Now imagine you are a 10-year-old boy…
What books are there for him? What is going to jump out and grab his attention? What choices does he have? What’s going to mean that he takes a book and doesn’t put it down? What book is he going to pick that will mean that reading becomes a thing he does – that makes reading cool? What books are there that relate to him and his life?
I loved reading when I was 7. I was an avid reader. Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog meant that I could be transported to the south coast of England wherever I was and be thrown headlong into an adventure where ginger beer was never more than a few pages away. And then it changed. Music, football and playing with my mates meant that reading became something that I had to do, not something that I wanted to do. Why?
Today's 10-year-old boys have all of these distractions plus mobile phones, YouTube Shorts and the Xbox. Why on earth therefore would they want to pick up a book?
This is a question that has been plaguing school for years. Boys reading levels are consistently below girls and the pandemic has heightened this gap: lockdown increased the gap in reading enjoyment between boys and girls to 11.5%, which has a knock-on for attainment. Publishers have spent years creating ‘boy friendly’ literature: boys like football, let's write a series of books on famous footballers; boys like adventure stories, let’s set a series of stories with dragons and castles where the boy is a hero. More recently, there’s an assumption that 10-year-old boys want to read light-hearted, silly books so the market is full of books like this.
But, perhaps we should be questioning whether these stereotypes, endorsed by what boys see on TV and play in video games, actually help or encourage them into reading, or even encourage quality, high-level, challenging reading? I’m not convinced.
Conversely, so-called “girls’” fiction, often also containing stereotypes (think princesses, unicorns and fairies), but also often containing emotion, real people dealing with real-life situations and people the reader can identify with. Girls can be seen in classrooms across the country engrossed in the tales of Tracey Beaker and the like, but what implications has this had on the boys?
Have we divided our children into blue books and pink books? Surely, girls should be reading stories about boys and vice versa. Boys should be able to pick up a book that will challenge them emotionally, show empathy for the characters and be able to relate it to their lives. What effect does a division of fiction for girls and fiction for boys have on boys’ ability to read, on their ability to choose quality books, and on our ability as schools to close the reading gap?
So take a look at that book corner. Is it divided into pink books and blue books? Are there books aimed explicitly at boys and girls? Are there books that deal with emotions and real-life situations that boys can access? Are there characters that boys can relate to within a fictional setting? Boys like to be challenged but I worry that the stereotypes we’re endorsing in schools are affecting boys’ attitudes towards reading. Perhaps we should be thinking about the effect these stereotypes have on boys’ opinions of themselves, the wider world and on how they deal with their own emotions. If we want to close that reading gap, maybe it’s time to stop supporting the stark chasms between the resources we provide for our boys and girls and be more open to the increasing choice that’s available for all. There’s a lot of contemporary fiction supporting the societal shift away from stereotypes – showcasing male protagonists dealing with difficult issues and confronting difficult feelings, though as well as that these resources are often brilliantly written, engaging, exciting and relevant too. In addition to providing more reasons to read, these books might well help boys to develop socially and emotionally – something all young people need, perhaps now more than ever, regardless of gender.
This blog is from the perspective of Antony Witheyman.
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