Cover-up job on the gender gap

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Are girls the victims of early reading success? By Geraldine Brennan

Zany book covers are among the latest tactics in the battle to attract reluctant boy readers. For publishers anxious to double their readership, and keen to woo the parents and teachers of young men who dislike the narrative form, the jacket is a key weapon in their marketing armoury.

Generally, boys still look manic on "their" book covers while girls stare pensively from "theirs", as if wondering when someone will ask the right questions about their reading habits.

The gaps in girls' reading are, however, one subject of the latest findings from Nottingham University's school of education's long-running project, Children's Reading Choices. Researchers Christine Hall and Martin Coles say that, with all the attention being given to boys' reading, the topic of girls' lack of confidence with technical information and statistics is going unaddressed.

Hall says: "Boys may read less than girls, but they're advantaged by what they read. It's likely that in the future girls will be less confident about reading from a screen, for example."

In Nottingham's research sample of 8,000 ten to 14-year-olds, both boys and girls appear to be reading the same books as their peers. Reading diversifies as they get older (girls tend to read the same series as their friends, gaining a critical vocabulary by swapping and discussing books), but genre preferences remain.

"(Girls) are not necessarily developing competence (in) technical and factual reading, information sifting and selection," Coles and Hall say. If this disparity is not tackled in primary school, they argue, it is likely to become entrenched at secondary level, when concerns about literacy are linked to English teaching and girls' difficulties with reading scientific or technological material might go unnoticed.

"We cannot afford to be complacent about girls' reading or to adopt simplistic approaches towards (meeting) the needs of one sex (at the moment boys) in isolation from the habits and experiences of the other sex," Coles and Hall say in conclusion.

For those hoping fiction can give girls a helping hand into the world of technology, the Space Demons books by Gillian Rubinstein, from Orion, might be a starting point.

As for boys, award-winning children's author Anne Fine argues that they most need the books that they are likely to shy away from: those that have emotional content.

She says; "Boys aren't talking about emotional stuff in the playground like girls are. They need narrative to give themselves language and permission to tackle feelings." Her books Flour Babies and Bill's New Frock (for younger readers) trek through the thorny terrain of gender expectations, but not so obviously as to deter boys.

Moody, soft-focus jackets on the sort of non-fantasy, non-action-hero novels that might win boys over are a hurdle to overcome, but not, Fine believes, an insuperable one. "Don't judge a book by its cover," she has told teachers' conferences. "Tear them off if you have to. Or cover them - you've got library monitors, haven't you?" n Children's Reading Choices, by Martin Coles and Christine Hall, is scheduled to be published by Routledge later this year

FIVE GREAT TITLES FOR TECHNOPHOBE GIRLS

VIRTUAL WORLD. by Chris Westwood. (Viking Pounds 10.99)

Superior hyperspace novel for older readers, fast-paced and packed with technical detail.

A.N.T.I.D.O.T.E. by Malorie Blackman. (Corgi Pounds 3.99)

Former computer systems programmer Malorie Blackman shows why she is the leading children's techno-thriller writer.

WEIRD WORLD 1 2. by Anthony Masters. (Bloomsbury Pounds 3.99)

Series of paranormal stories from an author favoured by boys features cover photos of the four leading characters, a ploy used in girls' series.

FATAL ERROR. by Helen Dunmore. (Corgi Yearling Pounds 3.50) Explore Virtual Reality on a computerised theme-park ride.

SENSATIONAL CYBER STORIES. by Tony Bradman. (Doubleday Pounds 9.99) Original stories by Dunmore, Blackman, and others.

AND FIVE MORE FOR ANTI-NARRATIVE BOYS

THE TULIP TOUCH. by Anne Fine. (Puffin Pounds 4.99)

Boys induced to read this one should thank their persuader.

DOGSONG. by Gary Paulsen. (Macmillan Pounds 3.99)

Boys have been known to become hooked by Paulsen's riveting survival adventures.

THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM. by Christopher Paul Curtis. (Orion Pounds 3.99)

As funny as The Simpsons and emotional in a way that won't curl boys' toes.

THE WHITE GUINEA-PIG. by Ursula Dubosarsky. (Puffin Pounds 4.99)

The unsentimental, offbeat humour will appeal to those who take Anne Fine's advice not to judge a book by its cover.

SWEET VALLEY TWINS (series). by Francine Pascal. (Bantam Pounds 2.99 to Pounds 3.50)

Boys and girls like TV soaps, so boys could try these books for a laugh and report back.

Chosen by Michael Thorn, deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary,Hailsham children's books.

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