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Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?

By Martha Brockenbrough
MSN Cinemama

Learn more about kids' entertainment on MSN's Mom & Pop Culture

Disagreeing with a librarian feels wrong, like telling your grandma her hat is ugly. But I'm going to do it anyway, after reading what I read recently in the School Library Journal.

Diantha McBride, you might have 30 years' experience as a librarian. But when you told publishers to make more main characters boys so that more boys will read about them, you gave me no choice.

This idea stinks.

I get where you're coming from. But the problem isn't the books, it's the way we're raising our boys. If they aren't willing to read about girls, and if we're indulging that sort of nonsense, then we are raising boys who will have a hard time functioning in a world where girls play serious roles. In other words, the real world.

This is a vital topic for parents who like pop culture. The stories we watch and read are key tools for teaching both tolerance and empathy. (Here's an excellent essay by author Mitali Perkins on the topic.) We can't raise good people without thinking of those things, and if McBride's argument is any indication, we're doing a terrible job.

Here's what she said in her School Library Journal piece:

"I've noticed that lots of books with female characters aren't really about being female. In fact, in many cases, the main characters could just as easily have been males—and that would make my job a lot easier ... a novel like Ann Halam's 'Siberia' (Random House, 2005) could have included a male protagonist ... Am I being silly? Probably, but some of our boys have never read a complete book in their lives. It's important to offer them good, appealing stories, and, sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters."

To understand how problematic the idea is, swap in "white characters" for "male characters." It's admittedly hard to do because most characters in mainstream, popular fiction are white already.

There are some exceptions, of course. In "Twilight," the love interest Jacob is Native American, and, regardless of how well you think author Stephenie Meyer handled the culture, it's remarkable in that it's not in any way a series about race. Most books featuring nonwhite characters deal overtly with the reality of racial differences in some way or another.

My guess is that most people would be embarrassed to admit they wouldn't buy a book because the main character wasn't white. Why we're more comfortable denigrating books with female characters is a mystery. Whenever we cross a book off the list because it isn't about people like us, though, we should be ashamed. And we shouldn't let our kids get away with this.

We need to teach them to take an interest in all sorts of stories, not just the ones that feature kids like them. This means exposing them to a lot of different stuff. We should, of course, encourage kids to find themselves in books. That's a wonderful and powerful thing. But we should help them find people who are different, too, so they learn to value other ways of being in the world. If we don't support books, movies, TV programs and music that show these other ways of being, then we are contributing to the problem.

The magnificent children's author Grace Lin speaks eloquently about how much it hurts not to find stories with people like her in them. She once wanted to play the role of Dorothy in a school production of "The Wizard of Oz." Someone told her she couldn't be Dorothy because Dorothy was white, and Lin suddenly felt stupid for even considering the possibility.

Then, early in her writing career, she was asked to consider changing an Asian girl character into a white boy. The editor thought it would increase sales. Lin was in the midst of deciding whether she'd be a mainstream or multicultural author, and for a moment felt validated that her work was good enough to be considered universal.

But instead, she writes on her blog, "I was uneasy. Suddenly, I found myself not caring if I was getting published for the wrong reasons or I wasn't selling enough books for the right ones. Somehow, given the opportunity to prove I was publishable without my heritage seemed a pale consolation prize when compared to creating a book that was true to my vision, the readers who loved my books and the child I was many years ago.

"And it's not that I'll never do a book with a Caucasian boy (I would do a book on anything if I felt it was right) or that my books are meant to preach (horrors!). But, I realized that being able to publish my work was a gift not to be squandered on something soulless. And my soul is Asian-American.

"So, strangely, it was the unsettling nature of this editor's request that made me find my balance. It sifted away my fears, the practical reasoning and the backhanded compliments and left me proud of what I am, a multi-cultural author."

This takes a lot of courage on Lin's part, and I highly recommend her books to kids of all backgrounds, even for kids who don't immediately see their alter egos on the page. They're well written and full of heart, the kind of books that you remember long after you've finished reading them.

This doesn't mean, of course, that boys don't need to see themselves in books.

Perkins, a highly respected author who writes novels about kids with a South Asian heritage, puts it really well: "The best stories for kids should serve as mirrors for some kids and windows for many kids."

In other words, stories can give us insight into ourselves and others, but only insofar as kids read about the others.

And, no matter how much people complain to the contrary, that literature is full of great male characters, from the Hardy Boys to Harry Potter. The cause of male literacy is also getting plenty of support from the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Jon Scieszka. He has started a Web site called Guys Read that recommends books that boys will love, and none of his recommendations say "keep them away from girly stuff."

Scieszka's recommendations are great: Let boys read what they want, including nonfiction, graphic novels, comics, newspapers, and funny stuff. Make sure they see other guys read. And encourage them to share books with their friends.

Great books are out there for all sorts of readers. If boys aren't reading, perhaps it's because we're not helping them understand what a great story is, and we're not insisting they respect girls as their equals. It doesn't mean they have to start reading pink romance. But come on! Books like "The Hunger Games" and "Graceling" are none the weaker for their girl protagonists.

Ultimately, it's nothing to be proud of to let boys get away with the cooties game. And it's only going to hurt them when (or if) they grow up.

Read More:
'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince': A magical ride

Martha Brockenbrough is author of "Things That Make Us [Sic]," a guide to funny bad grammar, published by St. Martin's press. She also blogs about family life for Cozi.com and writes an educational humor column for Encarta.

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