The Appeal of Nonfiction for Boys and Girls
Recently, I had a conversation on Facebook with some relatives about what children read. My younger brother, a freshman in college, chimed in that boys do not like to read, and if they do read they will only read nonfiction. Clearly, this is not a universally true statement, because one of the next comments was about a male cousin in the middle grade range who enjoyed the Percy Jackson series, The Hunger Games series, and the Divergent series, which are science fiction and fantasy books. The generalization that one gender only likes to read certain books can be harmful to reading development because a child may think they can only read what everyone claims is acceptable for his or her gender. In addition, publishing nonfiction books that are advertised for one gender can be problematic because they exclude the potential readership of the other gender that may be interested in the same topics.
Whether boys or girls read more and what each gender reads are important statistics for librarians, educators, and parents to know so that they can understand issues related to gendered reading. A brief article published in Phi Delta Kappan (2015) states that “boys’ nonfiction reading peaks in 4th and 5th grade: about 30% of their reading time is devoted to nonfiction texts,” whereas nonfiction reading for “ girls never exceed 21% of their overall reading.” However, girls read 761,000 more words than boys by time they complete high school. This means that while boys read more nonfiction than girls, girls are reading more than boys throughout their time in school. If boys think that they are supposed to only read nonfiction, or girls believe that they should not read nonfiction, then each gender is limited and will be missing a different reading experience.
There are many nonfiction books that exclusively focus on appealing to a female audience, but many of these books center around stereotypes about what girls like and what boys may not like. One example that I found was titled For Girls Only: Everything Great About Being A Girl by Laura Dower (2008); while I believe this book was written with the intention to make females feel good about the things that they may enjoy, it is very restrictive. In the introduction, the author notes that boys are welcome to read the book, but “They might not get it. But that’s okay. Because, girls, we’re just here to have fun. And we don’t need boys for that.” This brief excerpt depicts the positive aspects as well as the problems of this book in just a few short sentences. This book is positive because it encourages girls to not be ashamed of liking what they do, even if it is thought of as “girly.” In addition, it demonstrates that girls should not let boys be the focus of their life which are both important lessons for girls to learn, especially in the middle grade age group, where insecurities can run high. On the other hand there are some negative aspects, such as that it is obviously excluding boys and making the genders seem as if they are from different planets. Boys and girls can like the same things, or at least respect what each other enjoy without any issues. In addition, the tone throughout the book is conversational to the point that it sometimes feels as if it is dumbing the writing down, making the book sound like a collection of articles from a teenage girl’s magazine. Many of the sections have useful information that promote a healthy lifestyle, such as internet safety. On the other hand, there are articles with a limited focus, such as “Everything You Want to Know About Barbie,” that gives different facts about the doll, such as where the name came from and how many outfits she has. This article could have benefited by including information about how unrealistic the doll is and citing the information about her unrealistic body proportions, which is frightening and may encourage younger girls not to view the doll as the ideal figure. Overall, this book may encourage girls to explore nonfiction and may give some good advice, but it does not go far enough to be well balanced and inclusive to boys and girls with diverse interests.
Topics that could appeal to both genders equally should be represented as such in nonfiction, but sometimes this is not the case. Cooking and baking is something that could appeal to anyone, yet some people want to make it a gendered activity even though there are great male and female chefs. One of the most interesting cookbooks that I picked up was Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls, which was published in the 1950s. I selected this one because I wanted to see if it equally depicts both genders doing the cooking and baking. It does not, although this is not surprising considering when it was published. The majority of the pictures depict females doing the cooking and baking and males watching or eating the food. The main exception to this is the campfire cooking section, which could be considered stereotypically male because it is an outdoor activity. In addition, the book always states to ask for mother’s help, when it could just say parent or guardian. It is problematic to discourage males from continuing their interest in this potential passion. Librarians, educators, and parents should make sure that there is a fair representation of all interests in a collection.
It is the responsibility of the adults in the middle grade reader’s life to make sure there is a balanced collection of nonfiction information to explore. Children in this age range are learning so much about the world around them and about themselves that they need resources to help them to understand and form their own opinions. Whatever the child’s gender or interests, adults need to be respectful of what a child wants to learn. Through well-balanced library displays and events, librarians can assist in increasing reading by children, especially when it comes to nonfiction books.
Boys read more nonfiction, but not enough. (2015). Phi Delta Kappan, 96(5), 6. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA400957493&v=2.1&u=lom_waynesu&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=64dd0fa5d2301865fce7ee2befc1ff6d
Crocker, B. (1957). Cook book for boys and girls. New York: Golden Press.
Dower, L. (2008). For Girls Only Everything Great About Being A Girl. New York, New York: Feiwel and Friends.
“Get Real Barbie” Fact Sheet. (2013, January 1). Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://www.chapman.edu/students/health-and-safety/psychological-counseling/_files/eating-disorder-files/13-barbie-facts.pdf