Saturday, July 23, 2011

Books for Boys: Why it Matters

Boys.  Wow.  They’re different.  Having grown up in an estrogen-rich home with only one sister, I had a limited understanding of just how diverse the differences between boys and girls were.  As a college student, I was stunned to see one of our male neighbors (we’ll call him “Hamilton”) drink directly from a carton of milk.  Who ever thought of doing such a thing?  I was shocked not only by the action, but also by my naivete.  At the wise old age of 20, I apparently had a few things left to learn about the opposite sex.

When I married my husband, with him came Chapman, a charming blue-eyed little boy.  This life change resulted in my immediate enrollment in “Boys 101.”  No more auditing.  This was the real class.  One of my earliest "boy" memories was created within the first few months of marriage. I was happily lost in the world of my latest book, when a sudden noise jarred me back to reality.  It became repetitious.  It was getting louder.  In the corner of the family room, lounging happily on the floor, was was a very content 4-yr-old Chapman. He had his matchbox cars lined up neatly in two rows.  Every few minutes, after they had completed the requisite figure 8’s, one car from each of the rows would collide with great velocity into the another.  Each crash came with impressively accurate sound effects.  Mystery of said noise solved.  I leaned over and asked what I thought was a reasonable question.  “Could you please be a little bit quieter when you do that?”  He gave me a look that I will never forget.  It communicated something close to, “And what would be the point of that?” Hamilton’s milk carton sprang to mind.  Boys.

Yes, boys are different than girls in a variety of ways.  Unfortunately, the literacy rate for boys falling consistently behind that of girls is one of them.  No doubt, there are a variety of factors that contribute to the problem, yet there is a consistent common denominator among researchers:  boys read far less than do girls.

Why aren't our boys interested in reading? 

“Boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy. Moreover, when given choices, boys do not choose stories that feature girls, while girls frequently select stories that appeal to boys. Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding "masculine" perspectives or "stereotypes" than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read.”  Why Johnny Won’t Read (The Washington Post)

So what’s the response?  

We want our boys to want to read.  Unfortunately, many publishers have attempted to solve the problem by “insisting that we must "meet them where they are"—that is, pander to boys' untutored tastes.  For elementary- and middle-school boys, that means "books that exploit [their] love of bodily functions and gross-out humor." AP reported that one school librarian treats her pupils to "grossology" parties. "Just get 'em reading," she counsels cheerily. "Worry about what they're reading later."  How to Raise Boys Who Read (Wall Street Journal)
One of the many problems with this approach is that the end-goal is rarely reached.  Boys’ hearts and minds hunger for stories of substance. We spoil their appetite by providing them with a steady diet of intellectual junk-food.  The “at least they’re reading” theory is a bad one.  In dumbing down the books that we give our boys, we’re reinforcing destructive messages about reading, quality literature, and the intellectual capacity of our young men.
But as it is with all appetites, we must be intentional in helping a healthy one develop.    How?
~Be intentional. Have a standard and a plan - for books to purchase and for books from the library.  For each of my children, I've created a simple spreadsheet with a list of books that I would like them to read AND that I think they'd enjoy.  This makes the quick trip to the library or the Christmas list for Grandma an efficient, pain-free way to obtain quality books for them.  Visit the Exceptional Resources for Children’s Books page.  Each book listed is filled with great recommendations.
~Put reasonable limits on “distractions”  - all screen time.  When left to our own propensities, we often gravitate toward that which requires less work.  Reading is deeply rewarding, but it requires more work than do video games and the TV.  The studies correlating literacy with screen time are staggering. 
~Listen to their interests and look for books that would be engaging to them. One of my sons judges the quality of a book by the number of battles that occur within.  His first literary love was the Dan Frontier series (Frontiersman and Indians).  Then came Peter Pan battling Captain Hook, Robin Hood, and King Arthur.  He's also, shall we say, addicted to engaged in  all things Star Wars.  Although I might not deem the Star Wars books as great literature, they do embody great story. 

Battle boy's brother has a keen sense of humor and is drawn to books that are clever.  To name a few, he's been absorbed in Edith Nesbit's Complete Book of Dragons,  Jonathan Roger's The Wilderking Trilogy, and most recently, GK Chesterton's Father Brown stories.  The Chronicles of Narnia and Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga are forever woven into the tapestry of both of their childhoods.  Although we try to provide a “well-rounded meal” of different genres of literature, I always defer to their tastes when purchasing books for gifts or rewards.
~Read aloud.  And for the biggest benefit, have Dad read aloud.  Consistently.  My husband, who is not necessarily a read-for-pleasure guy, has committed to read aloud to the boys at night before they go to bed.  I do the research and supply the “boy books.”  They’ve worked their way through most of the Ralph Moody Little Britches series, and the three of them have developed a “secret culture” of which I’m (happily) not a part. The characters have become their friends, and they now have a long list of escapades and adventures which they have experienced together.  They’ve learned to love story.
~Appreciate boys for who they’ve been created to be.  Have vision for who they can become.  Look for books that affirm and inspire them.  Look for books that delight the imagination.  Begin with “the end” in mind.  If you want young men who are thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate, brave, and of high character, give them a steady diet of books that will shape their souls in that direction.

"More than the painting you see or the music you hear, the words you read become in the very act of reading them part of who you are, especially if they are the words of exceptionally promising writers.  If there is poison in the words, you are poisoned;  if there is nourishment, you are nourished;  if there is beauty, you are made a little more beautiful.  In Hebrew, the word dabar means both word and also deed.  A word doesn't merely say something, it does something.  It brings something into being."  Frederick Buechner
When you have a few moments, listen to this song by Steve Taylor (you'll have to listen beyond the very 80's synthesizer).  At its very heart is the power of the Greatest Story.  

For our boys…

When the house fell asleep

There was always a light

And it fell from the page to the eyes

Of an American boy

In a storybook land

I could dream what I read

When it went to my head I'd see

I wanna be a hero

But the practical side

Said the question was still

When you grow up what will you be?

I wanna be a hero


It's a nice-boy notion that the real world's gonna destroy

You know

It's a Marvel comic book Saturday matinee fairytale, boy
Growing older you'll find

That illusions are bought

And the idol you thought you'd be

Was just another zero
I wanna be a hero

Heroes died when the squealers bought 'em off

Died when the dealers got 'em off

Welcome to the "in it for the money as an idol" show

When they ain't as big as life

When they ditch their second wife

Where's the boy to go?

Gotta be a hero
It's a nice-boy notion that the real world's gonna destroy

You know

It's a Marvel comic book 
Saturday matinee fairytale, boy

When the house fell asleep

From a book I was led

To a light that I never knew

I wanna be your hero

And he spoke to my heart

From the moment I prayed

Here's a pattern I made for you

I wanna be your hero

My Heroes...

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