March 13, 2006

Why this boy reads girls' books

On his blog last Friday, Al Mohler asked the question, "Why would boys read books written for girls--books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder 'Little House' series? One answer he comes up with is interesting, quoting Emily Bazelon, writing for Slate:

The real appeal of Little House for many boys probably isn't the narrative, but rather the precise and detailed descriptions of how to tap a maple tree for syrup or load a musket. . . . To generalize wildly, "They don't set out looking for story and relationship. They set out looking for information."

I think there's at least something to that. When I read Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods for the first time, I thought the most interesting parts were the ways that pioneers living on isolated homesteads did things. Bullets manufactured by hand. Doors hung on hinges made from leather straps. Meat smoked in an oven made from a hollow tree trunk. Sunday afternoons spent quietly studying catechism (the Ingalls family, you may not be aware, were Congregationalists in an era when that actually meant something). I had a great interest as a child of eight or nine in how things were made. I'm sure I'm not alone in that. (I still do - another classic mentioned by Bazelon, Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, is still kind of fun, even if I am ten times the age of its target audience.) So it was the details of late 19th-century life on the frontier that kept me reading the series.

But what started the series was a reason so mundane that it hardly merits psychologizing: My family watched the TV series Little House on the Prairie. I liked it. Ergo, I wanted to read the books it was based on.

At 10 and 11 or thereabouts, I started reading Nancy Drew books because I had practically exhausted the Hardy Boys books at the library, and I had not yet discovered Agatha Christie in the adult stacks.

Around 13, my family attended a performance of the musical Anne of Green Gables while on a trip to Prince Edward Island; again, I wanted to read the book on which it was based. A few years later I read a number of L. M. Montgomery's other novels because I had a crush on a girl who enjoyed them. (For any armchair psychologists worried about the feminizing influence of "girl books" on adolescent boys: So there!) Even though that particular relationship went by the wayside years ago, I still read them because I know and enjoy fine writing when I see it - and indeed you may already have noticed that Emily of New Moon currently sits at the top of my recent-reading list.

True, the Nancy Drew and Anne books were originally written for a girl audience. But granting that, what makes a book a "girl book" anyway? Is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? What about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? The protagonists of both are little girls, the latter even based on tales improvised by Lewis Carroll to amuse Alice Liddell and two of her sisters. Yet these two books are considered classics, enjoyed by all regardless of age or sex.

God willing, at some point I'll have my own son, whom I will encourage to read. If, at some point, I spy him turning the pages of a copy of Little House in the Big Woods or Heidi that he pulled off my bookshelf, it won't worry me too badly.