There's been a lot of conversation lately about boys and books. The "Boys Don't Read" blog launched a few weeks ago; a recent #yalitchat took a turn in that direction; and the HuffPo weighed in.
I fall on the side of Maureen Johnson's argument. In her words,
"Maybe this idea that there aren’t enough boy stories gives credit to absolutely no one, especially not the boys who will happily read stories by women, about women. Maybe the problem in getting boys to read has much less to do with 'boy stories' than a general shift in culture and technology."
So that said: These graphs appear to support Team Won't-Someone-Think-Of-The-Booooys?, and I'm very much Team Deal-With-The-Bigger-Societal-Implications. (You may have seen our farm team, Change-The-95%-Male-Literary-Canon.) But I understand that covers can be the weight that tips the scale from "maybe" to "hell no," and they're a smaller issue to tackle than the gender binary. And when you get down to it, I think we're all Team Reading-Is-The-Shit-And-Everyone-Should-Do-More-Of-It.
So I pulled on my pie chart pants and did some counting.
To get these highly scientific results, I had people comb through the 400+ titles in last month's darkness chart, tallying up covers they found girly, boyish, or neutral. Then I averaged our results.*
What makes a cover "girly"? Well, pink, obviously. I mean, assuming it's after 1940 or so. Before that the color was "too strong" for girls; today it makes boys weak, apparently. (See? Societal constructs.)
But I get it. In the here and now, boys don't want to carry around pink books. That's fine. Only 7% of them were egregiously rose-colored anyway.
|(Here's an idea: Adult dudes. Be secure in your manliness and carry books regardless of the covers.|
See how that affects which books the boys around you are willing to read.)
Okay, so what about other things that might scream "I have two X chromosomes"?
|Those poor boys, kissed against their will. We all know how much teenage boys hate kissing.|
So pink is out. No flowers. No kissing. No girls, period, and that pun is totally intended. What can we put on book covers?
Animals, apparently. And fire. Fire is always good.
I want boys to read. I have two little boys myself. They are voracious readers, and it doesn't matter to my oldest that JK Rowling is a woman, or that Little House in the Big Woods is about a girl, or that there's a girl in the Magic Treehouse. He is genuinely confused by the GROSS (Get Rid of Slimy Girls) Club in Calvin and Hobbes.
I'm not naive: I expect this to get more complicated as he gets older. In fact, we just had a debate about whether or not he could buy a pink backpack, and I told him no. Why? Because I'm cheap, and I can't afford to replace it when he gets teased at school and wants a new one. He got a pink notebook and a shirt with pink stripes instead. We compromised.
And that's what needs to happen. Compromise. A blurring of boundaries, a give and take. In the short term, we want boys to read. Can we make more covers neutral? Of course, if we buy enough of them to convince publishers they'll sell. Can boys read more "girl" stuff? Of course, if we'll quit stigmatizing it. Can girls read "boy" stuff? Several centuries of history say yes.
But while pushing "super macho" covers and treating female protagonists like lepers may lead to short-term gains, it's a long term loss. It's not that we don't need boy books, it's that we need to redefine what "boy books" means. I'd like to see my boys grow up believing, if I may paraphrase this fabulous post, that the experiences of the girls around them "are as valid as, say, Holden Caulfield's." I want them to understand that a "real man" stands up to the status quo, and doesn't fear things that are pink.
ETA: Lo and behold, what is published two days later? This. And The Rejectionist pretty much breaks down my own reaction here.
*Thanks to Sarah Enni, her Dr. Husband, and my own husband for counting covers-- and apologies to Kaitlin Ward, who went through all 400+, only for me to promptly lose her email about it.