When I turned on the television last week to check the basketball scores (something I enjoy as much as my husband and three sons), I heard Kwame Alexander talking on the PBS Newshour about The Crossover, his absolutely wonderful book in verse about basketball, brothers, family, and life. I loved that book, and was thrilled when it won the Newbery award this winter. I had bought that book for my son, read it myself, and have recommended it to countless students at the school I work at. It is exactly the kind of book that can suck children in. Do you like sports? Try it, it could be for you? Do you have siblings? Do you fight or argue? You might be able to relate to this book. Do you like the rhythm of music and hip hop? This book has a beat, and just might be for you.
What was bugging me about these stories and interviews was not that authors are trying to reach boys, particularly those who are what we call reluctant readers. That is wonderful and necessary. I was bothered by this reduction down to boys books and girls books. When this is the message we are constantly sending children, they are going to hear it. They are going to hear it probably clearer than we want them to. Title IX gives girls the same access to sports as boys, and we would never say sports aren't for girls. But we seem to broadcast the message that books about sports are for boys.
Shannon Hale, the author of many books, including The Princess Academy series, recently blogged about a school visit where the administration only gave permission for the girls in the school to attend the author talk. The boys and girls in that school were definitely given the message that books about girls are only for girls. That there are things boys are not supposed to want to read, and that includes books about half the population. We are hurting all of our students when we do things like this. These messages are powerful and students carry them through for their lives.
We as teachers and librarians need to be buying, showcasing, and highlighting books about sports, brothers, competition, and all of the other subjects that might just pull in a reluctant reader. We should be finding books for students who can't find the right one for themselves, and try to match the books with their interests. It is great that there are such diversity of topics in books today, and if we try hard we will match the right books with the right kids. What we need to stop doing is giving kids the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) signs that their gender defines what books should be of interest to them. Plenty of boys will identify with The Crossover, and that is fantastic. But it could resonate with any number of girls as well. And all boys who are reluctant readers are not necessarily going to be interested in sports. We need to recognize that it is more complicated than that, and we aren't helping our kids by trying to simplify it.