Mar 13, 2006

My son read the Little House books

And liked them. Emily Bazelon takes on the notion that boys don't read books about girls.
Ever since Nancy Drew outperformed the Hardy Boys in the 1930s, it's been clear that boys will read some stories about girls. Publishers have marketed titles to take advantage of this fact. The Amazon entry for Little House in the Big Woods, for example, urges boys to "take another peek at their sisters' shelves." This Little House book, it promises, "is full of the thrills, chills, and spills typically associated with 'boy' books." The real appeal of Little House for many boys probably isn't the narrative, but rather the precise and detailed descriptions of how to tap a maple tree for syrup or load a musket. Betsy-Tacy and All-of-a-Kind Family, too, are full of information about their worlds. According to Eden Ross Lipson, the author of The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children, boys read on a need-to-know basis: To generalize wildly, "They don't set out looking for story and relationship. They set out looking for information."
For the most part whatever I read to my son at bedtime was enjoyed by him. Though I can't say I enjoyed everything: I developed a special antipathy to Richard Scarry stories whereas my son just ate it up. Then there was the book version of He Man: Master of the Universe. The books he read himself, though, were probably books about things and how things worked. He particularly enjoyed natural history books, with special emphasis on the dinosaur.

Bazelon says people blame librarians for the current "boys don't read" hysteria because librarians are story-centric.
Why then do a lot of boys get turned off from reading sometime in elementary or middle school? The blame partly lies with librarians. They are mostly women, they tend to love stories, and they also have a thing for books that teach moral lessons. (Take a look at this list of the winners of the Newbery Medal for children's literature awarded by the American Library Association.) Librarians also play a hugely important role in children's book publishing. "You don't get a walloping success without that institutional support," says Lipson, who is the former editor of the children's section of the New York Times Book Review. Authors like Jon Scieszka (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!, The Stinky Cheese Man) and Gary Paulsen (Hatchet, the Tucket adventures) have hit home runs with books whose humor or historical element appeal especially to boys. But they're the exceptions. Librarians and teachers often look down on boy humor or nonfiction, and their disdain seeps through to the boys who crave those things. "What we're doing now is pushing one thing: fine literature," says Scieszka, a former teacher. "For some kids, that doesn't do it."

I don't disdain such books; but reading aloud from the Guiness Book of World Records (another book my son loved) is boring. You read stories aloud--not lists.

I suppose most people who enjoy reading are determined to share their childhood favorites with their kids and I was no exception. And my favorites were stories. To that end we read the aforementioned Little House books, the Narnia books, Mary Poppins and The Wind in the Willows and many others--some chosen by him, some by me. I know he enjoyed the story aspects of those books as much as I did. And he really loved the funny bits. I can remember him laughing out loud at some scene in a Little House book. I can't even remember what it was about, but he talked about it for days. And if I asked him he'd remember the exact scene.

But this bit from Bazelton's piece hit home for me:
While I've still got Anne of Green Gables on my library list, sorting out the boy-reader critique has broadened my horizons. It helped me make my peace with Cowboys, the book Eli brought home last week when his school gave out books in celebration of Dr. Seuss' birthday. "Did someone tell you to take that book?" I ask, my own nose wrinkling, as I imagined a teacher wresting a book with a girl on the cover out of my son's hands. "No, I picked it," Eli said. Of course. When we opened the book, Simon wanted to look only at the page with an array of cowboy equipment—hat, lasso, saddle, bridle, three different guns, and a holster. "Win-ches-ter Rifle," Eli sounded out. "Rem-ing-ton 44." "How do guns work?" Simon wanted to know. Good thing we can turn to Little House for Pa's step-by-step instructions on how to load a musket.
When my son was around 4 or 5, he found a catalog of guns at my parents' house. I'm not sure why they had it, not being gun owners or hunters. He loved that thing. He asked my father if he could have it and was thrilled to take it home. Five years later he was still poring over it, though I'm sure he had every specification of every gun and each kind of ammunition memorized.

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