Sunday, November 20, 2011

Betsy-Tacy for Boys

In a recent blog post on the New York Times website noting the publication of The Betsy-Tacy Treasury (an omnibus reissue of the first 4 Betsy-Tacy books) Pamela Paul writes,

"A ramshackle four-story brownstone in mid-20th-century Manhattan. A Lower East Side tenement at the turn of the last century. The woods of Wisconsin in 1964.

These are just a few of the landscapes that female readers of children’s literature cling to well after they cease reading the books that introduced them. ('The Saturdays,' 'All-of-a-Kind Family' and 'Caddie Woodlawn'for those who somehow missed these greats.) But there may be no world that provokes such profound girlish longing as the bucolic century-old Minnesota of 'Betsy-Tacy.'" [italics mine]

I found myself irritated by Paul's assumption that the readership for the classics listed above is exclusively female and that thus only women look back on them fondly, because these are all books that my son loves and that we have read and reread aloud together with great pleasure.  Some, like All-of-a-Kind Family or Betsy-Tacy are about girls, but in The Saturdays the two boys and two girls in the family take up equal space in the narrative.  If we assume a fun, charming book like The Saturdays, with two engaging boys as central characters, is a "girls' book," we are shutting boy readers out of whole swaths of children's fiction thanks to our own gender biases about what girls and boys enjoy.

As feminists, Tim and I have always emphasized with N. the fundamental equality of men and women, boys and girls.  Gender stereotypes that appear in our reading that imply essential differences in the abilities or interests of boys and girls never stand without critical comment from us.  Boys can cry.  Girls can fight.  Some boys like dolls.  Some girls don't ("Mom, I know," N. will say with impatience at my zillionth editorial comment to this effect!).  As an extension of this, we have tried to avoid gender stereotyping in our selection of books to read to N.  We don't assume that because he is a boy, he will be drawn to certain kinds of stories or bored by others.  When we began reading chapter books aloud, I was thrilled to begin sharing some of my childhood favorites with N., such as the Betsy-Tacy books, The Railway Children, and The Five Little Peppers and it never occurred to me that he wouldn't love them too; I did not love these books because they were "girl books" and I was a girl, but because they were great stories and I loved to read.  While I've looked to others for help generating a list of books with boys as heroes (because I read few such books myself as a child) my main goal in reading aloud with N. has been to share great stories with him, no matter the gender of the characters. 

We make a mistake when we assume that children (or we ourselves, for that matter) need to identify with the hero or heroine of a book in order to have a meaningful encounter with it.  Indeed, much of the pleasure of reading is in experiencing the unfamiliar, the strangeness of a book's world and its people, and our strong awareness as we read that these are not our lives or our selves.  We read not only to find kindred spirits, or rather, when we read we find kindred spirits where we might not have expected them.  We should beware of constructing boys as readers primarily interested in one kind of book or character so we don't deprive them of the opportunity to make connections with a diverse range of characters and types of stories.

As I've been thinking about all this, I asked N. why he liked the first four Betsy-Tacy books so much.  I think his reply sums up everything I've been trying to articulate above: they're about "3 wild girls who can go out by themselves and have adventures!"  We recommend them enthusiastically!

***
Bonus reading [updated link]: Other parents who read Betsy-Tacy to their boys, and also to a whole classroom of kids.

8 comments:

Mom and Kiddo said...

Despite my diligent efforts to read aloud chapter books with female protagonists, when Kiddo chooses his own books at the library he gravitates towards so-called "boy books." My counter to this is to bring home books with girl protagonists and leave them lying around. Since Kiddo can leave no book unread he has lately been enjoying the adventures of "B is for Betsy" and "Ivy + Bean".

Fanny Harville said...

These are both good strategies for getting diversity in our boys' reading: reading aloud and strewing for them to read what they might not pick themselves. And of course I don't mean at all to imply that there's anything wrong with what they gravitate towards themselves, just that I think we should not assume that so-called "boy books" are the only reading boys will like.

Alice@Supratentorial said...

I completely agree. I have found my own boy to be a bit resistant to reading some of the books he thinks are "girly". But he will listen to them be read out loud or as an audiobook without a problem. Part of this may be that the books he gravitates to are more adventure books rather than realistic fiction. But he's enjoyed the Little House series and absolutely loved Ramona. In fact, when I was pregnant with my third he wanted to name it Ramona Quimby if it was a girl. :)
I'm finding my second son also is even more accepting of books that are "girly". For example, he loves the Fancy Nancy series.

Fanny Harville said...

N. loved Little House up to Little Town on the Prairie, when apparently the characters were too grown-up for him. And he loves Ramona, which he is currently reading!

Megan D. Neal said...

How did this post miss my feed??!!
I'm sorry to be so late commenting here.

I love this post. And I agree wholeheartedly. I grieve for boys who aren't introduced to "girls" books, and vice versa. That journalist's attitude is just irritating. A good book is a good book; its only audience should be those who enjoy a good story. Unfortunately, it's a commonly held view, more's the pity, and it means boys missing out on a whole slew of great stories.

I was in the book store with a friend a few weeks ago and ran across this issue with her. She has three boys, and when I recommended an exciting book with a female main character, she said her boys won't read "girl" stories. I thought it sad that she and her husband had missed the opportunity to introduce "girl" stories while they were young, before those prejudices set in.

I also hear it all the time when we're at the library: little boys bringing a book up to their parents (yes, I've heard it from both gendered parents) only to have the parent say, "That's a girls's book, you don't want that!" Arrgghh! I want to pull my hair out!
I read "boy" stories aloud to my girls. I always have, but more especially right now, to counter their "I hate boys" refrain they have going on. (They've had some not pleasant encounters with boys in the last few months that have colored their perceptions.) They like the boys in fiction, just not the boys in real life, right now. ;)

Megan D. Neal said...

How did this post miss my feed??!!
I'm sorry to be so late commenting here.

I love this post. It's such an under-discussed important topic. And I agree wholeheartedly. I grieve for boys who aren't introduced to "girls" books, and vice versa. That journalist's attitude is just irritating. A good book is a good book; its only audience should be those who enjoy a good story. Unfortunately, it's a commonly held view, more's the pity, and it means boys are missing out on a whole slew of great stories.

I was in the book store with a friend a few weeks ago and ran across this issue with her. She has three boys, and when I recommended an exciting book with a female main character, she said her boys won't read "girl" stories. I thought it sad that she and her husband had missed the opportunity to introduce "girl" stories while they were young, before those prejudices set in.

I also hear it all the time when we're at the library: little boys bringing a book up to their parents (yes, I've heard it from both gendered parents) only to have the parent say, "That's a girl's book, you don't want that!" Arrgghh! I want to pull my hair out!
I read "boy" stories aloud to my girls. I always have, but more especially right now, to counter their "I hate boys" refrain they have going on. (They've had some not pleasant encounters with boys in the last few months that have colored their perceptions.) They like the boys in fiction, just not the boys in real life, right now. ;)

Anonymous said...

Amen to all! I love N's summary of Betsy-Tacy and love that you've shared them with him.

-cmr

Heather said...

Thank you for that. Oftentimes, I do tend to assume that my little brothers won't appreciate the books I read as a little girl, so have tried to find more boyish ones for them, but they could be missing out! I have found some real gems that I would have enjoyed myself had I known about them as a girl (My Father's Dragon comes most readily to mind) but it is good to keep in mind that I shouldn't necessarily exclude my favorite "girly" books from their reading fare. :-)