The School Library Journal has a story about how a school library in Liberty, Missouri decided to entice more boy readers by building a “cave” space. There is a photo, but here is the description of The Cave from the article:
The space is outfitted with modest furnishings, including chairs made from milk crates and padding, designed by Rosheim, and a brand-new beanbag. Fabric is tacked to the ceiling to provide a cavelike aura. A life-sized Wimpy Kid poster, donated by Abrams Books, the series’ publisher, is personalized with a message that reads, “This Way To the Cave.” And, of course, there are books.
Fabric on the ceiling, milk crate seats, and a lone beanbag do not a cave make. Points for effort, and I can appreciate schools being tight on funds and all, but it misses the mark.
What makes a “cave” is that it has a feeling of isolation, a place where you can get away from outside world and hunker down. When grown men make their getaway caves they aren’t light, aerie spaces, they’re basements and garages, paneled in dark wood and full of comfortable furniture where the act of sitting can become a nap. They are permissive places, indulgent, and yes, a little clubby.
I’ve known teens to build their own rooms into caves: walls painted black or a dark color, furniture to a bare minimum, mattress on the floor, colorful print fabrics hanging like partitions against prying eyes and the outside world. It’s a claiming of space and a recognition of a need for sanctuary. Sometimes there are multiple media involved, a TV on while doing homework, or muted with music playing. Let the outside world criticize, but the space is user-created both as an experiment in and an expression of freedom.
In late 2007 author Sara Lewis Holmes posted something on her blog that generated a discussion about what the ideal space would be for teen readers. I wish I could find the original thread, but I remember clearly a number of us tossing around ideas and I threw in my two cents about a retail environment that was perhaps in a basement, with more floor space for lounging and reading, monitors showing movies of TV shows (sound muted), perhaps a cafe bar… basically a full-service cave. (I remember the discussion because out of it a number of us got together and created the review site Guys Lit Wire, dedicated to suggesting books for boys.) Since then I’ve seen stories like this one, of libraries actively looking to create spaces that are more inviting, less like a library. My own town library turned the periodical room into a teen room.
The problem isn’t necessarily that boys need to have their own space to entice them, it’s that the space needs to feel like something they can take ownership of, and by they I mean boys and girls. Input is great, but why stop there, why not let the kids design the space themselves? Build a scale model of the library and the furniture and have them push it all around until they have something they can all agree on. You do this with a committee of an equal number of boys and girls and I guarantee there will be not one but two and possibly many cave-like arrangements in the design. Just like on the playground where groups of kids will congregate on their own patch of territory, why not let them do the same in a library? Let there be five or six “cubicles” of space that different groups can claim (or sign up for, as they will become popular) and see if the library doesn’t start getting more use. They might even want to paint it black and hang Indian print fabric from the ceilings to create partitions that screen out the world. Do it.
But don’t perpetrate the hard gender classification of books. If a kid reads something they like they will go back to the well looking for more of the same. Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn’t a boy book, it’s an illustrated middle grade book (some would say a graphic novel, but I disagree) and should be shelved with similar books for browsing. I mean, really, are we going to start separating boy sci-fi from girl sci-fi? Who gets Harry Potter? Who gets The Hunger Games? When you start segregating the space in the library and organizing books by gender you reinforce the idea that “these books are good, those books aren’t” to the detriment of both reader and book.
But a cave, a cave is good for all. The more the better.