As a youth services & primarily teen services librarian who happens to be a man the issues of what a professor dubbed “the boy problem” has sort of fallen into my lap as a strong professional interest. I am not a particularly masculine man and more often than not, if I’m wandering the streets of a small town, it’s teen boys who find it incredibly clever and funny to harass and make fun of me for the way I look (teen boys are, of course, great at making fun of pretty much everyone, so it’s no skin off my back). When I got into youth services, I thought this might be something that impeded my ability to connect with boys in the library, but it has actually been quite the opposite. In any library where I’ve worked, I’ve been one of so few male librarians that, while in my personal life I have a hard time being read as anything but gay, people are so unaccustomed to seeing men working in libraries at all they have no one with whom to compare me, so somehow my perceived sexuality and lack of overt masculinity has never come into play in my work in libraries. In fact, libraries are one of the few places in the world where I feel people’s perception of me as a man far outweighs their perception of me as gay.
This has created exciting and unexpected opportunities to embody the literate male role model that experts in parenting, education, child development and emergent literacy amongst boys complain so rarely exists amongst teachers, librarians and other adults who work with children. When I took an interest in running the “Guys Read” book club at one of my libraries, I was welcomed with open arms to take over for another librarian who reluctantly ran the book due to lack of other male librarians willing to run it. By simple virtue of being a young-ish (and even younger looking as I am blessed and cursed to look about ten years younger than I actually am) man with gauged earrings (a regretful & relatively irreversible decision I made as a teen that has surprisingly been the number one thing teens compliment me on and often the thing which allows me to quickly gain their trust) who picks up on enough youth cultural references to seem like the cool older brother they’ve always wished they had, I somehow possess this ability to influence teen and tween boys in this way that so many educators and youth service librarians can only dream of.
Me with one of my teens in the library–used with permission
Given this unique position and my passion for encouraging active literacy amongst youth, how could I resist developing a profound interest in discussions of “the boy problem?” Although, as an advocate for literacy amongst boys, I would argue that the boys themselves are not the problem and perhaps the real problem is, among other things, both the men who fail to model the role of literacy in their own lives to those boys and the North American culture & education system’s limited conceptions of literacy.
So, as a man who has access to youth in one of the most literature focused environments, I am so thrilled to get the opportunity to un-do some of these cultural ideas surrounding reading and boys. As someone who reads fiction for pleasure, I have gotten the opportunity to share this love with boys through book clubs and through personalized fiction recommendations, often hidden within jovial conversations where boys are so absorbed in the topic of conversation that they don’t even realize that I’ve just convinced them to read a book. But one of the problems often raised when discussing “the boy problem” is that reading fiction for pleasure simply does not fit into the types of reading a lot of boys are drawn to doing.
In a lecture given by one of my professors, the line “Reading don’t fix no Chevys” really stood out to me. It struck me because one of the random resources I remember helping patrons with on the reference desk so often was the Chilton’s guides which, for those unfamiliar, are model-specific guides for different makes of cars that literally do inform users on the inner workings of Chevys (and Fords and other cars). While the act of reading them does not necessarily fix the car itself, these resources are pretty necessary maps that give someone with a certain automotive knowledge the tools to translate their knowledge to specific makes and models of cars.
One of the papers that I wrote when I took my Reference class based upon a reference observation was actually based on a reference interview concerning a Chilton’s manual. The library did not happen to currently have a print-version of the manual in question, so the interview turned into an extensive discussion of all the databases to which the library subscribed–including Chilton’s and Alldata, another similar resource, but also so many of our other databases. I got to observe a patron who probably never knew the library offered access to subscription databases walk away really excited about an entirely new set of resources he did not know had been at his fingertips the whole time and that he was excited to use.
I think about boys not having male role models in terms of literacy and wish this gentleman had had his grade school aged son or nephew with him to witness this instance of a relatively gruff, working class man becoming so excited about the ways in which literacy and his library’s resources could help him do one of the most stereotypically manly activities of fixing a car.
These instances in which literacy occurs during our daily lives are not exclusive to men or women or to such stereotypically masculine activities as auto repair, but also occur when we look up recipes in cookbooks or online, when we look up movie reviews & times, when we try to learn a new skill, such as crocheting, and so many other times in the instances of people of all genders and ranges of interest. In fact, in the age of the Internet, we consume instructional information in our daily lives more than ever before.
In imagining the man discussed above (or any other man or woman, for that matter) letting his child help him fix his car, having the child hand him wrenches and other small tasks (though I have done basic car maintenance out of the type of necessity created by poverty, fixing cars is not a skill or interest I possess, so I really can’t elaborate on the details of what minor tasks an adult role model would allow their child to help with while fixing a car, so please use your own imagination), I imagine that there is some piece of literature–the car’s manual, a Chilton guide (either electronic or print) or some other resource present & being used as reference. And I wonder whether the dad or mom or aunt or uncle, who may be the type of adult role model who reads novels to their kids or not, is referencing this Chilton’s manual themselves before asking for that wrench or if the adult is asking the child to come read over their shoulder and tell them what comes next.
Even as an adult man who reads a tremendous amount of fiction for pleasure, I would guess that most of the reading I do over the course of a day or a week, even in my leisure time, is for information. Reading is so incorporated into all of our daily lives and that is why literacy is such an important part of development. But when we talk with youth–particularly those who struggle to enjoy reading fiction–about literacy and reading, do we talk about all those other times in our daily lives when reading comes up? I know that I rarely do and I think this is primarily because reading is so integrated into my life that I scarcely recognize myself doing it when it serves some purpose beyond the purely indulgent act of reading a novel. I think it’s important, especially as a role model to young people, to expand my conception of the act of reading. I think, though, that by being more aware of the ways that literacy impacts our daily lives, we can be more intentional of the kinds of examples we set as literate adults. Introducing the children in our lives to the joys of fiction (and non-fiction) pleasure reading is important and we should continue to do so, but perhaps if we also read to them from our cook books and automotive manuals and some-assembly-required instruction manuals, we will succeed in making readers of those children, particularly boys, who look up to us more for the tasks we accomplish than the stories we tell them.