Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Blood-and-Morality Tales: Books for Boys

Touchstone Magazine's blog has been awash with discussion of children's literature lately; here's the most recent post, which links to an interesting review of the Norton's Anthology of Children's Literature.
Despite heralding children's literature as "life-enhancing" and "life-changing," the Norton editors aim in fact to dampen children's enchantment with the world, forcing them to acquiesce to the grim realities and multicultural obsessions of contemporary adults....
Alas, golden ages never last, and children's literature was no exception. The third and last great change occurred in the 1970s, when writers started to "push the boundaries" of material considered acceptable for children. According to the Norton editors, "In the wake of this revolution, writers for the young can deal with sex, violence, disease, and death—in particular because many believe that the innocence of childhood has been destroyed by the media and the commodification of childhood."
Nice. Their innocence has been destroyed already, so why not join in the corruption of young minds? In possibly related news, a study on the all-too-familiar "boy problem" in education (for those of you who don't read the edusites every morning over your coffee, that's the growing gap between male and female academic performance in all socioeconomic groups and at all levels, from Kindergarten through college) features this interesting point:
"Here's a fascinating fact," she said. "There is no literacy gap in home-schooled boys and girls."

"Why? In school, teachers emphasize reading literature and talking about character and feelings," she said. "This way of teaching reading does not turn boys on. Boys prefer reading nonfiction, such as history and adventure books. When they are taught at home, parents are more likely to let them follow their interests." (HT to Daryl Cobranchi)
Well, well. As it happens, earlier today the mail brought a book Offspring #1 has been requesting for a while, Cast Up by the Sea, written by Sir Samuel Baker in 1868, a book of the boy's adventure genre familiar to readers of Henty. The last dozen-and-a-half pages make for an interesting glimpse into children's literature of the turn of the (last) century, as they feature the "Books for Boys" section of a catalog called A. L. Burt's Books For Young People. A typical offering:

With Lafayette at Yorktown: A Story of How Tow Boys Joined the Continental Army. By James Otis.
Two lads from Portmouth, N. H., attempt to enlist in the Colonial Army, and are given employment as spies. There is no lack of exciting incidents which the youthful reader craves, but it is healthful excitement brimming with facts which every boy should be familiar with, and while the reader is following the adventures of Ben Jaffrays and Ned Allen he is acquiring a fund of historical lore which will remain in his memory long after that which he has memorized from textbooks has been forgotten.
Offspring #1 eats this stuff up, and isn't put off that it's marketed to boys (or used to be; now it's just vanishing altogether, though there are signs of revival). While we're listing the advantages of homeschooling, she's never AFAIK been informed that her interests are gender-inappropriate. Which is good, since math, chess, fencing, and blood-and-morality books (to steal a term) are her favorite occupations. If the study linked above is right, then homeschooling is giving us a double-bonus: lots of reading of a muscular heroic sort that is apparently not in fashion in schools, and free rein for the girls to indulge in such "boys'" interests.


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