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“Girls’ books” — for boys

Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe in Anne of ...

A boy in a girl’s world: Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thinking back, many of my favorite books from childhood were genre (Lloyd Alexander series, Phantom Tollbooth, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, The Belgariad, Lord of the Rings, etc). I remember one book, “The House of Dies Drear” that was realistic, I think.

    May 9, 2012
    • It’s true, so many are so great, but they are mostly genre books, that I can think of, anyway. My mom had a good suggestion: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And we can visit Mark Twain House in Hartford.

      May 10, 2012
  2. Rosalie #

    I loved this post and reflection, and I loved so many of the same books that you did as a child. I just finished reading Half Magic (which I and my mother, aunts, and uncle also loved as children) to Kinnell, and Magic By the Lake (which I’d never read) by Edward Eager. They are wonderful and fun, and have three sisters and a brother. If you haven’t read it, Half Magic is funny because the children find a magic coin only to realize it makes your wish come only *half* true. One of them wishes their cat could talk, but because it’s half magic, the cat talks but just not very well. It’s really funny. We are also reading a lot of Roald Dahl, who was another of my favorites — Fantastic Mr. Fox was a real hit, and the BFG, which has a girl main character, The Witches was too scary for Kinnell. I never thought to read him Anne of Green Gables, but love your connection to that book and now I really want to! Anyway I loved reading your thoughts and I am also not interested in Game of Thrones.

    May 9, 2012
    • Thanks for so many good additions to the reading list! You make a good point in Roald Dahl. We have James and the Giant Peach for C ready and waiting, I think when he’s a little bit older. Also I should say, there are so many good books that are non-gender-specific, of course – too many to list, but just a couple I can think of are The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. And Game of Thrones: I know, right?

      May 10, 2012
  3. My oldest son loved non-fiction. If it was written about tractors, we OWN it. Also, Matthew Christopher has a great series of books about different sport activities. Dan Gutman has a great baseball card series in chapter books, search ‘Jackie & Me’. Swinging for the Fences by Leonetti/Kim. When they’re older: Al Capone Does My Shirts- about a boy who lives on Alcatraz with his family.

    May 10, 2012
    • Great point with non-fiction! There is no reason reading aloud has to be fiction only. I’ve read aloud to C Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton (which, since I was a child, is one of my favorite books ever – the story of how life developed on earth), and The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay. In fact, anything by David Macaulay. Thank you for the great additions to the list!

      May 10, 2012
  4. Michelle #

    Sigh. You had me at Gilbert Blythe. This post pulled every one of my heartstrings – including my “how-am-I-going-to-make-my-two-boys-love-Anne-of-Green-Gables” dilemma (I also have the added challenge of getting them to love the movie Annie, and I need to re-strategize since my first attempt at forcing these beloved classics on my brother was an epic fail… of course maybe I should have laid off of constantly making him play the part of Sandy (the dog) in our dramatic re-enactments).
    Then again, given Alden’s love of all things dramatic, perhaps he and Anne Shirley will be kindred spirits after all.
    Please let them love it, because Lord of the What, Harry Who?, and Game of Boredom are probably not making it to my bookshelves (not at my suggestion, anyway. My brother says I don’t like that stuff because I “can’t suspend reality.” Whatever.). And I didn’t save every single LM Montgomery book I own for nothing, did I?

    How about Little House on the Prairie….? I suppose the protagonist is a girl, but it’s a pretty awesome series.

    My brother was SUPER into TinTin when we were little, which if I recall is comic-bookish and he had loads of them (as you can tell, the most I ever got into it was when I borrowed one of them for about five minutes…. if my boys want to get into that all I can hope is that it holds more interest for me as an adult).

    May 11, 2012
    • Let’s get the boys together for a mandatory Anne of Green Gables movie night – because I love the movie almost as much as the book. I think they will all be kindred spirits by the end! Same goes for Annie, I can see them getting into it! If all else fails, there is a pretty big action scene at the end.

      Little House is a good idea – I particularly love Little House in the Big Woods when they make candy in the snow. How can you not love that?

      “Can’t suspend reality”…heh. Back to playing Sandy for you!

      May 11, 2012

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