It was one of those things that came up in a conversation late at night while we were drifting off to sleep. I talked about how, in the bookstore, the adults who are shopping are 90% female. In fact, I said, you didn’t really notice that the clientelle was all women until you’d see the first guy of the day roll in sometime late in the afternoon, often after work.
“90%, really?” Suze asked. I thought a moment.
“Maybe more like 99% because some days you don’t see any males in the store over the age of 12.”
And here we have an interesting social commentary because the authors of the books being written aren’t represented by those numbers. In fact I’d say there were more men involved in writing and illustrating books then women.
Huh, that would be an interesting bit of data to ferret out. Just what is the breakdown in children’s literature between men and women? The stereotype of the editor is that of a male unless it’s in children’s publishing in which case it’s a female stereotype.
But what does all this say about a commodity like a book for a child, especially a boy, if the vast majority of those making the purchases are women and the editors deciding what to publish are predominantly women as well? (Can we throw in librarians as well?)
Hold on now, let’s think about this. There are all sorts of articles about the problems of getting boys to read, and to build active readers, but what adults are making these decisions for the boys? On the purely front line level I can tell you a boy would rather be thrown into a flaming pit surrounded by hungry tigers (there’s a boy image for you) than be dragged into a bookstore by his mother. And when mom is trying to find a book for her precious little boy, and she says “tell the nice man what you’re interested in” you might as well be telling him to stand naked in front of his classmates.
I can think of no less than three regulars who drag their sons into the bookstore and constantly — constantly and viciously — deny them any book that interests them. They’ll pick up a book that looks interesting to them, mom will read the back and hand it off to me saying “Nothing like this.” You won’t see a boy’s spirit crushed faster than when he’s told the one stinkin’ book he found interesting was casually tossed aside by his mother because it wasn’t something she’d want him reading.
The result: the boy has no interest in reading anything.
I had one mother ask for recommendations on “action and adventure books” for her son because that’s what he was into. He was 11 going on 12 and his interest was well beyond what was traditional middle grade readers. She even offered that his favorite recent movie was The Bourne Ultimatum. That would seem to indicate that he could handle something like Alex Rider series but we’ll never know because mom wrote those off as “too violent.”
She also turned down the Young James Bond series for similar reasons. Sensing that mom was perhaps not interested in pushing her son out of middle grade fiction just yet I backed up and tried some Barbara Park books.
“Nope. Divorce. He doesn’t need to see that.”
I tried some Jerry Spinelli.
“He really isn’t a very good writer. Do kids really like that stuff?”
I thought Gary Paulson’s Hatchet would fill the adventure slot.
“Too violent. I don’t like it.”
That’s when she dropped the bomb and told me that she read all of her son’s books before letting him read them, and if they didn’t interest her then she wouldn’t pass them along. There’s a fine line between making a strong recommendation and questioning someone’s parenting choices, and when those situations arise I throw up my hands. In retail this means finding a nice quiet way to leave the customer on their own because they aren’t listening anyway.
That’s the problem isn’t it, listening to the boys?
The answers are simple and difficult at the same time. Boys need to go book shopping with their dads, and their dads need a crash course in shopping as it is. Parents need to do a little reading on some current trends and theories behind children’s literature and reading, much like the research they did when reading their baby and early childhood development books. And boys need to learn a bit about themselves, about the things they do and don’t like, they need to learn how to articulate those things so they can walk into a bookstore and ask for a recommendation without saying something like “You got anything with, I dunno, fantasy and stuff?”
Jon Scieszka has a good thing going over at Guys Read, and his recent conversation in The Horn Book with editor Roger Sutton might open a few eyes as well (the current issue is a special dealing with gender). Additionally School Library Journal has an article discussing this evergreen hot topic.