Several years ago a bookseller friend paid me an unexpected compliment.
”Lea,” he said, “does a great job getting boys to read girl books.”
I panicked when I heard this. “I do what?” I thought. “How do I do that? And more importantly, how can I KEEP doing that?”
STOP CALLING THEM BOY BOOKS AND GIRL BOOKS
The most popular books in my classroom last year? Divergent by Veronica Roth and Cold Fury by T. M. Goeglin. Both are set in Chicago, with intense action and a female protagonist. Cold Fury even has a girl in a dress on the cover. So how did Cold Fury become a book that every guy in 8th grade read months before it was published?
Books don’t have genders. Books have male and female protagonists, or both. They are written by men or by women. Some have girly covers. And just a few of them are actually ABOUT what it means to be a boy or a girl. Unless a book really IS about life as a girl, don’t call it a girl book. Call it a romance, or a story about relationships, or a story about football. The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner are both dystopian adventures; is one ‘girlier’ than the other because the protagonist is a girl? Change how you talk about books and encourage your students to do the same.
HOARD GENDER NEUTRAL COVERS
When you find a book that appeals to boys and girls, but the cover doesn’t reflect that, try to find a copy of the hardcover. When you’re helping a boy find a book, slip off the book jacket, talk up the football side of the story, and encourage him to read a chapter. They’ll have the chance to get hooked without anyone commenting on their choices.
DECIDE WHY IT MATTERS
Why do you care what your students read? Are you trying to move them into a new genre or a higher reading level? Do you want them to think about their own lives, or about the lives of strangers? Use that as the selling point of your book talks, both individually and to the class.
BUT WE READ IT WHEN WE WERE IN SCHOOL is a lousy reason to teach anything.
The key to moving kids into a broader range of books is for you, the teacher, to expose them to a wider range of experiences through read-alouds and whole class novels. If you have the freedom to choose, make sure that your choices reflect your values. When I’m forced to draw up a summer reading list, I balance short and long books, easy and hard books, light and heavy topics, and books with boy and girl main characters. When I’m ready to pick a new read-aloud, I think about genre, interest, relevance, and gender. A boy who loved Sharon Draper’s Out of my Mind when it was read to the class is a little bit less likely to object to another book just because it’s narrated by a girl.
David Levithan talks about the role that books (and teachers and librarians) play in building empathy in our students. While it’s important that students see themselves in the books that they read, it’s also important that books act as a view into the lives of people that they don’t meet every day in their classrooms or in the streets. My students attend a small Catholic elementary school in a wealthy community. There are few non-Catholics, and no kids with outward special needs. And so my students read Yummy and A Long Walk to Water and Wonder and Out of my Mindnot just because they’re good books, but because they need to explore a world beyond their own.
LEARN TO TRANSLATE
In my school, the code is “weird.” When I ask if a student liked a book, the response I sometimes get is “Yeah, but it was a little weird.” “Weird how?” I ask, and the student shrugs, or blushes, or otherwise silently shouts at me that something in the book made him uncomfortable. Every single kid means something different by ‘weird.’ For some it means that (gasp) there was a bra in the book, or kissing. For others it’s a gay character or an abusive adult. Even the most enlightened, empathetic reader might not want to read about what puberty looks like for the opposite sex. Learn to translate what your students are saying. Sometimes younger students just aren’t developmentally ready. Don’t worry. They’ll be back.
Lea Kelley teaches 8th grade Humanities at a K-8 school north of Chicago. She also manages her school’s 1-to-1 laptop program. When not teaching, she can often be found at The Book Stall in Winnetka or the Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago. A native of Tacoma, Washington, Lea is busy preparing to write her fourth novel for NaNoWriMo. You can find her on Twitter at @leakelley.