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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Books for boys

The Education Secretary has published a list of 160 books to encourage boys to read. Interesting.

It's an excellent idea in principle. Boys, as everybody knows, are not doing as well as girls in school. Based on watching That'll Teach 'Em, I was under the impression that this is mostly because they distract each other more than they help each other, and I'm not sure how much a booklist will help that, but I'm all in favour of books.

I have to say that the feminist in me is always a little sceptical about this whole business; girls drop well behind boys at university level, but is the country panicking about that? Obviously, not learning to read is worse than not getting a top-grade BA, but still, I cannot help but wonder whether at least some of the people freaking out would be quite so upset if it was girls who were struggling. However, feminism doesn't mean that boys aren't important: if we don't want men to claim rights solely because they're men, we must instead give them rights as human beings, and everybody needs an education. So if a booklist helps boys learn, then I'm entirely in favour of it.

But this list? I've got my doubts. And that's not good. Despite my qualms, it really is serious if boys aren't getting educated, and the list ought to be good, because it's important. It has Joe Craig on it, who's the charming brother of a friend of mine, which is a point in its favour, and I'd also like to take this opportunity to plug HIVE by Mark Walden because we share an agent and he's very nice ... but I've been reading it with my boyfriend, who's read far more of the books on it than I have, being a boy and all, and he pointed out something that is a serious problem.

It's full of mid-series titles.

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series, for instance. Now that's a very good series indeed; my boyfriend read it for fun, so did I, we both loved it, and I'd give it to a boy in a snap. It's well-written, intelligent, funny, has a conscience, and has two central male characters - Bartimaeus and Nathaniel - who are so different in personality that any boy reading it will identify with at least one of them, and possibly both. But the first and best in the series is The Amulet of Samarkand. They've listed Ptolemy's Gate - which is the last in the trilogy. A lot of plot build-up has already taken place; Ptolemy's Gate is denouement. Any boy who picks it up is going to wonder who the heck all these people are and why he's expected to care about them. Then he's going to conclude that reading might just suck after all.

And that's only one example. Based on a quick scan, here are some others: Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings, Eldest by Christopher Paolini, Jango by William Nicholson, Blood Beast by Darren Shan, Soul Eater by Michelle Paver, The Great Cow Race by Jeff Smith, Lady Friday by Garth Nix, Jimmy Coates: Revenge by Joe Craig ... and those are just the ones my boyfriend could identify with a glance over my shoulder.

Am I the only one who wonders whether the people who put together this list, who as adults should have known better, have fallen prey to the childish sense that recent is better, because long ago is boring? Lady Friday was written more recently than Mister Monday, so it must be more relevant? Possibly I'm being unjust, but there must be some reason for this very odd set of choices. Yet at the same time, they have Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy on it, which in pop culture terms is positively venerable - I mean, my elder brother had some of those, and he's thirty-three now. The mix of time seems very peculiar.

And it's too full of books about girls. Obviously young boys need to learn about girls, but there's a phase in early adolescence when your manhood is such an uncertain thing that anything girly is going to feel like kryptonite; if you want to teach boys about girls, it'll have to be stealth education - say, a book with a male hero that happens to have good female characters. But let's take an example: Terry Pratchett, who I gather has been the most shoplifted author in Britain (a teenage audience is strongly indicated), and is a really good choice for boys. What do they have of his? A Hat Full of Sky. It's got a female lead, and almost all the important characters in it are women. It's one of the most female books he's ever written. And it's the second in a series; the first Tiffany Aching book is The Wee Free Men. Why not Guards! Guards!? That's got several good male leads, features the Patrician - a nice masculine example of why using your brain isn't sissy and might actually make you strong - and also a really kick-ass dragon. Why not Mort? That's all about an undervalued teenage boy getting empowered in cool ways and also having to learn about responsibility along the way. Why not Small Gods? That's got a male lead, an anti-authoritarian message and lots of violence. Why not - oh heck, you get the point. Pratchett is prolific and talented; there were a lot of better choices they could have made.

The same thing applies to Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It's about a girl. There were alternatives that might have been a better starting point for boys whose masculinity is not yet a settled thing. Why not the Sandman stuff, for heaven's sake? It's absolutely packed with stealth encouragement to read other books. (Link to his comment about it here and you'll see that even Gaiman himself has some doubts, though he puts them with characteristic courtesy.)

And while we're at it, where are the lad books? The New Lad movement was never my favourite, and was far too often an excuse for men to act like dickheads and blame it on their gender - but a lot of boys like it. Where are Tony Parsons and Nick Hornby? They're both good writers, and they write about men who are the age young boys aspire to be. The girly mag Seventeen isn't for seventeen-year-olds; it's realised that late teens to early twenties are what early teen kids are aiming at, and if you do the same thing with boys, you've got a good foothold. Laddy behaviour is what an immature boy thinks adult men act like; use it to get them reading. How about Fever Pitch? It's all about football, which is a selling point right there, but it's also a profoundly introspective, honest and thoughtful book about male emotions; what better way of teaching boys that adult men really do have feelings and that sometimes being sad doesn't mean you aren't a man?

I'm out on a limb here, but the fact that the list is so heavy on fantasy books is not necessarily an unmixed good. If a boy is under the impression that only geeks read, a list resting its weight on geek classics is not the solution. I gather that fantasy books are a very popular genre with boys, but that might just be because, well, it's the geekier boys who are reading them, and the other boys aren't reading at all. Which means that the geeky boys are fine; it's not their reading habits that are the problem. It's the boys turning their noses up at fantasy who need help, and pushing better fantasy at them is less likely to succeed than finding books that they will like. It makes me think of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, describing the education of Tom Tulliver: Tom has a sound practical intelligence and no abstract intelligence at all, and is sent away for a scholarly education; Eliot remarks, 'I only know it turned out as uncomfortably for Tom Tulliver as if he had been plied with cheese in order to remedy a gastric weakness which prevented him from digesting it.'

After all, most adult men don't read fantasy books; they tend more to thrillers, I think. There are some thrillers on that list, but I wonder if the compilers have done enough research into the kinds of books that adult men enjoy, and then looked for books that would get boys pointed in that direction. Where are Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Andy McNab? They're perfectly comprehensible for boys of, say, thirteen and up, and I'm sure many boys would enjoy them. Is there a single war book? I used to work in a popular-genres publisher, and we had regular calls about when the next W.E.B. Griffin was coming out, usually from elderly men who were obviously lifelong readers. And what about crime books? Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, James Ellroy? They clearly feel that some adult books can go in the mix (see below), so why not pick some that inspire men to years or decades of devotion?

Not to mention the fact that the list is all over the age range with no clear distinctions. The Stinky Cheese Man is for pre-adolescents, but The Book Thief is for adults. Now, I read children's and adults' books in a happy mix, so there's no reason not to do it in theory, but still, if the first time a fourteen-year-old boy picks up a book from the list and either goes 'Huh? This doesn't make sense,' because it's over his head, or goes 'Bah! This is for babies!' because it's too young for him, then you've lost a reader. Either the website has left off the categories, or the list needs to get its act together.

Anything that gets anyone reading is good, and boys are only missing out if they don't find out that books are actually nice. It was a very proud moment when I got a letter from my 13-year-old nephew saying he'd liked Bareback; I felt like I'd really accomplished something. We have a duty to all our children to give them the best chance of making something of their minds. Which means that we've got no business being careless about it. Sequels and overly female books are careless choices. You'd think with a £600,000 budget they could have put a bit more thought into the beginning of it.

What a shame.

Not so long ago, it was girls who did worse than boys, and no, nobody except a few cranky feminists did care. It was attributed to natural female inferiority--smaller brains, dontcha know.

What a sweet young thing you are, not to know that :).
Are you sure about the girls doing worse than boys at the university level? That wasn't my experience when I was teaching (I did have a higher number of female students than the student composition would have predicted in my remedial math classes, but they uniformly outperformed their male counterparts). I seem to remember reading somewhere that female students are fare more likely to finish college than their male counterparts as well
"It's full of mid-series titles."

The one that jumped out at me was Robert Muchamore's "The Fall", from his Cherub series. It's book *seven*.

Not so long ago, it was girls who did worse than boys, and no, nobody except a few cranky feminists did care. It was attributed to natural female inferiority--smaller brains, dontcha know.

In fact, girls were often doing as well or better than boys even back in those days, but were subjected to overt or covert quota systems - e.g. the bar being set higher for the 11+ because there were fewer places for girls in the local education authority area.
It's full of mid-series titles because, in my guess, they asked publishers who suggested their current new books or recent sellers in this market, not earlier books which may be in shorter supply. Perhaps they trusted teachers and librarians to use them as pointers toward whole series, but I'm not sure I'm that cynical in seeing the list as marketing-driven.
Gill makes an interesting point. It may well be, but I'm not entirely sure. Sequels tend to keep whole series in print; I know that if you want one of the Nix or Stroud series, you can get all of them at any bookshop. If I were an editor or marketer making recommendations, I'd start with the beginning of a series, on the assumption that someone who got into it would buy the lot, meaning more sales overall.

It might be that people weren't thinking along those lines, of course. It would just seem a bit silly of them, and I've yet to meet a stupid publisher.
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