“Girls’ books” — for boys
Last night, C was anxious to read a library book that his dad had gotten for him called All About Alfie, by Shirley Hughes. It is a longish picture book with four stories in it, so it satisfies both C’s love of picture books and his excitement to read big-kid chapter books. Alfie is an impish English boy of about three, who gets into little scrapes, like locking himself in the house as the neighborhood comes to his rescue outside, and being at home with a babysitter while a pipe bursts, and he worries, like Noah, he’ll be swept away.
C was engrossed as his dad came in, who remarked, “He loves books about little boys like himself.” And I said, “Right! So why do you hate Caillou so much? Do you not read my internationally-known blog?” I guess not (off my good list). I wrote a post a while back in which I yammered on a bit about the fact that though adults despise the small, bald Canadian, children love him because they can relate to him and his everyday childhood experiences.
It made me think back to when I was a kid, and when people asked me what kinds of books I liked to read (and I liked to read a lot), I would say, “books that are true to life.” Meaning, I did not really want to read fantasy, or science fiction, but books about girls, like me, and what they did and felt on their typical days.
Even now, I still feel that way about the books and TV I consume, to a certain extent – I guess that’s why I am so hesitant about Game of Thrones (even though I HEARD YOU it is supposedly awesome, once you get past all the murdering), and, of course, Star Wars, but I love Mad Men (not my time, but my tri-state area, and many relatable experiences). I can already hear my husband saying that although Game of Nerds, uh, Thrones and Star Wars take place in fictional worlds, there is a humanity to the characters that is relatable. OK, but I like a setting in which I can imagine myself, or someone like me. I’m sorry, I can’t imagine myself getting eaten by a Sarlacc (thank you to C for explaining, several times, what that is and how it burps). Look, it’s not scientific, OK? It’s just a preference. Some people like to get lost in fantasy worlds; I don’t like it. I’d rather get lost in the streets of London or New York.
So my girlhood favorites? Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik (an awkward, smart girl in Cambridge, Mass.), Constance C. Greene’s A Girl Called Al (awkward, smart, NYC), and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, of course (awkward, smart, Portland, Ore.). See what I’m getting at here? There are several others. Judy Blume, Harriet the Spy, All-of-a-Kind Family. But the queen of them all is Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Awkward. Smart. Prince Edward Island, Canada. I went there twice; I reenacted crucial scenes. I saw the musical. I even got engaged there, to my own, real-life Gilbert Blythe, at the Inn at Bay Fortune, which is where Colleen Dewhurst lived when she was filming the miniseries.
I knew that C was going to be a boy, but when I was pregnant, I read Anne of Green Gables aloud to him. I’m not sure why. I think because I feel that book is such a part of me, that in some way, he would get to understand me through the book, if there was anything to even be understood at that point in his development. Or maybe, if I was going to be reading aloud to someone who may or may not even be listening, I might as well read out something I enjoy. Now that he and his little brother are here, and on my lap, wanting to be read to, I think I still will read them that book someday. For the reasons stated above.
I know Anne of Green Gables is considered a “girls’ book,” and I doubt that many boys read it, but why should that be? Initially, I thought: I can’t wait to share Anne with my nieces (Hi J & Z! Not that you are reading this — you are 6 years and 3 weeks old, respectively) But then I thought, says who? Why not the boys too? There are elements of the book that perhaps apply more to girlhood, and friendships amongst girls, but there is so much, too, that anyone would enjoy and learn from. About how to accept yourself the way that you are. How to celebrate the beauty and simplicity of life. How to find magic and wonder in nature. How to be a good friend, how to be a good student, how to forgive. And (dare I say it?) how to be a good boyfriend. They don’t come much better than Gilbert Blythe.
The same goes for Harriet the Spy, and Pippi Longstocking, and Ramona Quimby for sure – they will all be part of my boys’ canon, though they are thought of more as books for girls. But I am also seeking books in which boys take the leading roles. Books that celebrate boyhood. On Earth. What is the Caillou of books about boys? Which characters speak to the everyday experiences of boys? It seems that many of the books that men I know loved as children had a genre slant to them. They were mysteries, science fiction, or adventure books. The Phantom Tollbooth, for example. It’s an incredible book, and at the top of our reading list, but what are some equally well-written books that are just plain about growing up? For books that feature boys, I can only think of Encyclopedia Brown (good, but mystery – we’ll be reading those shortly). Then there is Captain Underpants (yeesh – but C already loves it). Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing by Judy Blume is the best example I can think of; it’s waiting in the wings. Speaking of Judy Blume, she wrote a book about a boy called Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. And when I think of reading that as a young girl and not understanding why he wore a raincoat to school, I think, then again, maybe I won’t read that out loud to my boys and leave that bit of literature up to them and their dad. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
I have a seemingly endless list of books I want my boys to experience. But does anyone have any to add? Books in which C and T might see themselves reflected. And not eaten by a Sarlacc. Get on my good list and leave a comment.