"A ramshackle four-story brownstone in mid-20th-century Manhattan. A Lower East Side tenement at the turn of the last century. The woods of Wisconsin in 1964.
These are just a few of the landscapes that female readers of children’s literature cling to well after they cease reading the books that introduced them. ('The Saturdays,' 'All-of-a-Kind Family' and 'Caddie Woodlawn'for those who somehow missed these greats.) But there may be no world that provokes such profound girlish longing as the bucolic century-old Minnesota of 'Betsy-Tacy.'" [italics mine]
I found myself irritated by Paul's assumption that the readership for the classics listed above is exclusively female and that thus only women look back on them fondly, because these are all books that my son loves and that we have read and reread aloud together with great pleasure. Some, like All-of-a-Kind Family or Betsy-Tacy are about girls, but in The Saturdays the two boys and two girls in the family take up equal space in the narrative. If we assume a fun, charming book like The Saturdays, with two engaging boys as central characters, is a "girls' book," we are shutting boy readers out of whole swaths of children's fiction thanks to our own gender biases about what girls and boys enjoy.
As feminists, Tim and I have always emphasized with N. the fundamental equality of men and women, boys and girls. Gender stereotypes that appear in our reading that imply essential differences in the abilities or interests of boys and girls never stand without critical comment from us. Boys can cry. Girls can fight. Some boys like dolls. Some girls don't ("Mom, I know," N. will say with impatience at my zillionth editorial comment to this effect!). As an extension of this, we have tried to avoid gender stereotyping in our selection of books to read to N. We don't assume that because he is a boy, he will be drawn to certain kinds of stories or bored by others. When we began reading chapter books aloud, I was thrilled to begin sharing some of my childhood favorites with N., such as the Betsy-Tacy books, The Railway Children, and The Five Little Peppers and it never occurred to me that he wouldn't love them too; I did not love these books because they were "girl books" and I was a girl, but because they were great stories and I loved to read. While I've looked to others for help generating a list of books with boys as heroes (because I read few such books myself as a child) my main goal in reading aloud with N. has been to share great stories with him, no matter the gender of the characters.
We make a mistake when we assume that children (or we ourselves, for that matter) need to identify with the hero or heroine of a book in order to have a meaningful encounter with it. Indeed, much of the pleasure of reading is in experiencing the unfamiliar, the strangeness of a book's world and its people, and our strong awareness as we read that these are not our lives or our selves. We read not only to find kindred spirits, or rather, when we read we find kindred spirits where we might not have expected them. We should beware of constructing boys as readers primarily interested in one kind of book or character so we don't deprive them of the opportunity to make connections with a diverse range of characters and types of stories.
As I've been thinking about all this, I asked N. why he liked the first four Betsy-Tacy books so much. I think his reply sums up everything I've been trying to articulate above: they're about "3 wild girls who can go out by themselves and have adventures!" We recommend them enthusiastically!
Bonus reading [updated link]: Other parents who read Betsy-Tacy to their boys, and also to a whole classroom of kids.