Time for Part Two of my anti-gender-norms in picture books series. Bizarrely, it was far more difficult for me to come up with great stories for boys than for girls. Maybe it’s because I was a little girl with a taste for all things pink and sparkly while my mom consistently made powerful and pro-female choices in my children’s literature. Or maybe it’s really because the market has widened to make way for a variety of gendered experiences in children’s lit. If this is the case, let’s all pause while we celebrate and wave our baseball bats and sparkly wands in the air!
But before we march our powerful little girls dressed in yellows and greens into the future, we must remember that it takes two genders to create an atmosphere of inequality.
Unfortunately, boys are left somewhere in the cross-hairs.
It’s generally assumed that all books are boy books, but that’s not always the case. Someone who has done a lot of great work in this subject is Jon Scieszka, author of children’s classics like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and the Time Warp Trio. He has started editing collections of short stories aimed at middle grade boys with themes like Sports, Funny Business, and most recently, Scary Stories. Each collection has stories contributed by the best authors in the business, from Jeff Kinney and Dav Pilkey to R.L. Stine, Kate DiCamillo and Mac Barnett.
Now, before you roll your eyes and say, “Just what we need. More dude authors!” I totally suggest going to his website and reading what he has to say about boys reading skills in grades 3-8. Boys are consistently being left behind in reading levels and comprehension, and a lot of literature has changed to appeal to the increasingly proficient girl reader.
I’m not saying I totally buy it, but it’s certainly a fascinating counterpoint.
All this aside, there are an amazing array of progressive picture books aimed at boys that push them to challenge norms, empathize, and maybe move beyond the truck as the epitome of culture. So let’s talk about them!
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles
I’m a big Deborah Wiles fan (if you’ve ever had a conversation with me about middle grade books, chances are you’ve heard me gush about this book), and this picture book blew me away. The beautiful story of the friendship between a white boy and a black boy in 1960s Mississippi. While both struggle with the nature of segregation, what makes this picture book sparkle is the genuine empathy the two display towards each other.
Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball by David A. Kelly
This is a great entry into nonfiction for young readers, and the baseball theme is going to keep even the most sports-obsessed kid glued to their seat. The fascinating but untold story of the technology that goes into a really great baseball. Every time I have recommended this book to a parent, I hear back that it was a smashing success! Take that for what it’s worth.
The Baseball Player and the Walrus by Ben Loory
While we’re on the baseball train, can I recommend another great Baseball book for your budding sports enthusiast? This story is ostensibly about a Baseball player who wants to own a pet Walrus, but it’s really about discovering what you’re really passionate about. It’s a great lesson in choosing between what you think you ought to like and what you really, truly love. Plus, Walruses.
Enemy Pie by Derek Munson
A great story with an awesome lesson about finding the kindness in others, even those we don’t like as much. This is a real teacher favorite, and we sell out right around the start of the school year. It’s a yes for parents, but the ooey, gooey, wormy, poison-filled pie imagined in the book keeps it from being too cheesy or sappy.
Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beatty
We love Andrea Beatty, and her just as amazing Rosie Revere, Engineer probably should have been included on my list of great stories for girls. But Iggy came first, so he deserves our respect! Iggy is a born architect who faces down a teacher with a strange hatred of all things skyscraper. This story is great on so many levels, but my favorite part is Beatty’s transformation of Iggy Peck from a clever boy into a “brilliant young man.”
Go! Go! Go! Stop! by Charise Mericle Harper
I had to include at least one truck book, didn’t I? I like this book because it’s not too saccharine or… well, boring! This is the inventive tale about how we got the red, yellow and green lights that control traffic. Plus, it’s got more than enough diggers, tractors, and cars to keep your car-a-holic entertained!
I Can Dance by Betsy Snyder
Board books are usually pretty gender neutral, which is awesome. But I included one spectacular board book for girls, so I thought I should return the favor for boys! Snyder’s neat board books let your little reader insert their fingers into the action and dance along with the drama. But it’s not all ballerinas and tutus. You’ve got a big haired, John Travolta-esque disco dancer, a young break dancer, and a magician who all prove dancing is something we should all do more, boys and girls alike.
As always, this is my working list of recommendations that seem to go over well with parents and the littlest readers with an eye for all things sports and transportation related. Like I said before, this can mean boys or girls.
And remember. William’s Doll is still always a great choice!