Friday, July 6, 2012

Reflections on David Brooks' New York Times "Honor Code" Column

We Are Not Doing Enough for Boys in
Young People’s Publishing

The wondrous Grand Pooh-Ba, author extraordinaire Jon Scieszka and I met almost fifteen years ago, becoming friends and compatriots-in-arms. In addition to being writers, we were both experienced classroom teachers. What initially brought us together was a shared concern that the literacy opportunities that we had as young people were shrinking in schools and classrooms across the country—ready access to books, libraries, and information sources, as well as access to remarkable teachers and librarians who could show us how to think critically about those sources and guide us to literature and art that would enhance our own creativity. Sharing our observations, we also worried that many boys’ literacy and literature needs were not being addressed educationally. Boys of all socioeconomic groups were falling behind girls in every literacy skills assessment. Those boys’ literacy concerns inspired Jon to create the amazing GUYS READ website ( Those concerns, and much more, inspired me to create THE NATIONAL CHILDREN’S BOOK AND LITERACY ALLIANCE (, a literacy not-for-profit that educates about, and advocates for, literacy, literature, libraries, the arts, and humanities.

Around that time, the then head of the Children’s Book Council Paula Quint asked me to come to a CBC meeting in New York to discuss my classroom observations with publishers, as well as to describe the goals of the NCBLA. I shared that the younger generation was much more visual oriented than previous pre-screen generations and I encouraged publishers to once again include illustrations and pictures in middle grade fiction and nonfiction to encourage those visually oriented kids to read more. I shared my observations that boys were reading less and less, and that they rarely read fiction that was not a classroom assignment. I was concerned that there were not enough books for boys, and girls, interested in sports and real life adventures. I was met mainly with skepticism. One male editor challenged me, saying that he read, his friends read, his son and nephews read, and they all read fiction—I did not know what I was talking about. I had not met this editor before, but took a guess, asking him if he lived on the upper West Side of NYC. His answer was, unsurprisingly, yes.  

And therein is the problem. Many people who read, especially people who read literary fiction, hang out with people professionally and socially who read a lot, reading both fiction and nonfiction. And quite naturally, our perspective on the world and its challenges often reflects the bubbles within which we operate; the smaller and more insular the bubbles, the more limited our experiences and vision. Literary readers, critics, and publishing communities often live and operate and socialize with others who share their values and personal reading habits. But that kind of reading culture barely exists within many larger groups of people in our nation. One of the major reasons we are losing readers on all levels is because the literary world of fiction, and sometimes nonfiction, reflects a very limited world and economic view. We don't need to dumb things down, we just need to publish stories and information that reflect a broader landscape of human experience and interests. 

For fifteen years as a writer, teacher, and as head of a national children’s literacy organization, I have been in hundreds of classrooms in many states teaching creative writing to kids in elementary, middle, and high schools. At this point, I have seen, read, and critiqued THOUSANDS of young peoples’ stories and creative writing samples. If you want to know what kids are reading, and if they are reading at all, look at what and how they write. Hand me a pile of kids’ writing and I can pick out, within minutes, the kids who read books on a regular basis—because most people learn how to write the same way they learn initial language skills as babies, they learn by “osmosis.” To put it simply, the more you read, the more works of quality that you read, the better writer you become. 

In my experience, on average, in a class of thirty kids only five kids will be eager readers, with most of those kids being girls. Why?—first, because we have undergone a radical social change in our nation.  Intellectual male accomplishments used to be prized as being equal to or beyond athletic achievements—now we applaud ignorance.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s we honored men who were athletes, but we also honored men who were scientists, astronauts, engineers, painters, writers of fiction and nonfiction, statesmen, labor leaders, activists—men who were educated, men who read and read widely, men who were not hesitant to share that they read, men who were proud that they had worked hard to gain a substantive education. Those role models are rare in our current culture. Young men today desperately need role models who are men of honor, intelligence, and accomplishment. 

In terms of creating lifelong male readers, we need a far greater variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction, that reflect boys’ interests. In every elementary classroom I visit, the majority social experience of boys and girls is now some kind of sports activity. One of the most frequently asked questions from family members and teachers is—tell me, what is a great sports book for my kid? Outside of the departed Matt Christopher series of books which are mainly ghost written, as well as books by Mike Lupica and Tim Green, there are not that many sports books.  (Jon’s got the best sports list on his Guys Read site.)  

And where are books like Henry Huggins, The Enormous Egg, Homer Price, Rascal—books that entertain, books with great storytelling? We need many more male writers, more voices like Jack Gantos, Jon Scieszka, Christopher Paul Curtis, Walter Dean Myers. And if there are books like that out there, more teachers and parents need to know about them. We need to hook boys into reading early with great books that reflect the wide variety of their life experiences so that they will become lifelong readers. 

I recently attended the Yale University Writers Conference for the adult publishing industry. In one major way it was very different from any writing conference I have attended for the young people’s publishing community. On every level—faculty, guest speakers, attendees—there were far more men. And there was a far greater variety of life experiences amongst those attending. Fully a third to half of everyone present at the conference were talented male writers—straight, gay, old, young, middle aged, blue collar, white collar, academics, physicians, construction workers, government employees, lawyers, teachers—and those voices greatly enhanced every aspect of the conference from the presentations to the workshop critiques. Yet, one of the big topics of conversationsbesides the fact that there are huge increases in the number of people writing, while at the same time there are major decreases in the number of people reading (a topic for another time)—was that the main buyers of all adult books, both fiction and nonfiction, are women. And the vast majority of people who read adult literary fiction are women. Women book purchasers also dominate the young people’s book market. Obviously, there are great young people’s novels out there that interest many girls and turn them into lifelong readers of fiction.  And just as obviously, we need many more vibrant works of fiction and nonfiction that will turn boys into lifelong readers and book purchasers. 

Avery in Charlotte's Webb. Illustration by Garth Williams.
When I teach kids how to become better writers, I use examples from young people’s literature to illustrate points I am trying to communicate about great writing and storytelling. One book I used to use quite often was Charlotte’s Web, not only because it is beautifully written, but because it was the only book in America that most kids would have read by fourth grade—sadly that is no longer the case. In terms of describing how story is driven by character, I showed the kids Garth Williams’ telling illustrations of Fern cradling baby Wilbur and also the picture of her brother Avery holding his pop gun. I then read the first page of Charlotte’s Web and posed this question: what would have happened if Avery had been the first one awake the morning that Wilbur was set to be killed because he was a runt pig? 

You can imagine the reaction that question inspires in a class, and the ensuing discussion.  But now I wonder in our uber politically correct young people’s literature world if that pop gun illustration of Avery—a character our parents would have described as being “all boy”—would be allowed in a new children’s book?  I hope that it would because I have met thousands of boys like Avery who need to see more boys like themselves depicted in stories of fact and fiction. We need more books that reflect a wide variety of boys’ life experiences as well as a wider variety of girls’ life experiences, too. 

Now, what can we do about it? 

To read David Brooks' op-ed column "Honor Code" in The New York Times, click here.

Mary Brigid Barrett
President and Executive Director 

The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance