There have, of course, been publishing initiatives that target boys with what they consider “boys’ topics”, but I’m rather skeptical of them. These stories often employ stereotypes and a rather narrow set of ideas of what boys are like. The problem with a lot of all-action stories for boys is that if the reader takes their message seriously they will close their book and go outside. If children’s books implicitly assume that real boys are always active, then perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised if boys choose more active pastimes.
Of course boys adventures stories have been around for decades – and indeed have often sold very well. So maybe I’m being overly alarmist and very literal here. But the past few decades have seen the growth of video games, often first-person action stories with high production values. These games can be played alone or –importantly – with friends. They can also be played with strangers who through playing the game become friends. As a result, they offer sociability and both create and satisfy the hunger for action that traditional boys stories offered in the past. Driven by commercial imperatives, video games often build on long-standing stereotypes of what boys like and should be like. I don’t think its good strategically or ethically for children’s publishing to do the same thing.
Instead, I think that we should be encouraging boys to read what they enjoy while helping them to expand their reading diet. In the process, we might also expand the ways it is socially acceptable to be a boy. Publishing has an important role to play here: the recent spate of publications “for girls” was widely seen as a positive move in children’s publishing. I’m not so sure it was. I’m not questioning the subject matter; a greater focus on historical and fictional women was long overdue. But the decision to brand such books as being “for girls” seemed to reinforce the notion that books about girls and women are exclusively for girls and women. Boys should be reading stories about girls – but they’re not very likely to when the cover of the book explicitly declares that the stories are “for girls”.