The Magazine

Boyz n the Book

Johnny can read, but won't, and who can blame him?

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By MARY GRABAR
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But when we turn to those responsible for promoting reading we find that they promote those virtues that appeal to girls. Literacy Matters, whose purpose, according to its web page, is "to improve middle literacy development," tells teachers that adolescents like books about "finding one's self, the search for direction in their life, and becoming independent" and "resolving conflict, either within the self or with another person," as well as "learning about different places, cultures, times, and ethnicities" and "addressing problems in the social order."

Boys prefer a definitely un-sensitive Conan the Barbarian, or G.I. Joe, or Huckleberry Finn, and without regard to his Indo-European heritage, to a heroine whose life story involves being a "survivor" after bearing her father's baby at age 12, and then becoming pregnant by him again at age 16. This is the story of Precious Jones in Push, a book recommended on the American Library Association's website for young adult readers as one of the 25 "Outstanding Books for the College Bound." It involves a "dedicated teacher,
and classmates who understand" at an alternative school. Another book, My Heartbeat, has this enticing blurb: "Can Ellen get the boy who loves her brother?"

of the 25 books on this list, 18 are novels or memoirs. The protagonists in 14 of these are female and, overwhelmingly, the accompanying blurbs describe such plots involving conflicts of a personal nature, with emotional resolutions. One of the few books that feature male protagonists, Forgotten Fire, is described as a "touching and heart-wrenching portrait of pain and triumph" during the Armenian Genocide while Postcards from No Man's Land is about 17-year-old Jacob's "self-discovery."

No books on this list offer soldiers, male athletes, or adventurers.

Syllabi of classes in library science, linked on the ALA's web page, reveal what future librarians study. At the University of Iowa, one class, "Trends and Issues in Literature for Young Adults," includes such required reading for librarians-in-training as: Born Confused; Rainbow Boys; how i live now; Stoner & Spaz; Vegan, Virgin, Valentine. And while the course description acknowledges a focus on the challenges of contemporary culture, some of these kinds of books--like the explicitly homoerotic play Angels in America, assigned to students at a high school in Illinois, and Prep, a coming-of-age novel assigned to 12-year-olds in California--have made headlines recently.

Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, asserts, "The research on children's reading interest consistently shows that boys like to read nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction (biographies, books on important wars/battles), adventure stories, books on sports, books on facts, and science fiction." But when Forrest Hills, in my own DeKalb County, Georgia, recommends nonfiction books for students in grades seven through nine, the list skews heavily toward those about
women: Rosie the Riveter, Roseanne Barr, Sandra Day O'Connor, Frida Kahlo, Marian Wright Edelman, Oprah Winfrey, and two each on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Hillary Rodham Clinton,
with series of books on women explorers and women inventors.

Likewise, the pedagogical method
of treating these books reflects a feminine, not to say feminist, outlook. The popular Prentice-Hall high school English textbook emphasizes collaborative and associative learning with a series of questions garnering emotional responses at the end of each unit. For example, students are asked to "respond," "recall," "interpret," "infer," and "take a position" after each selection. These selections, however, are chosen for their messages and are surrounded by editorial material like this passage that appears after "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in the 11th grade book: "The senseless violence, death, and destruction Ambrose Bierce witnessed during the American Civil War (1861-1865) convinced him that war was terrible and futile."

The following "Unit," on the period 1914-46, of the two world wars, is edited by the antiwar Vietnam-era writer Tim O'Brien and entitled "Disillusion, Defiance, and Discontent." Other school districts even prescribe collaboration and sensitivity in their policy statements. The DeKalb County school district mandates a "student-centered curriculum" that "uses collaborative rather than bureaucratic instructional modes" and "sensitizes people to racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity."