Monday, August 28, 2006

SB Day: The Guy Edition (Part Two)

(This is continued from SB Day: The Guy Edition (Part One), and will only make sense in order.)

It’s A Boy Thing

My mother, having gotten rather retrospective in the last few months, blames herself for my brother’s lack of reading love. She feels she may have shorted him by trying so hard to be the perfect wife and mother. When there was just me, there was time to sluff off the cooking and cleaning in favor of making mud pies and reading books, but with two children (one of whom already had a set schedule) and the doubling of her workload she feels he didn’t get the same one on one attention I did. “Of course, he had you,” she’s always quick to point out, but we both know that he wasn’t the object of my sole attention either. Very few things, other than My Little Ponies, are to a four year old, and there is no reason he should have been. So while at age three I’d memorized entire books because they’d been repeated to me over and over again, my brother (at the same age) was entertaining himself with cars and army men.

My parents did not set out to short change my brother, nor do I think they did. Had his schooling been the same level that I experienced, had he had someone to come in and read with him daily in the classroom, then whether or not he’d memorized Cinderella at age three would be a non-issue. This wasn’t the case, and hasn’t been for most kids in public school. With classroom sizes getting larger, volunteer programs getting cut back, and a general dumbing down of education, kids like my brother fall through the cracks every day. And I fully believe more of them are male than female.

Again and again the gender bias of women as readers and men as doers is reinforced despite the fact that generations before this one produced male readers a plenty. If a boy consistently chooses anything (sports, outdoors, video games) over reading its simply considered a masculine trait. Boys who choose reading over these things are considered peculiar, while a girl who would rather read then play soccer won’t find much resistance. It’s a double standard that I’m aware that even I perpetuate. As much as it pisses me off to hear a mother or father say there son is not a reader because “he’s a boy,” I find myself worrying that the little boy who loves books to the point of fanaticism. Does he get outside enough? Does he have other interests besides reading to talk about with his friends?

And the most insidious thought of all, “Does he not have friends to play with?”

How could I, a semi well-rounded person and acknowledged bibliophile, even think that? I know it is quite possible to be a reader and have a fulfilling social life. I know that wanting to talk about books with your friends and being unable to is a sign of education failing those other kids, not a detriment to the boy who loves to read. I know all of this, and yet the thought is there because over and over again the image we’re presented of the bookish male is one of a skinny, pale fellow who is not in touch with the real world. A similar stereotype can (and is) applied to female readers, but in a more joking and accepted manner. Rarely does a friend or relative follow up your, “Oh, my daughter, she always has her head stuck in a book,” with a, “Why? Doesn’t she have any friends?”

Please Read the Parental Advisory Label

Boys, like my brother, see reading as work, not escape, because they are never taught to enjoyment. With an education system that will only pay attention to them if they act out or are at the top of their class, they skate along by learning just as much as they have to, or are able to without help. The disconnect grows with parents who aren’t aware of where their kids really are education-wise (or mistakenly believe they are receiving the same education as those who came before), and don’t have time to provide the one on one attention that their children need.

There isn’t time to read to them when you have to get dinner ready, so why shouldn’t they play that video game.

It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t like to read, he is a boy, and there are so many distractions these days.

The excuses are many and varied and perpetuated time and again by parents and teachers who don’t realize what they are doing. They don’t have time to instill the love of reading, and therefore pass the buck in believing that someone else is taking up the job. The overworked parents believe the teachers are doing it, and the overworked teachers think the parents aren’t doing their job. In the end, the gender bias when it comes to male readers sets in, and everyone walks away believing that little Joey or Simon just wasn’t cut out to be a reader anyway, but gee, he sure likes baseball or basketball where he gets one on one attention from not only his coach, but also his teammates. It’s not like reading is a team sport, anyway.

Slightly Off-Topic, But Since I’m Ranting Anyway

In her comments on Part One of this essay, Robin said, “I also think there are simply more books aimed at girls than at boys.” This is something I would agree with, but for this simple problem. Teachers, in attempt to lure those reluctant boy readers, often seem to choose books with male protagonists to be read in the classrooms. Time and again, I’ve worked with a teacher to pick out books for her classroom, only to have her say, “Oh, we can’t read that. My boys won’t identify with a female protagonist.”

It’s never a question whether or not the girls will identify with a strong, male protagonist. No one has ever wondered aloud within my hearing whether or not the girls will be left out because we’re reading a “boy” book. It’s simply accepted that the girls are already readers and that they don’t differentiate either way. The girls buy their “girl” books on the off time, or seek them out at the library. When they grow up, these girls will be just as likely to pick up a “boy” book as they will a “girl” book, while the boys who occasionally read might find a “girl” book too feminine as if that were a bad thing. Maybe these very same boys would have benefited in reading about a strong female character that they could respect and admire. Maybe they, as Joss Whedon talks about in his Equality Now speech, these very same boys could have identified something in that female character within themselves, that in a male character would have been skipped over or considered “girlish.”

Boy Meets Girl. Boy And Girl Read A Book.

Do we need more books like Harry Potter that celebrates strong male and female characters as well as cooperation and learning to be read in the classroom? Hell to the yes.

Do we need an education system that shores up these cracks that children fall through, funds smaller classrooms and has more volunteers on staff? Yes.

Are we going to get these things? Probably not anytime soon, and this places even more pressure on the two parents trying to work two or more jobs to achieve the American dream.

Are there always going to be some people who would rather do something other than spend their time reading? Yes, some people are just wired differently, but there is no excuse why they shouldn’t understand why reading can be enjoyable or why they should go through their entire lives without being touched by a book.

Reading is a tool, a pleasure, an escape and a teacher. Reading teaches about the past even as it lets us imagine the future. Everyone, boy or girl, should have the opportunity to experience this. Creating a reader could be as easy as reading to your child at night, putting on an audio book in the car instead of letting them play with their hand-helds, or inviting writers into your classroom to talk (and read) to your students. Reading is everywhere, and a necessary fact of life, so why shouldn’t also be viewed as a necessary escape from life. Blaming the rise of electronics for falling readership is too easy and blaming overwhelmed teachers too simplistic, we all need to accept that we play a role in that little boy not reading, even if it just by letting someone get away with the “he’s a boy” excuse.

If he likes books about snakes and slugs, then get him books about snakes and slugs; they’re out there. If he likes the movie version of Hoot or Holes, not only get him those books, but offer him options that are similar. If changing the freaking advertisement world to better represent male shoppers a la the Business Week article is necessary, then bring it on.

Support him as a reader; don’t let him fall through the cracks. Because there is nothing worse, as bookseller, hearing anyone from a little boy to a full-grown man in a suit say, “I don’t enjoy reading, it’s boring.” Especially when you know it only takes one book to spark their interest.

You just have to get them to pick it up.


Teacher Chick said...

Hello Bookseller Chick!

A topic that I can jump into!

Reading in the educational world is a strange one. From grades Kindergarten to Five (or Six, depending on the district) school *push* reading. They have programs, like Accelerated Reader, to count words read. They have contests to reach a "Million Read Words". They have special Author Days, like Dr. Seuss day, where local "celebrities" come into the classroom and read a Dr. Seuss book. They have Scholastic Book Order, sending books home.

All one giant ball of book love, right?

Then all those little readers hit Middle School and sadly, reading no longer stays "cool".

Reading, once done to discover far off lands and different people, turns into "Non-Fiction/Informational Reading" where those same kids have to trudge through reading to discover about Sea-Floor Spreading, George Washington and Ancient Mesopotamia. Not quite Harry, Ron and Hermione anymore.

My current sixth graders still love to read. I have a small classroom library that they rifle through everyday. I still arrange library time for them to find books. However, somewhere along the lines - things change. My students last year hated reading with a passion. They didn't even like to read magazines. They had been taken over by Myspace, Text Messaging and drinking at parties. (Yes, eighth graders.)

Chris Redding said...

I have two boys. I have two readers.
They aren't nearly as avid as I was at that age, but there are times when I can find one of them off on thier own reading.
I read. Voraciously. Always have. Always will.
My husband reads.
I've done several things to encourage reading with my boys. They can read anything they want as long as it is age appropriate.
One summer, my older son read every non-fiction plane book the library had.
Now he reads science fiction/fantasy. He's read 6 books this summer. That's 6 more than he read last summer.
The other thing I've done is that they can both stay up later at night if they want to read. I've also taught them that if they can't sleep they can read.
Was this all work? Yes in a way. It took until last year to figure out what the older one wanted to read. Now he's more likely to try something new if it is along the same lines as what he's read before.
In fact, both of their fave authors had books come out this month. They were itching to get to the bookstore.
Make a mom proud.
Oh and maybe if the kids didn't have to read such depressing stuff all the time in school, they'd want to read more.
My 2 cents.

Amie Stuart said...

I have two boys. I have one reader who will read anything but especially loves fantasy (where the other son hates fantasy).

As Teacher Chick said, schools really (REALLY) push reading up to grade 6 and from Kindegarten to 5th grade #1 son was a reader. He also played video games, rode his bike and played outside. So when he came to me in 6th grade and said he hated reading I was very distressed.

He's in 7th now and he still won't read much outside of magazines, and the internet =( but he's also in honors classes and because his TAKS scores were so high they want to him to participate in some program through Duke (TIP) that involves taking the SAT.

I'll encourage him to do this, just as I'll continue to encourage sports, but I won't push him to read. Why? I know my son. The more I push, the more he won't do something--he's nothign if not bullheaded (and he comes by it honestly). Here's what else I know about my son--he HATES to be challenged, he HATED being in Honors classes last year but if he is not challenged in some form or fashion, he'll end up an incredibly bright underachiever (and yes I know this because he's just like me).

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with Pennac's Better Than Life? He writes about trying to interest teenagers in reading. He offers a Reader's Bill of Rights:
The right to not read.
The right to skip pages.
The right to not finish.
The right to reread.
The right to read anything.
The right to escapism.
The right to read anywhere.
The right to browse.
The right to read out loud.
The right not to defend your tastes.

Robin Brande said...

BSC, thanks for the call to arms.

Anonymous, love that Reader's Bill of Rights! Especially the right to not finish. I think that one is important to people of all ages. And the right not to defend your tastes--thank you.

Hot Teacher Chick said...

I agree that the love of reading can be a socialization issue - what diversions were offered to you when you were a kid? (Hint: If you don't own a game system, you can't spend time playing a video game).

I visited a school that has a DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) day every month - all students and staff read for homeroom period, no exceptions.

Diane P said...

I have to weigh in here as a middle school teacher. I just hate it when people over generalize about teachers & schools. I love reading. I do everything I can to promote reading in my class and I know my other teachers do also. After all we have those reading scores for NCLB. For some reason reading stops becoming important to many middle schoolers, not all. I think this is where we see people beginning to make choices about what they are like and their interests. We do need to have a combination of reading books that are good for us and books that are fun. After all I am sure that all of us do the same thing, I couldn't read all of Oprah's choices. It is the hooking the kids with the books that are fun for them. Of course my struggling readers don't want to read baby books but don't have the ability for the other books they might actually like.
We do have to push our schools to make reading a priority, a class in and of itself. Students that are having difficulties reading need to be taught at their level and have remediation, one good thing about NCLB. There are many of us caring teachers out there who are doing all we can to promote reading no matter what the grade level. We need help from parents and booksellers to get and keep these kids reading. Let us all work together and not play the blame game. Push for reading in a positive pro-active way. We could use your help.

Teacher Chick said...

I don't think anyone is placing any blame anywhere, in my opinion. Unfortunately, in a response, you can't really get into too much detail and lend yourself to generalizations.

Plus, as a teacher, you can jump up and down and promote teaching all over, but there will be some kids out there that simply don't want to read like they used to. Maybe they didn't like reading even at the elementary level and now, at Middle School, they want to profess their dislike of reading. I have no idea why some of my students last year said they hated reading.

As Bookseller Chick mentioned, those kids still read, just in a variety of forms. (Comics, car magazines, etc.) Reading is reading is reading. I'm just happy to see students with some type of reading material. Magazines still offer students practice with charts, graphs and other non-fiction pratice.

Regarding NLCB, I've seen that some teachers teach looking at test scores instead of the pure joy of reading.

Jill Monroe said...

Yes, yes, yes to finding what they like and steer them to that book that meets that interest.

Whenever I hear a parent say their son doesn't like to read, I suggest Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and soon that kid is asking for more.

Lisa Hunter said...

I'm not sure girls have an advantage in encouragement. My grandmother -- an old-school Southern belle -- always told me if I didn't stop reading so much, no one would ever marry me.

(As it turned out, I married a writer.)

skapusniak said...

I'm male.

Unfortunately at the age of 33, with no kids myself, and as someone who, ever since they finally worked out that the page a word was on had no bearing upon it's meaning (that was the big hurdle for me learning to read) has eaten any book I've had available to me alive, I'm afraid that's probably where my insight ends.

Random thoughts.

- I am by nature, a quite antisocial hermit, and was so even as a toddler, so being able to stick my head in a book and not have to talk or do anything with anyone who was actually like *real* was a huge relief. This is probably not any sort of recommendation.
- I'm weird enough that it's Hero's who tend to put me off -- gods, spare me the manliness -- give me Heroines every time.
- My family read *all the time*, like in public, in front of each other, with people freaking out about their library books being overdue, and shelves coating the walls stuffed with books, piles and piles of them in less occupied rooms littering the floor in little half-foot high stacks for tripping over. Simple osmosis and 'not now, I'm reading a book' from parents may have something to do with picking up the habit.
- I have no experience at all with age-appropriateness, I read 'The Naked Lunch' and 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' at about 11 or 12 just because they were there on the shelf -- almost certainly *not* a good idea -- however I also read a lot of age inappropriate stuff that probably was a good idea. I don't think I read anything that was actually targetted for kids or 'Young Adults' after about nine. I read adult books, for actual adults, damnit! Matter of pride.
- One of my brothers just doesn't read fiction, he reads non-fiction only. Baffling, but there you are. Get some non-fiction in. I remember we had this big Time Life series on all sorts of stuff, Volcanoes, Gemstones, Storms, Plate Tectonics etc. (I think it was 'Planet Earth') those all got heaviliy read and re-read too.
- Reading set books inside school. Yeah I guess logically that must of happened, but I don't remember any of it. My reading memories are all about what I ended up reading in my own time.
- Your proverbial trashy romances, such as those ones the Smart Bitches (and I) read, tend to have sex scenes in. Quite likely several, and even *more* detailed today than they were back in my day. Oddly, I suspect many teenage boys may well not be aware of this highly significant fact, otherwise they would be raiding their mother's stocks of mantitty for the good stuff, however embarassing the covers.
- I am currently typing this missive to a blog upon the internets -- as brought to you by a series of tubes(tm) -- which is just competely chock-full of text. Do boys not use the internets anymore?

Anonymous said...

In Australia we have some fabulous male authors who write books emminently suitable (indeed aimed at) reluctant young readers. Andy Griffiths, author of the fabulously named 'The Day my Bum went Psycho' is one, as is Morris Gleitzman (author of too many to name. John Marsden's 'Tomorrow when the war began' series is also very popular and anything written by Jackie French (who is not a bloke, but there you go) is also good for the middle school age group - good as in kids like them, as well as grown-ups. Just a thought, for people looking for ideas.