Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

I’m not sure if this counts as a proper reflective post for class purposes or not, but it’s been bugging me and it involves tweens, so I’m including it.

I was at a meeting the other day with a bunch of other youth services librarians – children’s and young adult, all within the same library system, mostly from different branches.  Overall it was a fantastic and useful meeting.  But! at one point one of my colleagues made one of those comments about boys and reading that made me want to throw something:

“We don’t ever talk about boy books!”

I used to have customers come and complain, back when I worked at Barnes and Noble, that there were so few books for boys on our shelves.  Not in the teen section mind you – I agree that the materials skew in girls favor in that area – but in the children’s section.  I always kinda wondered if they had ever actually looked at our shelves.  And then wanted to ask them how they classified something as for boys or not.

Because how in the world does that statement make any sense?  Do we not talk about The Hunger Games? Percy Jackson? Harry Potter?  Or are we not counting The Hunger Games as for boys as well as girls?  Do Percy Jackson and Harry Potter no longer count as “boy books” now that the fandom has gone mainstream and is full of girls as well?

That seems to me the only way in which that perception – that we never talk about boy books – makes any sense at all.  Often times, it seems as though all we talk about are books with male protagonists.  Whatever you say about Twilight, the fact that an extremely successful movie series was made from a book series for teen girls that featured a girl protagonist is very much still a novelty – to the point that I’d argue it’s fairly groundbreaking actually.  It makes me wonder if the only books that qualify as “boy books” for the purposes of such discussions are books that ONLY boys would like.*  As if “boy books” need to pass some cootie counter in terms of not only content and characters but also the make-up of their fandom before they can be counted as proper “boy books” or not.

That was the main difference that I saw in the boys and girls that read books in the “young readers” section at Barnes and Noble.  It wasn’t that there were fewer books with boys in them – so very much the opposite, I’d say – it was that the girls were more than content to read Harry Potter, while the vast majority of the boys gave me looks of horror when I suggested anything with a female protagonist.

Now, I understand that boys don’t read as much as girls and I agree that this is something we need to work on.  Even though [insert rant about what the stats actually say, especially with regard to how they break down by race and class] and [insert rant about how part of the problem is actually that most movies and video games are marketed to boys and not girls and so boy books have more competition].  Still, it’s very much worth working on.  Especially as the gender make-up of the staff in most children’s and teens libraries is more than a little skewed, and this definitely creates unconscious bias** and a perception among boys that they don’t belong.

However, it seems to me that if our solution to this problem is to stop counting The Hunger Games and the Percy Jackson series as boy books and focus on books that are utterly devoid of girl cooties in any way, then we aren’t ever going to get anywhere.  Boys like these books, in large numbers even.  Not counting them as boy books is hardly going to bring more boys to the library.

It seems to me that root of the problem is 1) the large numbers of adult women in elementary education and library science and 2) the perception among boys that identifying with girls and women is wrong.  The long term solution to those problems is to 1) recruit more men be elementary teachers and children’s librarians and 2) encourage boys to be more empathetic.  Neither of which are mentioned anywhere on Scieszka’s Guys Read site.

I think that it is extremely important to have variety in the library and to make sure that no patron is made to feel shame for what they need or want to read.  I think that programs like Scieszka’s Guys Read*** are fantastic for reaching those boys that have already internalized the idea that reading is for girls and girl stuff is never ever for any decent boy.  But I also think they are band-aids for something that needs a lot more than just that.  And I really wish we would start discussing long term solutions.  Solutions that don’t include expecting boys and girls to fulfill stereotypes, but are still respectful of the fact that many will choose to act in stereotypical ways.

And as I see tween boys come up to me and ask me without shame for titles like Mockingjay, I wonder if maybe there is some possibility in that age of uncertainty and transition, of newfound empathy and higher reasoning, that isn’t there when the kids are less mature or more certain about their place in the world.

crossposted at my elljay

*and how exactly is that supposed to work, anyway?

**remind me to rant more later about how most of my (female) staff react to tween boys watching porn in the library and why that is so very much not the way to handle it.  Note to self: include this topic in next staff training.

***I will note that as of today, the site has a book with a female protagonist on it’s front page.  Which is a huge change from the last time I looked at the site and their lists.  So clearly I need to look at it again.  Although, I found that book to be as annoying as hell when I tried to read it – which makes me wonder if it’s there bc ohh! pretty graphic novel! or if I’m just that bad at judging what kids/boys will like.


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