Sports writer (it figures) cum YA author Robert Lipsyte rattled the cages of the kidlit community this past weekend with his essay in the NYT Book Review essentially lobbing the teen boy reading problem back across the net into the “more boy books” camp. This naturally, almost assuredly, possibly deliberately, raised the hackles of those who feel that the problem isn’t books (don’t blame the books!) but in the way society raises the boys (we need to raise boys as feminists!). Here’s the one line that resonated with me out of the whole essay, the one most true, the one ring to bind them:
“We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become.”
Forget everything else Lipsyte said for a moment (especially if it bothered you) and think about everything this statement embraces.
First and foremost it recommends we need books. Define that how you will, I would love to hear someone argue the opposite side, that we don’t need books anymore.
Second, the modifier good is in there. We don’t just need more crap, we need quality, and again there’s a spectrum there. Suffice to say we know good when we see it, what defines good isn’t at issue here.
Third, following the rule of threes, comes the type of good books that we need: realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels. Any naysayers out there? Anyone think we couldn’t use more quality nonfiction, solid realistic fiction, or good graphic novels? No? Let’s move on.
The next part is tricky: inviting boys. This gets tossed around and argued quite a bit, and it usually has to do either with cover designs or whether a girl is involved with the story. This is the “Ew, cooties!” argument, and the division is usually between “if it’s good, it shouldn’t matter” and “we need to teach boys to get over it.” This is the point where I would think most pro-feminists would want to weigh in with just exactly how boys get to this stage of thinking. There’s an avalanche of advertising and marketing out there that is conditioning boys from a very early age to think of pink as a girly color and that stories featuring girls will contain content of no interest to them. There’s a ginormous world out there molding and shaping the ways boys approach their entertainment and free time, and you want to draw a line in the sand at books and dare boys to cross it? If we aren’t going to invite boys into books, if the stand is going to be pandering versus political, or if there’s just no desire to even bother, then how can we possibly imagine a world where boys even begin to come close to recognizing books as valuable?
Now comes the most interesting phrase out of the Lipsyte quote, to reflect. We don’t just want them to read for the sake of reading, we want them to find meaning and purpose in what they read, we want them to think. This is where I feel a lot more harm than good is done in the schools when there is a dramatic shift from reading for fun toward reading for meaning. I do think boys can and should be able to analyze texts and glean relevent meaning from a story, any story, but I don’t think books should be used to do this. This is where I get a little radical and run my post a little off a side track, but this is the crux of it:
Apply all the lessons taught about subtext and metaphor and literary devices via movies and television shows.
Why? Because we already know they spend more time with visual media than they do books. Because we need them to see that these lessons exist in the world outside the classroom. And because they will be better able to apply those lessons to books if we don’t remove them from the category of pleasurable pursuits. You can take any contemporary television sitcom and use it to teach racial and gender-based stereotypes for example – and there’s a LOT of examples out there, many of them hit shows, a lot of them negative – then have them read any work of fiction and they’ll spot them without effort. It doesn’t work the other way around however. Kids who are whipsmart at spotting literary devices in books view their favorite TV shows as somehow being separate or above all that.
Anyway, if we want our boy readers to be able to sincerely reflect on what they read in books we might have to actually teach them how to reflect somewhere else besides books first.
The last part of Lipsyte’s quote is a loaded gun: what kinds of men they want to become. You ask any boy what character from literature they would most like to be like, and what are the odds you’ll get a character from a fantasy novel, a hero with superpowers? Not very realistic. On the spot I can only think of one good example, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a boy wanting to be like Atticus Finch. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a guy (outside of fellow writers) who said they wanted to be like any male, author or character, connected with books. There are great men to emulate in the world, politicians and athletes and movie stars, but these are all men of action who give no appearance of having read any books.
So if we want to invite boys to reflect on the type of men they want to become, and we want them to do it through good, realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels – and there’s nothing in that restatement I find objectionable – then we need more books that allow this to take place. This isn’t an argument of pandering versus bootstrap feminism, it’s about saying, simply, let’s put out more books like this and give them time to find an audience.
Boys and reading are like a teen driver and his broke-down truck by the side of the road. You can either give them a lift to the next town and help them one step further along the road to reading, or you slow down long enough to smirk at their choice of vehicle before driving off and leaving them in the choking dust.
We can argue all we want, but there are boys all over the literary map who need lifts into town.