Friday, 23 May 2014

Books for boys. Or girls. Or both?

The Secret Garden
Is it half term already? The last couple of weeks have flown by in a whirl of homework, sports days, swimming galas and vomiting bugs (the latter laying us all low for the past few days).

Blogging time seems in short supply, but I've been mulling a blog post for a while about books I'm reading with the boys. When I go into bookshops these days, I'm often struck by how the kids' books seem to be divided by gender. The "boys" books, all about superheroes and dragons and wars and monsters, as opposed to the "girls" books, with their slightly pinkish covers, all about friendships and school and ballet and horses.

Now I know that getting boys to read can be an issue; I've read countless articles about "books for boys", and how we must encourage them by feeding them with subject matter that interests them, etc. And maybe it has been ever thus; after all, I grew up loving Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, while my husband remembers devouring TinTin and Lord of the Rings (both of which my boys adore too). Clearly there have always been books that appeal, in general, to one sex more than another, just as with toys, however we much we don't like to admit it.

But my point is that we shouldn't rule out the books that we think our children won't enjoy. The boys have surprised me on several occasions. For example, I have read the Littleboys most of the the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, and for the most part they were riveted. Maybe they enjoyed different bits to me as a child -- instead of imagining Laura's Christmas hair ribbons and poplin dresses, they're more fascinated by how the family built their shanty -- but the point is, they're great stories.

The boys are also starting to love classics like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows which have a universal appeal -- don't rule these out for being too old-fashioned. They find A.A. Milne hilarious, and they're currently listening with fascination to the Wind in the Willows, despite the fact that the language is quite heavy going for today's kids.(A note: I tried to read these books to them when they were younger, without success. But it seems nine and seven is the perfect age).

What really surprised me this week was when, all of us recovering from said tummy bug, the boys and I sat down to watch a 1975 TV series of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. This was something that came free a few years ago with a newspaper, and I had found among our DVD collection, long-forgotten since we moved to the US. Having not read it since I was a child, I would have said on balance that this was a "girl's" book, but the boys loved watching this serial so much that, as the credits rolled for the last episode, Littleboy was heard to say incredulously: "That's it? There's no more?"

That the same boy who is currently enjoying Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters could be riveted  by the tale of Mary Lennox and her invalid cousin is a testament to the power of great writing. So, bookstores, don't be afraid to mix it up a bit -- and fellow parents, we should all remember that a good story is a good story, whether it contains monsters and zombies or gardens and foxcubs.


Anonymous said...

Anthony Horowitz was on the news a few months back, saying just the same thing.

Elodie said...

Really interesting post.My boys are 10 and dd9. All 3 are avid readers.My 3 loved the Little House series I read to them and adore the TV series.

Just finished reading The Secret Garden to them which dd loved but the boys did get restless during(the Yorkshire language I think). However they adored the TV series,we have the same DVD.The music really took me back.

They love the ENesbit books.I'm currently looking for the BBC series of that too.It's becoming an obsession!

Elodie said...

The Phoenix and the Carpet,the 70s BBC version.

Kit said...

Completely agree. My 13yr old girl was completely into the whole Percy Jackson series. Our 16yr son is mostly into fantasy of all sorts now but when he was younger we read all sorts to him.

One series we've all loved, adults and kids, boys and girls, is Suzanne Collins' Underland Chronicles, which your 9 yr old might enjoy if he's already into Percy Jackson.

As you say, good writing is good writing. Just wish that my kids had inherited my love of historical fiction, as I kept all my childhood favourites. I've read them all the Geoffrey Trease books, and they enjoyed them, but they never pick them up on their own.

Iota said...

THe Phoenix and the Carpet! That's ringing some distant nostalgic bells...

My kids are fairly gender-divided in their reading, so you've made me think. Actually, the older two have pretty much stopped reading, which is so sad.

Rhiannon said...

Thanks for the Secret Garden recommendation - just watched it with my 9 yr old daughter who loved it!

Anonymous said...

My son likes science fiction and world history books In my view, time spent reading, is time well spent.

We also like "Murderous Maths" by Kjartan Poskitt, "Logic Puzzles," - Osborne Activity Cards, and "Maths Quest," by David Glover. These books/activity puzzles make math fun and develop strong skills at the same time.

MsCaroline said...

I completely agree with you: I read the boys all of my favorites when they were small -including Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House Books. I am reading 'Charlotte's Web' to my 4th graders at the moment (their English isn't quite good enough to get it on their own, so I'm reading it with them and it is a joy) and the boys enjoy it as much as the girls. One series that #2 really loved in elementary school was Spiderwick - it is about a thousand times better than the film and we were both terribly disappointed after having loved the books so much. I was a huge audiobook fan when they were small and we listened to just about every Narnia book on CD in the car going to and from soccer/music lessons/ whatever.
I read all the Milne books with my mother growing up and we still quote each other verses from the poetry collections ("King John was not a bad man, he had his little ways, and sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days.")

Was Living Down Under said...

Great post! Totally agree. My girls enjoy a good fantasy/adventure book just as much as they enjoy the princess/fairy books. Right now we're reading "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe". They enjoy the Roald Dahl stories as well. It's fun reading the EE Milne books again too. I read them a few years ago and now reading them again, my 7 year old giggles through the stories. So fun to see how they absorb the same story differently a couple of years later :) The definition of timeless I think!

nappy valley girl said...

Thanks for reminding me about E Nesbit - I loved the Treasure Seekers and Five Children and It as a child. Need to get the boys onto those

Littleboy 1 has read all the Roald Dahl stories - they are timeless, and gender-less too.

Tanya said...

The Little House series, a great idea!! I hope we carry on reading out loud for as long as possible and with a girl and a boy I definitely look for books that are not too gender specific (mostly, though LMM has got a penchant for a girly horse book at the mo...). As mentioned above Charlotte's web is another wonderful book and fav of ours