Lists of Books For Boys

Are gender segregated book lists actually helpful? I’ve been feeling conflicted about this issue for a long time. It’s pretty clear that girls are already reading stories about boys — as they should be, because in order to develop empathy we need to put ourselves in another’s shoes. For the exact same reason, boys should be reading about girls. This is especially true for young readers:

Young readers usually have stronger empathy with literary characters, mainly because they perceive them as “real” (an example of naive reading).

As far as gender preferences are concerned, it is maintained that boys normally like to read stories about boys, while girls make no distinction.

I have no doubts about the truth of these statements; however, I believe that such preferences have more to do with plots than with the gender of characters. Male readers are, in our society, conditioned to prefer “masculine” plots (dynamic, linear, action oriented), which seldom have female protagonists. Female readers prefer or are conditioned to prefer “feminine” plots (circular, character oriented, psychological), which may have both male and female protagonists. In fact, young adult novels are mostly read by preteen or younger teenage girls, regardless of whether they have male or female protagonists.

– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

Friends with reading sons tell me that their own boys don’t seem to exhibit a preference for books about boys — plant a book in front of them and they’ll read it.

For the boys who happily read books starring girls, it would be interesting to look into this further and take note of what sort of girl they’re reading about. Are they reading rounded female characters, or are they reading ‘heroes in drag’?

When these lists of Books For Boys are compiled we’re generally not concerned about great readers who will read anything good; we’re concerned about encouraging reluctant kids to read.

I’ve met mothers of girls who were happy to buy them trashy (celebrity, make-up/sex tips) magazines because ‘at least she’s reading something’. Gotta say, I’m not a fan of that. I’m inclined to think that not reading is better than soaking your daughter in harmful messages about diets, one-dimensional boys and body-image.

Likewise, book lists for girls are overwhelmingly stories about females. This is the nature of such lists. The difference, however, is that book lists for girls are making an effort to get a reading diet back to a ratio approximating 50/50, because unless girls have girl books chosen for them carefully, they will end up reading overwhelmingly about boys (and ‘tomboys’).

I’ll admit that for lots of kids, the early-to-middle school years are especially problematic because kids are strongly identifying with their own gender between the ages of about 4-8. But does this mean teachers and parents should be complicit in this gender divide, or coaxing kids gently out of it?


Gender and Empathy: Men Shouldn’t Need To ‘Imagine if this were your wife/daughter/mother’ from Feministing:

…this phrase is almost reflexively brought up when discussing rape, other forms of gendered violence, abortion–really, anything that affects primarily women. But try to picture a woman being call upon to do the inverse: “Imagine if it were your husband/son/father.” It rarely happens.

While the article above is about the controversial empathy gap between genders,  I am reminded of kidlit book lists because even in reading tastes, girls are expected to be interested in the male experience, whereas so often, boys are not expected to be interested in the female experience. This has Real World Implications.

If reluctant reading boys refuse to read fiction about girls, they might read non-fiction books about female scientists. They might watch TV shows and movies with female leads, or they might be happy to read a good book about a girl if you plant it in his own bedroom where his mates can’t see him reading it. You never know.

More Resources On Empathy, from Larry Ferlazzo

For men: 21 Books Every 21st Century Man Should Read from Farnam Street blog, which I’m pleased to see includes quite a few books written by women.