Give boys their shelf life;Talkback

15th May 1998 at 01:00
In the late 1970s I taught in a British school in Kuala Lumpur, named the Alice Smith School after its founder. It still thrives, with the same green gingham uniform, in new buildings and with a new cast of characters but, I assume, no longer with the express intention of imparting British values of the last century - warm tea, toast and Latin - to its culturally diverse clientele.

The library was run in a strict manner by a redoubtable Eur-asian woman called Miss Doughty. I never did learn her first name. Miss Doughty had not had the pleasure of acquaintance with Mr Dewey and his decimals, and fiction - mainly of the Enid Blyton variety - was boldly labelled "Boys' Fiction" and "Girls' Fiction". I once had the temerity to ask what would happen to a child who was, in book terms, a cross-dresser, and was told that such a thing was unnatural and never happened.

Miss Doughty announced her retirement in 1980 and the new librarian-designate couldn't wait to re-organise, decimalise and de-sex the collection (I would have said "de-gender", but we still called it "sex" then). And so it happened that boys and girls in the school had free rein among all the books.

We thought we were widening the choice of reading for both boys and girls. However, 20 years on, there is general anxiety that boys don't read fiction. Why? As soon as boys realise that gender is an issue (at about age seven), they begin to see the world in terms of things which boys douseaspire to and those which are the preserve of girls.

It follows that boys perceive books in the same way. Non-fiction is safe because you can screen out cookery and ballet dancing at a glance. Not so with fiction. Most boys will only read books that are perceived to be boys' books and will sometimes not even pick up a book at all, just in case. Girls, on the other hand, are at home with things designed for either gender.

If we want boys to read more fiction, then maybe Miss Doughty had the right idea. Publishers now promote books aimed at boys' interests, and we can buy them and put them on our shelves. However, just having the books available is not enough. We must label them prominently, so that the boys know that they can choose and read them with confidence and without fear of ridicule. This system will not disenfranchise girls, so long as they are allowed to choose from the "boys'" section. We can also label almost any book a boys' book and thus widen their reading experiences.

Come back, Miss Doughty, all is forgiven.

Cathy Byrne teaches in Hull

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