Thoughts on Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys

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I’m not sure where I first heard about the recently published Pam Allyn’s Best Books for Boys but the title grabbed my attention immediately. I am always interested in book recommendations for kids. At the same time, I tend to be a little wary of lists made specifically for boys, since they are often heavily weighted toward stories about boys with female protagonists nowhere to be found.

Still, I approached this book with an open mind, given the credentials of the writer. Pam Allyn is the Executive Director and founder of LitWorld, a global organization advocating for children’s rights as readers, writers, and learners. She is also the Executive Director and founder of LitLife, a national organization dedicated to school improvement.

In Part One of her book, Ms. Allyn outlines why she chose to focus on boys. The fact that boys are falling behind girls in literacy and school achievement is not news, but Ms. Allyn offers a brief and relevant discussion on why this is happening. She uses a few key statistics without overwhelming the reader with numbers. She also talks about the shift in today’s schools toward “assessment and standardization in educational policy,” which leaves little room for creativity in delivering the curriculum and may be causing some kids to tune out at school.

The numbers about boys’ achievement in literacy do not lie, and there are many people pointing the finger at the education system. Some even go so far as stating that the school environment has been feminized, including Harvard psychologist William Pollack whom Ms. Allyn quotes as saying, “More boys than girls are in special education classes.  More boys than girls are prescribed more mood-managing drugs. This suggests that today’s schools are built for girls, and boys are becoming misfits.”

I am no expert on the education system, but the inclusion of this kind of statement about schools concerns me because it disregards the role of socialization on boys’ attitudes. Yes, boys are misjudged and considered problems more often than girls, but the failure to acknowledge socialization in a discussion about boys and school seems to me to be an incredible oversight. The Toronto Star published a letter I wrote about this in 2009, in which I said:

“Virtually from birth, we impose on boys a very narrow definition of masculinity – one that teaches them to value noise and action over quiet and focused attention. The boisterous, sometimes aggressive behaviour that some boys exhibit is not reined in when it is inappropriate; rather, it is excused with that hoary old phrase “boys will be boys”.  Boys are encouraged to play with noisy machines and superhero toys more often than they are asked to sit down to a quiet activity. Pop culture feeds them a steady diet of male characters that are action-oriented and hyper-masculine.

We allow these influences to permeate their consciousness. We often reinforce them through the language we use and the activities we choose for them. And then we expect them to sit quietly in a classroom and listen.”

Socialization into traditional masculine roles teaches many boys that it is “uncool” to follow rules or ask for help. I think Ms. Allyn’s arguments about the reasons boys are falling behind would have been stronger had she addressed socialization as a contributing factor to boys’ sometimes negative attitudes toward school. (The Globe & Mail covered this subject in an article last year.)

Still, she does offer some excellent tips on getting boys interested in books. She also states clearly that these strategies work for children of both sexes, an important point when one sees the statistics she cites about kids and literacy: 61% of boys do not like reading, but 38% of girls also dislike it.

Her R-E-A-D model is excellent, and provides a framework for getting kids comfortable with reading. Briefly, the acronym stands for Ritual, Environment, Access, and Dialogue. Throughout her introductory chapters she emphasizes that “access” means surrounding boys with all kinds of texts, at various levels. She also notes that parents should not disregard materials like comics, graphic novels, instruction manuals, and websites. All are legitimate reading materials that help develop literacy.

Book Recommendations

Before I talk about Ms. Allyn's book recommendations, I must acknowledge that she and I have different perspectives. She is interested in getting boys reading, period, while I am concerned that the materials they read (or at least a good portion of them) include positive gender portrayals and a mix of male and female protagonists. Since gender is not her focus, I did not expect to see much discussion of the topic.  I was pleasantly surprised by her suggestion that boys be exposed to books about girls and her inclusion of tips for getting boys interested in such books. (Gender is also mentioned in her beautifully written acknowledgements at the back of the book.)

The heart of her book is her “thoughtfully annotated list,” which is divided into categories that boys have told Ms. Allyn they like. The list is indeed a thoughtful one and it is here that you can see her passion for bringing good books to boys.

There are some excellent choices in her list, so much so that I found myself searching my library’s online catalogue for many of the titles she suggests. I love that she included a section on poetry, a genre I had never even considered for my children. I borrowed one of her recommended poetry books from the library (Orangutan Tongs) for my 4-year-old son and he absolutely loves it.

She suggests many titles with dual protagonists, like The Magic Tree House series, and some with female protagonists. Her suggested books also include many titles with lead characters from around the world, like Jin Jin the DragonPersepolis,  Folk Tales from Simla and many others.

Given my focus on gender, I cannot help but look askance at a few of the titles she includes and some that she omits. This is not to discredit Ms. Allyn—as I said earlier, her focus is finding books boys like, not teaching them about gender bias. Still, I have to question books like the Bone series, with its sometimes disturbing, violent, and sexualized imagery. It is a great story, but not necessarily appropriate for the 7-to-10 age range that she suggests.

Also recommended for that age range is the Magister Negi Magi series. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the covers of books 23 and 25 certainly give me pause.

In some cases, females are omitted where they could be included. Non-fiction is an area with lots of opportunity for female subjects, but the only female mentioned in the Biography section (Sacagawea) is listed in a side note. Similarly, there are no female subjects listed in the History section: in the You Wouldn’t Want to Be series, she lists many titles but not the one on suffragists, and in the Wicked Historyseries, there is no mention of Catherine the Great, Mary Tudor, or Cixi.

Another area of concern I have is the ways boys are presented in books. Ms. Allyn recommends titles like Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I know these are popular series and books are a matter of taste, but I find that these portrayals glorify brattiness, which boys could stand to see less of.

But none of these selections would make me recommend against Books for Boys. Although written for teachers, it is also a great resource for parents of boys and girls. I might just suggest that if you are concerned about gender portrayals, you approach a few of the suggested titles with caution.

I will be reviewing some of Ms. Allyn's suggested titles in the near future, starting with a few of her non-fiction selections.


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