I don’t know about you, but I’m a boy. Well, I was one, back in the day. I played guns all the time, perfecting the art of finger shooting, quick draw and dying while diving in a pool. I watched a lot of gun TV: The Rifleman, The WIld, Wild West, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and more. My favorite movies featured gunplay. And I read a lot of books about war, cowboys and Indians, hunting, spies and exploration. (NB: The Hardy Boys were pussies.) As TTAG’s Brad Kozak pointed out in a recent editorial, the gun gestalt taught me a lot about right and wrong. Today, Gun Culture for Boys™ is still thriving. There’s a huge range of Nerf and Airsoft guns and any number of hyper-violent, hyper-realistic video games. Rap music is suffused with romantic gun references. Still, something’s missing: gun-celebratory novels. At literacy levels below Tom Clancy (yes there is such a thing), boy’s books about gunplay are awfully thin on the ground. Is that a major contributory factor for falling levels of pre-adult male literacy?
I tend to doubt it. My general philosophy: Darwin is the mother of all invention. If there was a market for boys’ books about guns and gunplay, those books would be stuffing store shelves or clogging the Kindle. The book industry publishes hundreds of thousands of books each year, and tirelessly searches for “the next Harry Potter.” The fact that there isn’t a series called “Harry, Get Your Gun” seems to indicate that such books don’t sell—because the target market doesn’t want them.
I make this observation in response to a New York Times Op-Ed entitled The Boys Have Fallen Behind. Writer Nicholas D. Kristof is sounding off on a book called “Why Boys Fail” by Richard Whitmire and a report concluding that boys blow at books.
A new report just issued by the Center on Education Policy, an independent research organization, confirms that boys have fallen behind in reading in every single state. It found, for example, that in elementary schools, about 79 percent of girls could read at a level deemed “proficient,” compared with 72 percent of boys. Similar gaps were found in middle school and high school.
In every state, in each of the three school levels, girls did better on average than boys.
“The most pressing issue related to gender gaps is the lagging performance of boys in reading,” the report said.
The Times writer reckons that school has become too girly for boys [paraphrasing, mischaracterizing]. What’s more, a bad reader blames his books—with good reason.
Mr. Whitmire argues that the basic problem is an increased emphasis on verbal skills, often taught in sedate ways that bore boys. “The world has gotten more verbal,” he writes. “Boys haven’t.”
The upshot, he writes, is that boys get frustrated, act out, and learn to dislike school. “Poor reading skills snowball through the grades,” he writes. “By fifth grade, a child at the bottom of the class reads only about 60,000 words a year in and out of school, compared to a child in the middle of the class who reads about 800,000 words a year.”
Some educators say that one remedy may be to encourage lowbrow, adventure or even gross-out books that disproportionately appeal to boys. (I confess that I was a huge fan of the Hardy Boys, and then used them to entice my own kids into becoming avid readers as well.)
Indeed, the more books make parents flinch, the more they seem to suck boys in. A Web site, guysread.com, offers useful lists of books to coax boys into reading, and they are helpfully sorted into categories like “ghosts,” “boxers, wrestlers, ultimate fighters,” and “at least one explosion.”
Notice the word “explosion” rather than “guns” or “gunplay” or “hunting.” Yes, but surely that’s a code for books with guns in them. Don’t call me Shirley. And no. Although “at least one explosion” is the lead category out of eighteen listed on the guysread site, only one of the seven books in that genre features a character who uses firearms. In The Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies; two out of thirty-six stories include guns. At least one of which has a distinctly anti-gun flavor.
Bird Shot – Kids with BB Guns are a threat to birds. Birds want to return the favor. “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” No, more like “They’ll peck your eye out, kid!” A boy at summercamp learns this lesson the hard way.
The idea that a lack of boy-compatible gun-oriented literature is lowering boys’ literacy is a bit of a stretch. But the Times Op-Ed certainly limbers up for that conclusion (although doesn’t dare go there). And it’s certainly true that schools generally don’t allow the BLAM genre. That said, did they ever? Not in my experience.
But even if we eliminate the curricula variable, teachers may still share some of the “blame” for the gun books’ disappearance. Perhaps the anti-gun culture in the American education system led to a generation of parents who won’t tolerate macho gunplay stories at home, which killed the market dead, which the publishers abandoned. Or maybe publishing became dominated by anti-gun editors, who refused to green light the firearm-inclusive books, killing the market that parents couldn’t exploit because it wasn’t there.
It’s hard to pin down cause and effect. And it may not be that important, anyway. Do boys really need to read about guns to develop a desire to read? That’s . . . pathetic. Or is it? It’s not a literary-oriented post, but here’s a rant from commentator Glassunion on democraticunderground.com that links childhood gunplay and general success for boys.
When was the last time you really, REALLY watched a group of boys playing some form of war? For those of you who did it as a young child, I would like you to think back. In all the war games we played, how much energy was expressed in the bloody carnage and the death and destruction? How important was the “gun”? Now ask yourself how much of the focus of these games was on the drama? The Oscar nominated, over-elaborate death scenes, or the hero tossing himself on the live grenade, or taking an arrow to the chest so that others may live? How many times did you hear the statement “Go on without me!” or “Save yourselves!”? How often did they go on without you? How often did they save themselves? How much of the game revolved around children, using their imaginations to model notions of courage and sacrifice? Were we just trying to experience the emotions at the extremes of human conduct: facing and overcoming fear to remain faithful to our fellow soldiers, cowboys, Indians, pirates, etc? How much of this pretend war was simply just the timeless theme of the struggle between good and evil in the face of overwhelming odds and certain death? Looking back now, I realize that we were not playing war, we were playing hero.
Everyone by the end of the day had at minimum, 4 purple hearts, a bronze star, and a company commendation. How many times during the playing of this war, were our toy guns pointed at each other? I can vividly remember where a group of 8 of us took on an imaginary army of no less than 500 enemies. How many times in playing can you remember pulling a comrade from the battlefield, to give them medical attention so that they could get back in the war? Again we were just playing hero.
But what happens when we suppress these behaviors in young boys? In today’s day and age, we are suppressing “natural” behaviors inherent in boys. We stopped keeping scores at little league games so our little snowflakes don’t know the horrors of losing. Everybody is a winner. We don’t allow kids to play tag in school. Because God forbid little Johnny has to know what it is like to be “out”. Hell, in some schools running is forbidden on the playground.
Suppressing these behaviors is just a small piece in a bigger puzzle. The outcome of which is that our young boys are being setup for failure. Not only are we suppressing their inherent behaviors by not letting our young boys play and express themselves in ways they feel are natural, we are basically telling them that how they feel is “wrong”. We give them the impression that they are somehow lesser people because we demonize their behavior. So not only are we suppressing them at school, we are also suppressing them at home and on the playground. So basically, nowhere is it ok for boys to just be boys.
I’m not nearly as alarmist—if only because I have four girls. And again, the persistence of a large and vibrant gun culture amongst society’s youngest members indicates a strong, ongoing boyhood interest in firearms. They’re just playing online now, sometimes behind mom and dad’s back. And yet . . . why would books for boys with guns be a commercial black hole? It takes a village to raze a literary genre.
I’m thinking that this dearth of death won’t last long. With publishing-on-demand and e-books, it’s incredibly easy to bypass the literary gatekeepers: teachers, bookstores and publishers. There is but one virtually insurmountable barrier to boys’ books about guns: parents. Which creates a converse (not the shoe) effect, adding to its appeal to [young] hormonally-challenged males.
For all I know, boys may be reading violent books with guns and gunplay right now without parents and commentators knowing about it. Graphic novels are pretty damn graphic in that regard, and what’s to stop bpys reaching up for “adult” material? Hell, they could even be reading this website, or this post. One can only hope.