Friday, March 11, 2016

Boys Vs Books: Beating Back against Busy

Last week, I started a new post series centered around the problems facing boys in regards to literacy. I framed the initial discussion around Disney's Beauty and the Beast and how reading is portrayed within that movie. The movie is famous for its positive portrayal of Belle as a modern, forward thinking princess, and that portrayal is driven home through her love of books. But while Belle is constantly shown reading, the men around her all have problematic relationships with books.

If you're interested in reading the earlier discussion, you can find the previous posts in this series here:

1. Boys vs Books: A Tale as Old as Time

Today, we're looking at one of the three male characters Belle attempts to share her love of books with. We'll start with the first man we see her talk to, the town baker.

Going on Dates with the Baker

When Belle attempts to tell the baker about reading Jack and the Beanstalk, he quickly dismisses her and moves on to his business concerns. The baguettes aren't going to sell themselves, and clearly, he's in a hurry.

As a writer, books come up frequently when I talk to people. It's almost impossible for them NOT to come up, since "what do you do?" is one of the most common questions we ask each other in today's culture. This is especially true on dates. The guys I go out with often feel pressured to fess up to how much they read. And I'll admit, I can understand why. It doesn't help that one of my favorite conversation topics IS books, but I try to make the topic more accessible. I ask them about what they liked to read as kids, especially since children's lit is my area. But invariably, they still tell me how much they currently read, and the conversation typically goes like this:

"I like reading, but it's been forever since I, you know... read a book. I'm just so busy. It takes way too much time."

I'll note that this happens often when I talk to women, too. Busy is one of the great catch phrases of our time. We're all too busy for SOMETHING, it's just a matter of exactly WHAT we're too busy for. But formal studies and my own casual experience reinforce that yes, there are more men who are too busy to read than women.  So why is this?

Mastering the Reading "Economy"

Many of my male friends have pointed out that time is a big stumbling block for them. A few have described to me at length that the reason they like movies so much is because they're self contained and over quickly. A movie costs you 2 hours of your life, whereas a book of 80,000 words is going to take you at least 4 hours. But this still doesn't answer the question of why men read less. Aren't the same time constraints applicable to women? What made men particularly susceptible to cutting books out of their lives based on time?

For an incredibly unscientific perspective on this, I would like to share an anecdote. It comes from ONE man articulating his feelings about reading, but they struck me as rather interesting, and worth restating. Call it my inner anthropologist, but while these first hand accounts don't always have statistics to back them up, I find they can add depth to cultural trends.

We were, at the time, talking about my frustration with the fact that none of my male friends seemed to read books that had come out since the Harry Potter series ended. While I'm now paraphrasing, in effect, he said this:

"Look, books take a long time to read. And men can't help but look at things like books and movies and say to themselves, "what is this going to get me long term?" We're trained to think of practically everything like a business investment. We find ourselves wondering "how much social capital is this going to result in?" So if we are going to read, we read the classics, because we know 40 years from now, there's still going to be people talking about them. They'll have paid off. With things we're less sure on, we're more likely to just see the movie. It makes it so we know what people are talking about, but haven't invested our time in the wrong place. I know for myself, I can't help worrying that if I read a new book, no one is going to know what I'm talking about. I want to read things I KNOW someone else has read and assured me is valuable."

This surprised me a bit. What he was describing wasn't reading for the pleasure of reading, but reading for some other, distant benefit that would result from the experience. Often, when we try to sell people of either gender on the idea of reading, we sell it on the idea of enjoyment. We repost pictures of people curled up in pajamas with a cup of tea and a novel on Facebook. We talk about falling in love with characters and getting the "feels" when tragic things happen to them.

This looks super exciting to me, but is it everyone's week-end fantasy?

The problem with this model is that when we stake reading entirely on enjoyment, it becomes as low priority as everything else we happen to "enjoy," rather than distinctly different and valuable. When we tell people to read more because "reading is fun," the discussion can become us shouting at them "YOU SHOULD LIKE THIS MORE" and them shouting back either, "but I don't..." or "I DO like it! But have you noticed how little time there is for the things I LIKE?"

Both counter arguments are quite strong from this standpoint. You can't force someone to like something and you can't force them to have time for things they like when life is so busy, busy, busy!

But still, why is this happening with men? Is it because of the "business model" mentality my friend described to me? Studies suggest that men show this "investment" thinking in other areas. Women dominate in college majors such as the arts and humanities, whereas men dominate in areas that lead to firm "career paths." And yes, this includes many specifically "business" related programs, like finance. Some estimates place women as only 40% of business majors, despite the fact that women are outstripping men in general college enrollment. Where women do show up in business is in the more people oriented areas like human resources and advertising, which, it's little surprise, are also areas that depend more on reading and literacy skills.

The Unbeatable Value of Reading

Once again, we've got a cultural problem on our hands. There's a lot of buzz about getting more women into STEM fields, and gradually, we're making headway. Girls are catching up in mathematics and other STEM related subjects in schools. But at the same time, boys are falling further and further behind in literacy and reading. And it's getting serious enough, that I wouldn't be at all surprised if studies surface showing that it's leading to decreased opportunities in earning and employment, just as the disconnect between STEM and girls has for women. We already know boys are falling behind in college enrollments, and reading and writing are their roughest subjects.

No amount of movie watching will substitute for the skills developed during reading and writing. Better readers are better writers and reading and writing skills are fundamental in many employment fields. Of my two degrees, it's by far my writing degree that actually gets me jobs. Offices are looking for people who can research, read and write.

On top of that, most employers want people with strong social skills, and some studies have suggested that there is a link between reading literary fiction and the ability to empathize with others. Reading books where the characters showcase complicated emotions has been linked with our ability to deal with these emotions when real people showcase them. While the studies are still early, they are compelling. Also, even if you're someone who works in a contained sphere where social skills aren't paramount, empathy is a highly valuable skill when it comes to things like - oh, I don't know - making friends and dating, perhaps?

At the same time, high levels of watching television (and we can lump movies in here largely too) are associated with higher levels of depression, something that can't be said of reading. In other words, you might THINK you like movies more, but they're not actually making you very happy. At least not in the long term.

Books are all about teaching the value of long term investment and commitment. They require us to visualize what the words say, rather than spoon-feeding the images and experience to us. They take effort and time and, like most things that require effort, make us think harder and deeper and ultimately, make us happier.

All of this is to say that if you are someone who thinks you are too "busy" to read, I hope you'll reconsider what you're investing in. A single book might take more time than a movie, but you will be better for it if you add a couple books to your diet. The benefits are not equal. The long term gains from reading outpace the long term gains from movies and television.

I know I'm coming down hard here, and don't get me wrong, I love a good story told through film. But if the average American spends 4.5 hours watching television, is it really fair to say that none of that time could be spent reading? In an ideal world, I'd love to see people cutting that back so they could fit in 1 hour of reading per day, but if people even tried to read just 2 or 3 new books each year, that would be a huge win.

The Busy Boy

Up until this point, I've spoken largely about how adult men interact with books. But the truth is, men aren't the only one's saying they are "too busy." Studies in Ontario have shown that this is an excuse that school age boys give too, where frankly, it holds less weight. While a grown man might conceivably be busy with a career or caring for children or any number of adult responsibilities, children are not busy in the same way. And yet, I'm guessing that it's pretty frequent that boys who are too "busy" to read as children often grow up to use the same excuse as adults.

I can think of three things that boys might secretly be saying when they claim they're too busy to read.

1) I'm one of those textbook over-scheduled children who literally can't find time to read. I'm so busy!
2) I don't like reading very much and I'm busy doing other things!
3) Some other reason is stopping me from reading, but I'm too embarrassed to talk about it, so I'll just say I'm busy and hopefully, that means you'll leave me alone.

What are the solutions for dealing with these reasons?  Let's give it a shot, shall we? Of course, if you happen to be the parent of a girl who makes these same excuses, the same advice applies.

1) The Over-Scheduled Boy

Of all the potential problems, this is probably the easiest dealt with. Most of the time, these HUGE schedules are determined, at least in part, by parents. Simply ease up the schedule and slip in time for reading! Encourage it as something important and set aside time for it. Read to them. One thing that often helps is giving kids only two options when it's time for bed - turn the light off and fall asleep, or read for half an hour before you have to turn the light off and fall asleep. Most kids find sleeping more boring than reading, and this can become prized time for a child where their only option is to develop a love of reading.

2) The "Busy" boy who can't be Bothered.

Let's talk about the word "busy" again. Up until this point, we've been assuming a certain definition for it. In the earlier discussion, "busy" meant "I have too many things to do and this is not a priority, so I'm not doing it" but when we talk about children - especially very young children - busy often means something else.

My youngest nephew just turned two-years-old and he's at that age where he is curious about everything, into everything, climbing everything, falling off everything and altogether, never seems to stop moving. In an effort not to problematize this behavior, parents and early childhood development specialists often refer to this behavior as "busy." He's a busy little boy. This descriptor is sometimes applied to girls, but more often, it falls to boys. "Busy" ends up a code word for energy and an inability to sit still.

Whether or not boys are innately worse at sitting still or if this is a quality that's culturally determined is HUGELY up for debate and well beyond the scope of this essay. I'm not qualified to comment on whether or not boys are encouraged or allowed to run amok more frequently than girls or if their innate drive to zip around with endless energy is tied into a different genetic make-up. Regardless, our perceptions of their busy wiggles do play into how we parent little boys.

A recent study conducted in Canada, the US and the UK found that subconsciously, parents read more to their girls than their boys. At least one of the reasons why is because it's seen as more difficult to read to boys and get them to sit still for a nice, calm parental reading session. This disparity has been linked to why it is that girls are entering schools already ahead of boys in reading and literacy skills. By the second grade, boys begin describing reading as a "girl" activity, dissociating themselves further from it. But the younger you go, the more interest boys show in books and reading. They just aren't crazy about sitting still for it.

One thing that is worth noting with any of these studies regarding academic achievement is that the ability differences are always greater AMONG boys and AMONG girls than BETWEEN boys and girls. What I take this to mean, in part, is that the disparity BETWEEN genders is not inevitable. With that in mind, perhaps reading needs to be reclaimed as a gender-neutral activity. And perhaps as an activity where snapping to attention isn't a requisite. If a boy is allowed to fall over laughing or jump to his feet and act a passage out, he might be more interested in the whole affair.

Otherwise, as boys age, they become more and more enamored with the "busy" things - the ones that play into their curiosity and need for silliness and exploration. Maybe it's sports, maybe it's video games. Who knows? But if the gap already exists, then what can be done to fix it? What do you do when your boy is old enough to think reading isn't for him?

Perhaps part of the answer is to allow reading to be more about the things they're already busy doing. Are there books out there staring his favorite video game characters or super heroes? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Are there books featuring sports he plays? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Are there books that tell funny jokes he can imagine telling to his friends later? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Remember, if a boy doesn't think he likes reading enough to make time for it, he might need more than "sheer enjoyment" to motivate him. He needs to believe it's relevant to him and not inherently "girly."

By the time they're men, most boys have stopped calling reading "girly" but they also are no longer in the habit of making time for it. If reading were a natural part of what they are interested in, then maybe they won't find themselves struggling to remember the last time they read.

Not all parents are huge fans of the things their children are interested in - the fart jokes, the video game explosions. But a library trip where you focus on your little boy's passions might help bring books back into his life.

3) The Boy who is Claiming "Busy" as a Mask for a Different Problem.

Well, this is a SERIES of posts and in fact, I have not yet covered all my thoughts about boys and reading. We'll save the answer to this for a later post. :)

Rethinking Belle

Let's return to Beauty and the Beast for one quick thought experiment; one where Belle is able to connect with the baker about books. Maybe their conversation would have gone a little like this...

Baker: Where you off to?
Belle: The bookshop! I just finished the most interesting book about the effect of wheat on digestive-
Baker: That's ni- wait! Now, don't get me started on this whole gluten-free nonsense! What book was it?

Of course, it's not Belle's job, per say, to parent the baker's reading choices. But meeting people where their interests are is often a key component of getting them to take the time to read, and for actual parents and educators, that's a pretty big thing to keep in mind.

In fact, it's such a key component, it's going to be the subject of the next post in this series. Time to start rethinking Gaston.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Boys VS Books: A Tale as Old as Time

During the late 1980s and 1990s, The Walt Disney Company was actively trying to change it's image. Over the past several decades, it had struggled to make the caliber of movies they wanted to be known for. The stories they chose to animate - like The Black Cauldron and The Aristocats - failed to strike audiences as timeless and moving in the same way that their earlier efforts did. With this in mind, they decided to return to the faerie tales that made them famous in the first place.

But returning to this formula, they knew, needed to be different in the hip, happening times of the 80s and 90s than it had been back when Walt first let a 14-year-old Snow White pine for her prince. Princess Aurora was given the gifts of beauty and song by the faeries of old, but the modern princess needed a little more than that.

Their trial run was Ariel, the persistently spunky, but admittedly problematic, protagonist of The Little Mermaid. She was bold and feisty and bursting with personality! But...  sold her soul for the chance to meet a boy. This could have been okay, if Ariel had been responsible for correcting that mistake. But the honor of slaying the sea witch and uniting the lovers falls to the men around her - Eric and her father, King Triton.

As a result, Disney's first truly modern princess is often thought to be Belle. From her very introduction, the narrative drives home how DIFFERENT Belle is from the shallow archetypes that came before her. She has the gifts of beauty and song, but she gets another gift too. A book.

She really is a funny girl.
The book was meant to convey a lot of things. That she was a dreamer, that she wasn't shallow, but most importantly, that she was intelligent. She had imagination! She cared about more than the world immediately around her! That book served to humanize Belle, and you know what? We frickin' loved her for it.

Beauty and the Beast was the first animated feature to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. As much as we liked The Little Mermaid, the ultimate winner of the early Disney Renaissance was Belle. I still remember seeing this movie in theatres at the age of four, falling madly in love with it, and forever being a little sad that when I played Beauty and the Beast with my siblings, my older sister got to be Belle and I had to be Maurice.

Luminous, wonderful Belle! Bookish girls everywhere found someone to identify with in her. One of the most violent arguments that ever took place among my friends was over "who-was-who" in the Disney Princess line-up. Belle was one of (if not THE MOST) sought after characters. We all wanted to out-Belle each other. Incidentally, these were not arguments we had as children, but rather teen-agers. We hadn't moved on. Mulan stole a few of the would-be-Belle's into her camp, as she was equally smart, and with an added kick-butt element. But Belle's popularity has hardly waned.

She's a meeting point for many of the feminine contradictions that women admire (or are trained to admire). She's down-to-earth, but not above wearing a pretty ball gown when the mood suits her. She's tender, but demands to be taken seriously in return for her kindness. She's beautiful, but not shallow. She's smart, but also still enamored with faerie tales and whimsy. She's also dark haired and dark eyed, which statistically is what most women are, even the white ones. And of course, most of that characterization in some way ties back to her love of books.

In fact, Belle's love of reading has been problematized by recent commentary. Does Belle really have more agency than previous heroines? Is she truly a role model for a feminist generation? Or is she just distracting us from larger characterization issues by holding up a book? Is a "reading princess" really that much of a break away from the problems of the past?

Doesn't matter! Belle has a book! And it's no coincidence that this balanced, appealing view of femininity is tied to books because, really, girls and women are the readers of our day and age. Women make up the book clubs and the Oprah viewers and the YA-crossover readership. Woman have cultural systems set up surrounding reading and sharing books with each other that largely don't exist for men. The only man I have ever known who attended a book club was the one Hugh Dancy played in The Jane Austen Book Club and you might have noticed this example is fictional. (Oh my gosh, I forgot! I totally fall in love with fictional men. I'm so like Belle!)

This is not merely a cultural observation, but instead a terrifying battle that is affecting men and boys throughout the western world. The statistics are actually quite alarming. Study after study has shown that boys are falling behind girls in reading and literacy rates in the UK, the USA and Canada. For those who would like to take a quick tour of the issues facing boys in today's schools, here's a brochure the Ontario School Board released about the challenges of boys' literacy. And frankly, it's a trend that causes a fair degree of puzzlement.

How did this happen? Males are commonly understood to benefit from a host of increased privileges in our society, yet boys are behind in reading and writing, are entering post-secondary education at lower rates, are more likely to drop out of school than girls and form the bulk of special-education class participants. There was a time when all writers were male and their works intended for men. For most of history, men have been better educated than women, frankly because they've had better access. So if this is the narrative we're used to hearing - of male privilege and achievement - why is the trend we're seeing in schools so different now?

There are a myriad of possible reasons, and this essay won't attempt to describe them all now. Rather, I intend to address some of the sprawling issues around boys and reading over an ongoing series of posts. For now, I mean to point out that at the very least, cultural practices play a role in why boys (comparatively) don't read.

This might seem a strange discussion to frame around a movie like Beauty and the Beast, which is so clearly about a GIRL who reads. But isn't that the problem? Where is Disney's reading boy? Milo from Atlantis, maybe? No one liked that movie! Male heroes who make an impact on childhood culture almost never make it by modeling reading.

Interestingly, if you look at Beauty and the Beast closely, Belle only discusses books with men. She never sips a cup of tea with Mrs. Potts while she reads. She never stacks novels inside the Garderobe. Instead, Belle deals with men who face the most common problems associated with the battle of Boys VS Books today. They are...

THE BAKER: The boy who is "too busy" to read

Baker: Where you off to?
Belle: The bookshop! I just finished the most wonderful story about a beanstalk and an ogre and-
Baker: That's nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!

GASTON: The boy who can't find a book that he likes

Belle: Gaston, may I have my book, please?
Gaston: How can you read this? There's no pictures!
Belle: Well, some people use their imagination.

BEAST: The boy who feels self-conscious about his lack of ability

Beast: Could you read it again?
Belle: Well, here. Why don't you read it to me?
Beast: Uhhh... all right. Mmmm... erm... I can't.
Belle: You mean you never learned?
Beast: I learned! A little... it's just it's been so long.

So what do we do for them? The busy bakers, the grumpy Gastons and the bashful Beasts? The next posts in this series will try to answer each of those questions and tease out both the problems (and potential solutions) for helping boys become men who read.

I'm aware that Beauty and the Beast probably didn't intend to be a story about the challenges boys face in their efforts to read. The movie certainly isn't sympathetic to either Gaston or the Baker's literacy plights. But regardless, the movie did something that art can do inadvertently, and that's shine a light on our own cultural baggage. In this case, the way that books are presented to boys and girls. While Belle is free to love books and commended for her obsession, the men around her are largely at odds with books.

But if there's one thing Belle can teach us, it's that a book-lover might be lurking anywhere. Even in a beastly little boy. Let's see if we can get books and boys back on the same page again!