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I walked up to the registration table at a conference for children’s book writers and illustrators. The lobby was filled with teachers talking to one another about their schools, their principals, and common core. A few talked over their manuscripts. The woman behind the table was cheerful and warm. She smiled at me like I was a beloved nephew. I signed the necessary papers, grabbed my information packet, and put on my name tag.
“One last thing,” she said. “Is this your first time attending the conference?”
“Yes,” I said.
She reached over to a pile of beaded mardi-gras necklaces, the type they throw from parade floats in New Orleans. “You’ll need to wear this.” She handed me the necklace with a smile. There was not a trace of slyness. Her face was as pleasant and happy as if she were handing me keys to a new car.
“No thank you,” I said.
She drew a breath in surprise, and her face hardened slightly. “You need to wear it so that people know it’s your first time attending.” She was being patient with me.
“That’s okay,” I said smiling.
She wasn’t having it. “No. You have to wear it,” she said beads swaying in her extended fist.
What had happened to her face? No longer was I a beloved nephew. She was looking at me like … like what? Ah. She was looking at me like I was a student. I took the necklace and left the table.
I attended a session on the elements of the YA novel. The speaker said writers would be wise to model their books on the movie Dirty Dancing. I am not making this up. Did I mention there weren’t very many men present?
The attendees were overwhelmingly female school-teachers who hoped to get their books published. It is possible that the attendees at this regional conference did not adequately represent the twin institutions of education and publishing. Not all boys are educated by women who think that shiny beaded necklaces are a mandatory accessory, or who think that Dirty Dancing is a cultural treasure, but some boys are, and it’s a problem. Do Youth Publishing and Education alienate boys?
The U.S. Department of Education reading tests for the last 30 years show boys scoring worse than girls in every age group, every year. Boys also perform worse than girls in writing according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A survey of students in 2012 revealed that 53% of girls strongly agreed that “writing is one of my favorite activities.” However, only 35% of boys felt the same. Because students first learn to read and then read to learn, literacy problems beget broad academic failure. In other words, boys who fail to read, fail to learn.
There are several obstacles that prevent boys from becoming readers:
First, there are very few male teachers in lower education. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports year by year that men make up 18-19% of Elementary & Middle school teachers. Some schools have almost no men at all. I’ve experienced this first hand. I once painted murals in a school that had one male gym teacher and some male janitorial staff. The principal, office staff and all other teachers were female. This situation is increasingly common in elementary schools across the country. If children don’t see their dads reading, they are unlikely to experience male reading modeled at school.
Second, boys can easily be treated as defective girls in female-dominant environments. The old saying is true, “To the worm in a radish the whole world is a radish.” Feminine environments can assume feminine priorities without recognizing them as anything other than “the way children should act.”
Peg Tyre is a self-described progressive feminist. She was raised on the Reviving Ophelia literature of the 90’s, but as a mother of boys and an education reporter she began to research the gender gap in education. Surprised that boys, not girls, were failing, she wrote a book compiling her findings. Tyre tells this story about her conversations with seven-year-old boys in a lecture at Elmhurst College:
“I said, ‘so guys, what is it with you and reading?’ … They were like, well to tell you the truth, reading is kind of girly and I was like, ‘wow that’s so defensive.’ Right? They’re bad at it and so they immediately describe it as ‘girly.’ Where does that come from—that rapid defensiveness? And I kind of judged those kids… So then we tramped back into the classroom, and they were making individual selections of their books, and I looked around the room and I suddenly had the eyes of a tortoise [the boy reading group name], and I realized that the books in the teacher’s classroom were overwhelmingly books about girls. They had pinkish kind of girlish covers…They were girls in jeopardy stories, and I suddenly realized why the boys were saying reading was girly, because man, reading is girly.”
The third obstacle to boy literacy is the growing reluctance of schools to even classify gender. It’s becoming politically awkward to perceive gender as anything but a state of mind—something to be slipped on and off like a sweater. Christians who believe that gender is a core human characteristic (“male and female created he them”) are considered backwards or oppressive. In his book Why Boys Fail, Richard Whitmire writes of an investigation into a possible gender gap at Illinois’ schools. It was incredibly hard to conduct the investigation because members of the relevant committee were uncomfortable with the premise of gender.
Whitmire records the comments of Diane Fisher, a clinical psychologist and a member of the committee:
“There was an enormous amount of resistance to us looking at this,’ she recalls. ‘The others saw it as a hot-button issue and they didn’t want to use the word ‘gender’. They wanted to look at learning differences in general and not make it into a gender issue. I think it was really political discomfort for them. And a number of these parents didn’t really believe these gender differences exist.”
The task force proceeded despite the opposition. Their first task was to question the teachers to get their input. A staggering 85% of teachers anticipated no gender achievement gap. Whitmire records the task force’s findings:
“In June 2006 the task force released its 107-page report. In stark contrast to what the teachers thought was happening, the task force found ‘surprising’ gender gaps. In grades five through eight, girls had higher grades than boys in every core subject, including math.”
The American Council for Coeducational Schooling maintains that even calling children “boys and girls” furthers gender stereotyping and engrains sexism in our society. For people with this belief, it is impossible to under-serve boys because they insist it is impossible to identify boys. You can see the trouble.
Let me add one more point on this score: The failure to recognize male distinctness leads to a marginalization of femininity. I just read a sample reading from a 2011, fourth grade National literacy test about a girl wrestler named Daisy. A story for fourth grade boys about a girl wrestler? Why don’t boys enjoy reading?
Daisy is super tough, of course, and she loves the smell of sweat socks, and she outwrestles a cocky boy with muscles and pours contempt on a coach who calls her Honey.
“‘Have you wrestled before, honey?’
“He didn’t call any of the boys honey.’Yes sir,” I answer through clenched teeth.”
A reading program with these priorities tell boys that masculinity is not their special possession. It also denies that there are ways to treasure the differences between boys and girls bestowed by the Creator. Additionally, it suggests that women should receive no particular honor, no gentleness, no care or protection from men. This is obviously bad instruction for boys. But, isn’t it also corrosive for girls? Stories like the one above tell girls who treasure femininity that they’re doing it wrong. They also assert that the way a girl achieves power is through the imitation of men. Am I alone in thinking that this is somewhat insulting to women? Surely not.
After the birth of my second child, I was amazed at my wife. Childbirth occasions a co-mingling of vulnerability and strength that is distinctly female. Courage in the course of the ordinary woman’s life is varied, complex, and abundant. It should be widely celebrated in literature. The desire to shoehorn women into more masculine archetypes bespeaks an embarrassment toward the riches of femininity. It smacks of an insecurity toward women as characters and betrays an ingratitude for the glory of our distinct creation as men and women. It’s also boring.
So look for books that embrace the romance of masculinity and femininity as separate gifts. A proper respect for women is essential in reading material for boys and girls both.
Lastly, publishers themselves provide a few obstacles to male literacy. Simply put, publishers target girls more than boys because girls share and recommend books. Boys typically read in isolation from one another. Boy-friendly publishing brings greater financial risks than girl-friendly publishing. Consequently much of the publishers’ energy goes into promoting Princess’ series, Paranormal Romance, or Modernizations of Fairy Tales. This is easily rectified. If books that honor boyhood sell a bunch of copies, publishers will produce more. This means that parents have to be discerning consumers and reward publishers who take boy-friendly risks.
Parents can no longer assume that well-meaning sweet teachers will usher their boys into a love for books. Fathers must model reading. Schools should recruit male teachers or empower female teachers with strategies to reach boys, and we should look for ways to honor the differences between boys and girls so that we can display a proper gratitude for God’s good gifts.