long as the focus isn’t really on BEING a girl.

    I am a little hesitant about diving books by gender, nonetheless. However, I can see that this is an honest attempt to get guys to read. As someone pointed out, girls read much more than boys. This may not be a perfect solution, but I appreciate the attempt. Although I also agree that this section could seem a little unwelcoming to girls, even if they aren’t actually banned from from.

    A better idea might be to have a themed self. If you feature “superhero” books or something, I think boys would be drawn to it, without any special announcement that they’re SUPPOSED to be drawen to it, and girls could be excited about it, too.

    • Briana says:

      Sorry for the fast typing/resulting multiple typos!

    • Krysta says:

      I have to agree. Books that are generally counted as girl books tend to fall into categories depending on your age: pink princess stuff for young girls and books about girls trying to catch guys for teens. If there is any problem with these books, it is not that boys don’t want to read them, but that they have limited girls to looking pretty and finding men to complete them. And in that sense, they may actually be “lesser things.” Having boys read “girl” books won’t empower women in the long run. Gender-neutral books featuring strong women interacting with men as equals will probably be much more beneficial.

      Ultimately, however, I don’t see that girls are suffering in any sense in the publishing world. The young adult seems almost entirely composed of books that might appeal to girls more than it would to boys–the protagonists are generally girls and the plots usually contain romance. Of course, most guys have no problem reading about girl protagonists and guys appreciate romance the same as girls, but I’m sure guys would appreciate some more male leads, anyway. Every so often I see an attempt to list YA books for guys and it invariably starts off with Ender’s Game. I think there’s a problem if most people have to go back to 1985 to come up with a decent YA book with a guy protagonist.

      • megtao says:

        The lowering of book standards is a topic for a whole other post XD There are a lot of poorly written female characters out there, I agree. And I think it would be best if boys read books that contained strong female characters. I’m not sure if a gender neutral book really exists. Generally, gender neutral books are “boy books” that a lot of girls also read because boy is considered the fall back gender. Just like “white” tends to be people’s fall back character race unless it’s explicitly stated.

        I’m not saying girls are suffering in the publishing world, but I don’t see why there’s a need to hurt girls to help guys. Also, Ender’s Game is a pretty good books, so that might be why it’s on the list rather than because they can’t find later books for boys. Boys are still having their books published, look at the Percy Jackson series, the Maze Runner trilogy, and most of John Green’s books have male protagonists. Boys have plenty of books to read, the problem is they’re not reading them.

    • megtao says:

      Would it be a bad thing for guys to read books about being a girl though? I think if guys had a better idea of what it was like to be a girl, they may respect women more. In school we have to read plenty of books about being a boy: Huck Finn, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, etc. so why shouldn’t guys be made to experience the same reversal?

      I think your idea is definitely more subtle and good, though I would hope that even though the display is supposed to draw boys, it would include female superhero books as well.

      • Samantha says:

        “In school we have to read plenty of books about being a boy”

        It’s interesting you say this because as I look back to what I had to read as set texts in high school, it was actually the opposite for me. The majority of the books I read featured female protagonists. For example, in years 9 and 10 we read Letters to the Inside by John Marsden (two female main characters), Z for Zachariah (female lead), To Kill a Mockingbird (we see everything through Scout’s eyes, so again female main). In year 9, I think the only book we did that didn’t have a female MC (aside from Julius Caesar for our Shakespeare unit) was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. And then in later years we studied Pride and Prejudice twice (in year 11 in conjunction with movie Bridget Jones’ Diary, and in year 12 by itself), and I also had the option to do Emma as well (though I chose to do Brave New World instead).

        Just an interesting thing that came to me as I was thinking about the books I had to study. And outside of our Shakespeare texts, I can probably name on one hand (maybe two if I go through all six years of high school) how many of them featured a male lead or were about being a boy.

      • Briana says:

        I think what we need is a clear definiton of “girl books”…even while we’re trying to erase the distinction. If we’re talking about a YA book with a plot revolving around finding the perfect prom dress, then I can understand if guys wouldn’t be interested. It has little relation to their lives as they’re probably not even going to buy a prom dress or wedding dress or even help a girl pick out hers. I probably wouldn’t be too captivated by this book either. And while many girls do get really worked up about prom, I think guys understand this without needing to read a book about it.

        If we’re talkign about “girl” classics like Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre, then yes, I do think guys should read them in school. There’s actually something to be learned about women’s places in past societies and how that compares to todays society and things like that. And my experience is that guys who are interested in literature have no problem with these books; you’ll find a lot of male college English majors writing papers about how women are portrayed in classic texts.

        But…if we’re talking simply about encouraging boys–young boys–to read, as this article is, then I think it’s fine to hook them on “boy books” first. Children read for plot, not for deep meaning or complex symbolism. And I think it’s okay if some of these boys never graduate to “appreciating” classic literature. Analyzing books (despite frequent skepticism) is often as much of a skill as something like math or science. If I want people to respect that I can’t do quantum physics, I can respect that not everyone is going to revel is interpreting literature.

      • Briana says:

        Also, to add to the unofficial survey that seems to be happening, I did read mostly “boy” books in school–Sherlock Holmes, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc. But I had male teachers for every year but one from middle school through high school, and I think they were just assigning books they liked. It definitely wasn’t a well-planned effort on the part of a woman to pick books “guys would like” or something.

  8. Interstingly, I was just at a bookstore with a boy. He really wanted to read a teen werewolf. I couldn’t help him there, cuz, well I don’t like werewolves. Well, I saw a series that I’d heard good things about from various reviewers. I pointed it out to him, and he took one look at the cover and said: I don’t want something that girly.

    My jaw dropped. And I screamed in the middle of the store, “You’re going to skip out on a good book because the publisher is marketing towards a girl because girls read more werewolf teen books then boys? Are you so insecure in your masculinity that you can’t read a book with a chick on the cover? Unbelievable.”

    I refused to talk to him for the rest of the trip.

    Have we thought that because girls are reading more than boys, that advertisers are making covers more appealing to women because they’re running the market? There are a lot of “girly” covers for books I know boys would enjoy just as much. Like the Curse Workers series (even if there is a romantic subplot). But don’t tell me those covers aren’t more appealing to women.

    In an attempt to sell more books, are publishers actually reducing audience?

    • megtao says:

      So the publishers need to take some of this blame too, that’s a really interesting point! Maybe if the covers were more gender neutral, we’d see a change in reading patterns.

  9. forloveandbooks says:

    I like the idea of a reading environment set up specifically for boys and an equal one for girls – but why not have ALL the books be in a neutral place in-between?

    I’ve recently convinced my husband to read several YA books (since his usual repertoire consists solely of Stephen King) and after reading The Maze Runner, his main question was “Why weren’t there books like this when I was a teen?” I think there is a slight lack of books for boys, but more importantly they aren’t always well aware of what’s there.

    I know many of my book blogging friends are librarians – and all I can say to that is where the heck were all these awesome librarians when I was in school? All we had was older ladies who didn’t seem interested in anything other than pushing the encyclopedia!! And that is most definitely not appealing to younger boys…

    -Jac @ For Love and Books

    • megtao says:

      I still have an issue with the segregated reading areas. Any time you separate people based on something like gender, it seems unnecessary.

      Yes, this. Boys don’t necessarily always look for books to read. I think more girls are encouraged to read from a younger age, while boys are encouraged to go outside and play with their friends. There needs to be a balance.

  10. Shannon (Giraffe Days) says:

    Just adding to what Secretly Samus said above, I think covers go a long way to whether a boy will pick up a book or not. Take The Hunger Games trilogy – can’t accuse those of having girly covers, and that went a long way to inviting boys to read (and love) them. Harry Potter too – though I think the children’s books have less segregated covers, and HP started out in the children’s section. (Same with Artemis Fowl etc.) It really is so much easier to get girls to read than it is boys, and I think there might be something neurological in that (thinking of my brother who only read Choose Your Own Adventure and Goosebumps books for the longest time, and my husband who won’t – says can’t – read fiction (he’ll happily read an economics textbook instead!)).

    Great post Meghan. Personally, if there had been a reading cave in my primary school library, I would have spent a lot of time in there and felt incredibly rejected if it had been a boy’s only area. Better to create a general reading space where boys and girls feel invited and can focus on reading: as you say, segregating them just encourages gender stereotypes and divisions.

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