Johnny won't read about girls

Johnny won’t read because books assigned in class don’t appeal to male interests, write Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky in the Washington Post. Surveys show “boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy.” Boys don’t like to read stories that feature girls, but girls often choose stories that appeal to boys.

Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students. Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters. Gone are the inspiring biographies of the most important American presidents, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs. No military valor, no high adventure. On the other hand, stories about adventurous and brave women abound. Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding “masculine” perspectives or “stereotypes” than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read.

At the middle school level, the kind of quality literature that might appeal to boys has been replaced by Young Adult Literature, that is, easy-to-read, short novels about teenagers and problems such as drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic violence, divorced parents and bullying. Older literary fare has also been replaced by something called “culturally relevant” literature — texts that appeal to students’ ethnic group identification on the assumption that sharing the leading character’s ethnicity will motivate them to read.

Boys lose interest in reading, and the gender gap in reading widens.

I used to love to read adventure stories, history and biographies, and had no trouble imagining myself as the inevitably male lead. Of course, I loved fantasy and romance too. I read everything. I do see many kids who haven’t discovered books that they enjoy reading.

Update: On a sort of related topic, the University of California denied transfer credit to a Monterey Peninsula College course called Literature By and About Men on grounds the course was too narrow and didn’t match any course offered at UC. Instructor David Clemens writes on No

While I don’t question U.C.’s woeful admission that not even one campus offers a course in literature by and about men, U.C. does accept, for lower division transfer from community colleges, such English courses as “Images of Women in Western Literature” from Saddleback, “Contemporary Women Writers” from Santa Barbara, “Women Writers” from Foothill, “Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Multicultural Voices in Literature” from Diablo Valley, “Women in Literature” from Santa Rosa, “Images of Women in Literature” from Santa Monica, “Changing Images of Women in Literature” from Butte, “U.S. Women’s Literature” and “Her Story: Women’s Autobiographical Writing in Multicultural America” from Chabot, “Literature By Women” from Sierra, and “Literature By and About Women” from Shasta, among dozens of other clearly gender-specific literature surveys.

After Clemens publicized the rejection in the blogosphere, UC reversed itself and agreed to give transfer students credit for the course.

About Joanne


  1. I thought that almost everything we read in school was pap until 7th grade (I kinda liked Jack London – but I went to a boys’ school and you could assign Jack London). Of course, I read as my main hobby OUTSIDE (and, well, DURING) school. I didn’t choose pap for myself.

  2. Remeber my son, with the high English class on Missing Fathers in Am. Lit? My daughter has a seminar in English in 8th grade where they’re evaluating fictional characters as to their sexual preference. Dorothy–straight or FOD? Jo March–possible lesbian? And they wonder why kids don’t love to read.

  3. Explains the popularity of the Harry Potter books, doesn’t it?

  4. Sean Kinsell says:

    “Jo March–possible lesbian?”

    Gracious. That Louisa May Alcott was ahead of her time, was she not? And speaking of being ahead of time, they’re talking about this in eighth grade?

  5. greeneyeshade says:

    rod, you are so right. (btw, j.k. rowling apparently explained early in her career that she used her initials because boys wouldn’t read an author with a girl’s name.)
    piece also reminds me of my wife’s nephew, who wouldn’t read anything but sports bios when he was a kid. he’s a practicing lawyer now, so something musta worked.

  6. Heck, I’m not sure how many =girls= want to read that crap. None of those themes sounds appealing to me. I think part of it may be girls being more likely to want to please teacher, so will docilely read what’s assigned.

    But then, my Dad would give me his books when I was a kid, so I was reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Asimov Foundation Series, and Godel, Escher, Bach when I was in middle school.

  7. “Young Adult” literature very nearly got me to *give up* reading. Ugh. I remember it, un-fondly.
    Problem novels are just confusing and depressing when you don’t have the problem they discuss. Or at least, that’s how I found them.

    It was very hard for me to make the transition from “juvenile literature” (what is commonly now called “children’s chapter books”) to literature for grown-ups. My local public library TRIED, but the YA offerings (with a few exceptions like the Daniel Pinkwater books) are just depressing and boring.

    Also, one of the first books I selected out of the “grown up” section had rather graphic descriptions of sex (which I was NOT expecting in a story about 1950s teenagers and was SO not ready for at 14) that it almost made me despair for reading anything as a grown-up. (I still don’t like graphic sex scenes in novels).

    Thinking about the books I adored as a child, and read multiple times, I don’t know that the “boy vs. girl” thing really sticks. I liked Chronicles of Narnia, and the Moomintroll books, and “My Side of the Mountain,” and “Beyond the White Mountains” and the other books in that series. I also read a lot of non-fiction.

  8. I don’t think it’s “boys vs girls” rather, it’s mushbrains and airheads vs everyone else. And I don’t think it’s necessarily true that boys don’t want to read about girls…for example, if there were a book about the heroines of the French Resistance and of SOE, then many boys would read it eagerly. The problem with so much of today’s teen literature is that it’s about somebody’s stereotype of what girls (and boys) should be like, rather than about real or interesting people.

  9. I always like to recommend the frontier novels of Louis L’Amour for young adult reading. In this context it is especially noteworthy that he commonly featured strong female characters. The protagonist of “Ride The River” was a teenage girl, dealing with typical concerns of teenage girls and with a gang of men pursuing her for the money she is bringing home.

  10. meep: Ah, Asimov’s Foundation series! Man, I loved those books. (The books after the original trilogy kinda got tedious, though.)

    I stuck w/science fiction, mostly, throughout school. Nothing better for the imagination, in my view.

  11. Mike in Texas says:


    I like the Elijah Bailey-Daneel Olivaw books better but I got a big kick out of how he tied them into the Foundation series in later books. Asimov and Heinlein were always my favorites, and since they have passed I can’t sem to find any science fiction writer I really enjoy.

  12. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    As a 5th grade teacher, I’m inclined to agree about too many ‘girly’ stories, attempting to feminize boys (accidentally on purpose?). The solution is to–duh–include a wide variety of genres, something for everyone.

    BTW…I was LOL at KateC’s comment on an obviously gender identity-obsessed 8th grade English teacher’s pathetic attempt to sexualize every character in classic stories. I’ll never be able to look at Peppermint Patty (latent lesbian), Harriet the Spy (lesbian and voyeur), or Karana from the Island of the Blue Dolphins (dolphins in this story are clearly a subtext for sexual freedom–go Karana!) It’s scary to know there are teachers like that anywhere…

    Read a fascinating article “The War Against Boys” by Christina Hoff Summers for more about ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’. ‘Nuff said.

  13. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Boys don’t object to reading stories about girls – Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler – for the articles only, of course.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    After having teachers in high school assign Wuthering Heights, the Great Gatsby, and Lord of the Flies, I was amazed that any boy came out with a desire to read.

  15. Jack Tanner says:

    I agree with the survey

    ‘Boys don’t like to read stories that feature girls’

    I certainly didn’t like them and another thing kids don’t seem to care for is multiculti crap. My son brings home these little PC morality tale books and he has to write tiny little reports on them. The little reports ask what part of the book did you like and he writes I liked the part with the dog or the beaver and didn’t like any other parts. And it’s true because the stories are mundane, preachy and stereotyping. Little kids either don’t understand the morality of them or don’t care about Aiesha sharing her bean seeds with Trinh, Jose and Bill.

  16. From Bill Leonard, a TypeKey victim:

    At 62, I’m lucky enough to be old enough to remember when we were
    encouraged, in grammar school, to read about heroes and hsitorical figures. I also
    remember, at 8 going on 9, being unable to put down Tom Sawyer.

    It was a different story for our two sons, given the current politically
    correct bias in our schools. We both read to them and encouraged them to read at
    home, since both my wife and I had saved quite a few books from our own
    childhoods. It worked, although our youngest went through a period where he
    mostly read about sports, both in fiction and nonfiction. He still prefers
    adventure and detective fiction, but as an economist, he also subscribes to and
    reads a lot of technical journals I frankly don’t understand. So I guess we did
    something right, in spite of the current state of the public schools.

    — Bill Leonard

  17. Mike in Texas (re SF)…have you tried anything by Connie Willis?

  18. This is exactly why I will not use the district textbook in my soph and junior classes. Instead, I’ve collected a repertoire of short stories that (I think) strikes a balance between testosterone and estrogen. 12 of them are mine and I have them saved to my hard drive and backed up, so I can simply print them out when needed. Okay, it’s a bit heavy on the testosterone side, but considering most of the English teachers in our department are female diversity mongers, I make no apology.

  19. Richard Brandshaft says:

    You get kids to read by giving them something THE KIDS like, not what adults think is good for them. That seems simple, but educators were just as clueless about that point 50+ years ago. It was The Hardy Boys that got me off comic books; they were my first clue real books weren’t all as dull as what they gave me in school.

    On the boy-girl thing: I exhausted the Hardy Boys and a couple of like boys’ series. It JUST DIDN’T CROSS MY MIND to try Nancy Drew. I didn’t even wonder why not until I was well into adult hood.

  20. From Julia, another TypeKey victim:

    While it’s always fun to join in bashing someone else, in this case school reading assignments, I don’t feel that it is warranted in this case. I blame parents. The schools may have our children for six hours a day, but the rest of the time they are in our sphere of influence. All the great classics of the past are still in print, and those we can’t buy at the corner bookstore are readily available at the library.

    I once worked at a bookstore, and parents, usually mothers, would come in looking for books to interest boys in literature. This problem is not new. What is relatively new is the ready availability of all kinds of computer games, from gameboys on to x-boxes and such. These games are known to appeal to boys much more strongly than to girls, and could, in themselves, eat up much of the boys’ time to read literature and, indeed, their interest in reading.




    Joanne Jacobs reports that the less-masculine readings on offer in today’s inclusive common school are, well, less than interesting … Kimberley at No. 2 Pencil opens up a can on those …