The Brilliant MJ Strikes Again

September 22nd, 2010 • Kate

thumb_MaureenJohnsonBrilliant, brilliant, BRILLIANT post by Maureen Johnson that you must read, if you haven’t already. And when you’ve done that, dive into the amazing comments for even more conversation about this topic. Truly worth your time. A taste:

So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.

Largely because we have little choice in the matter.

Do read the whole thing, please.

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9 Responses to “The Brilliant MJ Strikes Again”

  1. Trish Says:

    I read Maureen's post and I see two issues within that are entirely separate. First, there is the issue of women being underrepresented in literature as presented in school curriculum. And with Maureen I wholeheartedly agree. I don't think introducing more female literature into school reading is going to make boys into more thoughtful readers, but it certainly can't hurt.

    However, when it comes to the issue of boys and reading, I maintain that they are underrepresented in young adult literature, regardless of whether it's authored by a man or a woman. Not for a moment am I suggesting that what is on the shelves right now is subpar. There are some wonderful authors who write boy-centric books. They don't need BETTER, they need MORE. If you choose a single bay in the teen section at my bookstore, most of the titles on the shelves are books with girl protagonists. What choices girls have in YA right now! Don't boys deserve as many? It could be suggested that if boys were more open-minded and flexible, their choices would be as vast as girls, but in the real world boys are not and wringing our hands over the fact that they don't read is getting us nowhere.

    Some have suggested that we leave boys alone. If they want to jump from the middle grade books to manga or magazines or the adult section, let them. But the fact that boys who DO read are making that jump signals a big red flag to me that the YA market is missing out on a major opportunity. What it comes down to, I fear, is that publishers are afraid to take the risk, because what if we give boys more choices than they know what to do with…and they choose to do nothing? And I can see why they might not want to take that risk.

  2. Jess Says:

    "It could be suggested that if boys were more open-minded and flexible, their choices would be as vast as girls, in the real world boys are not."

    Trish – That's the point. MJ's saying that if we don't encourage boys to read "girl" books, we're perpetuating a system that requires "girl" and "boy" books instead of just having books that everyone can read.

    There will always be books that specialize, that one gender will be drawn to over another, but there should be books that will appeal to everyone, and boys SHOULD be willing to read girl books just as much as girls are willing or have been forced to read boy books.

    "most of the titles on the shelves are books with girl protagonists. What choices girls have in YA right now! Don’t boys deserve as many?"

    Why shouldn't boys read books with girl protagonists? MJ is saying that historically boys have had more than plenty of choice for male protags. And they have.

    "What it comes down to, I fear, is that publishers are afraid to take the risk, because what if we give boys more choices than they know what to do with…and they choose to do nothing? And I can see why they might not want to take that risk."

    That seems like quite a jump. I can agree publishers might not be willing to take risks, especially in this economic climate (and really, any economic climate is hard times in publishing). But to say we're not going to publish more boy books in case boys stop reading altogether… really? then why publish any books at all? why have girls not been so overwhelmed by the choices that no one reads?

    I think overall you aren't giving boys enough credit!

    Or, the world is ready to "empower" girls by giving them more segregated options, but still not ready to knock boys off their patriarchal pedestals.

    I love boys. My husband is a great boy. But let's be honest, saying it's okay if you don't read all these "girl" books because why should you care about girl issues is the same thing as saying girls don't need to matter to you, you get to be special. The same arguments women like Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, etc, use to discuss why the idea of women's fiction is kind of abhorrent are the same arguments for why needing more boy books is kind of silly, too.

    I do agree that there is an untapped market for YA boy books and encouraging reading in that gap would be seriously awesome, but I think MJ wants us to consider the deeper implications of these issues.

  3. Jess Says:

    For a general reply – sorry that was so long, Trish, there was just a lot you said I wanted to respond to – this is such a fascinating topic!

    I loved MJ's article but I think that no matter which way you think this particular debate goes it's not getting to the root of the problem – girls may be reading more, but ultimately, not many people are reading of either gender. I don't remember the numbers off-hand but it's something like easily 25% of adults don't read at all (in the US). The onslaught of e-Readers is apparently helping this to improve but that doesn't address the fact that people who are turned off from books in school may take a long time to or may never try again.

  4. Trish Says:

    On the contrary, I'm giving boys more credit than you think.

    The teenage boys I know are bright, witty, charming, capable of deep insight, and they know what they like. But instead of giving them more, we're telling them they need to change. The thing is, what they read doesn't necessarily reflect their sensitivity to particular issues.

    For example, I don't like to read gay and lesbian fiction, but that doesn't make me insensitive to gay and lesbian issues. There are a lot of little old ladies at my bookstore who buy stacks of romance novels, but that doesn't mean they're culturally unaware. And I've met older men who will read nothing but war books. Doesn't make them he-man woman haters.

    Should boys be more open-minded about books? Yep. Would it be awesome to live in a world where boys and girls read the same books because they care about the same issues? Definitely. Is introducing more female writers in the school setting a good thing? Absolutely. But reading isn't the linchpin on which sensitivity in boys rests. Let them read what they like. And give them more of it.

    (An aside to Jess: Perhaps I was not clear when I wrote my first post, but I'm not suggesting we stop publishing boy books. What I meant was that I can understand why publishers might not want to take the risk in publishing MORE if boys are, as we all seem to think, not reading what's already there. That is all.)

    And on that note, I am bowing out of this debate. Not in an "I'm taking my toys and going home way" fashion, but because I know this way leads to me looking like I'm some sort of anti-girl, pro-patriarchist (Is that a word? I don't even know), when I'm not. And I'm kind of over that.

  5. Kate Says:

    Trish, I know you're not anti-girl. Remember, I read MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY!

    I personally think this debate is bigger than just "boy books" and "girl books", and what I liked about MJ's post is how she spoke about the institutional bias against girl books, without saying that we shouldn't encourage boys to read. Personally, I'm not sure Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Golding, et. al. are the way in for most boys to a life of reading, but as an agent, yes, I'm absolutely looking for the next David Levithan, John Green, and, to be delightfully frank, Travis. That doesn't mean I don't love MJ's books, and want more like them, but I'd love to see a publishing industry where these books weren't compartmentalized as "boy" or "girl" books, and had covers that were welcoming to all.

  6. Mariam Says:

    Oh my, I LOVE this topic. I love it so much I'm actually compelled to respond to a post, which I rarely do.

    My boys (11 and 7, followed by a 3-year-old sister) read everything put in front of them. We've talked about how some people classify books as being for boys OR girls, instead of AND. That said, I encourage them to read 'both' types because I want them to literarily swing both ways. Much like I suggest my husband listen to both sides of a political argument before tangling with me…

    Because of this, the diversity of their reading list represents an eager willingness to go where mom takes them – in the literary sense – male or female author, male or female protagonist – A Wrinkle in Time, Rules, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, The Tiger Rising, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, and yes, Lord of the Flies (on of my all-time favorite books, in spite of being told by Mrs. Baker in seventh grade that it was a boy-book).

    In the throes of revising my current manuscript, I suggested changing the protagonist to a boy. Imagine my surprise when my sons eeked – "NO! You have to keep her a girl."

  7. Jess Says:

    Trish, thanks for clarifying. I didn't think you were some anti-girl pro-patriarchal person, but the way some things were worded made me respond as I did. I had hoped you would simply clarify your points and you did. I don't really see a debate from which to bow out, but okay! In fact, based on your second post I think we're probably more in agreement on the issue than you might think. I just wasn't getting that from your first comment.

    I agree reading is not the linchpin on which sensitivity rests. That's a good way of putting it.

  8. Patricia Says:

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this post. It was amazing.

  9. Olivia Says:

    My comment on that post read "Dear Maureen, I love you." I also reblogged it here: http://elfarmywrites.blogspot.com/2010/09/eyeball
    There's some good comments going on there.