The Boy Who Was Raised by Books by Kara LaReau
From the moment my husband and I saw the ultrasound three and a half years ago, we knew I was carrying a boy — and that we were carrying a great responsibility. It’s been our goal as parents to raise a “good kid,” just like everyone else — but we also hope we can give our son the specific tools he needs to navigate (and contribute positively to) the world as a male member of society, within and without the gender limitations that come with that Y-chromosome.
Right now, our toddler son is an open, thoughtful, curious, joyful person. But we know there’s a chance that could change within the next few years. From all that we’ve read and seen, and all that our friends with sons have warned us, the pressure on boys to conform to masculine gender norms is strong, and it starts early. (Not to dismiss the plight of girls. Of course, the pressure on girls to conform to their own narrow gender norms is seemingly-insurmountable, too.) Our culture pressures boys to embrace masculine stereotypes (including toughness; fearlessness; disrespect of women; a rejection of close, affectionate, authentic friendships; a rejection of intellectual pursuits and quiet, thoughtful behaviors, like reading; and resolving conflicts through violence) and shun whatever is deemed “feminine.” My husband and I really have our work cut out for us.
Thankfully, books are helping us pave the way. So far, we know we’ve done one thing right — our son loves reading! We read to him twice a day, before naptime and bedtime. Already, he knows that story time is a special occasion; we’ve created a snuggly little “reading nest” for him with a bunch of pillows and blankets (we also have a cozy “reading chair” for those of us too old and creaky to curl up in said nest, ahem).
He gets to pick out three books at a time — one long book and two short ones (the short ones are usually board books). He especially loves stories that have a musical element, i.e. those that have some kind of song in them, so we always make sure that’s the last kind of book we read, as a kind of lullaby.
Of course, the kinds of books we put on the shelf are important, too — we make sure we have a good mix of stories that provide sheer fun and silliness, and books that offer some gentle guidance. Here is a list of some current faves:
- Books that showcase tenderness between father (or father figure) and son: Tell me a Tattoo Story by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler; Monster and Son, written by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Joey Chou; Uncle Elephant by Arnold Lobel
- Books that celebrate being yourself: Peddles by Elizabeth Rose Stanton and Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
- Books with awesome female protagonists: Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt; Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts (we’ll be adding their upcoming Ada Twist, Scientist to our collection, for sure!)
- Stories that celebrate friendship and support and inclusivity: The Gerald and Piggie books by Mo Willems; the Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel; Big Friends by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies; and Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo
- Books that celebrate boys showing affection: HUG MACHINE by Scott Campbell and HUGGY KISSY by Leslie Patricelli
- Books that encourage recognizing and talking about our emotions: Dr. Seuss’ My Many Colored Days, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher; It’s Tough to Lose Your Balloon by Jarrett Krosoczka; The Pigeon Has Feelings, Too by Mo Willems
- Stories about being kind and helpful to others: Benji Davies’ The Storm Whale; Greg Pizzoli’s Number One Sam; Little Blue Truck and Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
- Stories that are joyful and playful: Tickle by Leslie Patricelli; The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak; Press Here and Let’s Play by Hervé Tullet
- Books for singing: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and You Are My Sunshine illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church; A You’re Adorable illustrated by Martha Alexander; If You Were My Bunny by Kate McMullan, illustrated by David McPhail; Jingle Bells, Deck The Halls, and The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Grace Lin (our son likes singing Christmas carols, even in July!)
Our efforts to support and guide our son have influenced my own work, too. My latest book, THE INFAMOUS RATSOS (illustrated by the magnificent Matt Myers) is the first in a series of chapter books about Louie and Ralphie Ratso, two brothers who happen to be rats. In the first book, they think they need to be “tough” all the time — though they just can’t help being nice and thoughtful and generous and helpful instead. In the end — spoiler alert! — they learn to embrace who they are, with a little help from their dad. In future stories in the series, I’m hoping to address other limiting definitions of masculinity. And my upcoming middle grade trilogy, The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, features a cast of strong, funny, flawed female characters. (I’ve dedicated the first book in that series to my son; as my pregnancy was a bit of a surprise, he’s been my own unintentional adventure.)
Of course, my husband and I know we can’t control our son’s future. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to keep trying! Instilling a love of books and stories is a step in the right direction. And hopefully, giving our son positive examples of male (and female!) behavior, in stories and in real life, will help to counteract some of the negative messaging he receives. Because our world needs more open, thoughtful, curious, joyful people. And we need more boys and girls — ALL boys and girls — to feel the sky’s the limit.
P.S. Of course, we’re always eager to hear suggestions for new books for our kiddo — so if you have any, please feel free to leave them in the comments!
Kara LaReau worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press, and via her own creative consulting firm, Bluebird Works. She now writes full-time. She is the author of THE INFAMOUS RATSOS, a series of chapter books illustrated by Matt Myers, and The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, an upcoming middle grade trilogy illustrated by Jen Hill. She is also the author of numerous picture books, including UGLY FISH and OTTO: The Boy Who Loved Cars, both illustrated by Scott Magoon, and NO SLURPING, NO BURPING! A Tale of Table Manners, illustrated by Lorelay Bové. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband, their son, and their cat. You can learn more about Kara and her books at karalareau.com.