Now here is a pressing and urgent question: Why would boys read books written for girls–books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series?
Emily Bazelon, mother of two sons, thinks she has figured it out. “The conventional educational wisdom holds that boys don’t like to read about girls,” she reports. “If a book has a girl on the cover, it’s toast, no matter how adventure-filled or well written. And this isn’t a phenomenon of puberty. The prejudice supposedly starts early in elementary school, if not before. I decided not to believe it. While my children aren’t the literary equivalent of boys whose mother makes them wear frilly collars, I often pull a beloved “girl” book off the shelf of the library and bring it home. And to my surprise Eli, who is 6, has been with me all the way.”
The real appeal of Little House for many boys probably isn’t the narrative, but rather the precise and detailed descriptions of how to tap a maple tree for syrup or load a musket. Betsy-Tacy and All-of-a-Kind Family, too, are full of information about their worlds. According to Eden Ross Lipson, the author of The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children, boys read on a need-to-know basis: To generalize wildly, “They don’t set out looking for story and relationship. They set out looking for information.”
Relieved? Bazelon concludes with this reassuring anecdote:
While I’ve still got Anne of Green Gables on my library list, sorting out the boy-reader critique has broadened my horizons. It helped me make my peace with Cowboys, the book Eli brought home last week when his school gave out books in celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. “Did someone tell you to take that book?” I ask, my own nose wrinkling, as I imagined a teacher wresting a book with a girl on the cover out of my son’s hands. “No, I picked it,” Eli said. Of course. When we opened the book, Simon wanted to look only at the page with an array of cowboy equipment–hat, lasso, saddle, bridle, three different guns, and a holster. “Win-ches-ter Rifle,” Eli sounded out. “Rem-ing-ton 44.” “How do guns work?” Simon wanted to know. Good thing we can turn to Little House for Pa’s step-by-step instructions on how to load a musket.