In a Silver Spring living room, on a Friday afternoon, in the kind of damp, chilly weather that really calls for a good book, three women are plotting. One of these women is Valerie Tripp. “I really think we want to say that it’s as okay for boys to be into design or dance” as they are into bugs or bicycles, she says. “No interest or passion is the sole property of any one person or gender.”
What they are plotting, Tripp says, is “a quiet revolution.”
Tripp, as bookworms of a certain age already know, is one of the original authors of the “American Girl” series, the sprawling literary phenomenon about pre-pubescent girls living through important eras — slavery, suffrage, World War II — of U.S. history. More than 135 million of these books have been sold, inspiring a passionate generation of bibliophiles.
Now Tripp wants to help do the same for boys.
The series will be called “Boys Camp.” It will recount the adventures of six fictional kids who meet at a summer camp, overcome obstacles and share their stories with grade-school readers in clean, middle-grade prose. Tripp and her partners in revolution hope that the books will help unbookish boys discover a love of reading and help even the bookish ones broaden their concepts of masculinity.
The scaretistics are quoted a lot, and at first glance, they don’t look good: Boys can’t read. Boys can read but won’t. Boys would read, if they thought there was anything out there that was worth reading. Boys find stuff they think is worth reading, but it’s all about captains of underpants. And farts.
The National Center for Education Statistics releases an annual assessment that analyzes school performance in multiple subjects. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, girls scored higher than boys in reading in every state, at every tested grade. By high school, boys lagged by eight percentage points. In libraries, the young-reader section is gloriously filled with moody covers depicting teenage girls falling in love with werewolves — but considerably fewer of boys falling in love with banshees.
The conventional wisdom is that there are fewer books for boys because boys read less, because there are fewer books for boys, because boys read less, because because because. Having successfully revived Ophelia, people who care about reading are turning their attention to the nation’s Hamlets.
“There’s a disconnect with reality” when it comes to literature for boys, Tripp says. “They’re not being fairly represented.”
She has been drafted to this cause by Ann Jenkins and Peggy Thomas, two moms who are the first to admit they know nothing about publishing. What they know is the agony and the ecstasy of the bedtime book ritual.
Lifelong friends, Thomas and Jenkins both raised their American daughters on American Girls. “There were all of these different types of girls to choose from, and all of these different ways to be,” says Thomas. “My daughter was always a Molly girl.” When her son, Andrew, now 12, reached a reading age, Thomas went looking for the equivalent male reading experience — something wholesome and entertaining and funny — but came up short. “We found the Hardy Boys.” She makes a face. “But they’re, like, 50 years old.”
Jenkins (whose husband works for The Washington Post) was worrying about the same thing. While her daughters had used books such as the American Girl series to catapult themselves into harder works and become voracious readers, Jenkins couldn’t seem to find the right launching pad for her son, now 5.
Thomas went to her local bookstore and asked if there was anything like the American Girl books for boys. The clerk told her, “If I had a nickel for every time someone wanted that . . . ”
And so the two moms, being as industrious and resourceful as mothers tend to be, did a little research and learned that Valerie Tripp lived just a Metro stop away.
If you build it, will they read?
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Historically, “the problem was that boys were just seen as bad versions of girls,” says Jon Sciezka, a former schoolteacher turned author and, through the site GuysRead.com, male-reading advocate. In Sciezka’s teaching days, he was frequently the only man at the faculty meetings, and he would watch as his colleagues constructed reading lists they thought their students would love. The trouble was that the books were often the ones the teachers themselves had adored. And that the teachers were grown-up girls. “ ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ” he remembers. “Yecch. No 7-year-old boy is going to want to read that.”
None of the books were bad, he says, and most were written to instill positive values in kids. Values like friendship. Affection. “But they don’t show the kind of affection that my brothers and I showed,” says Sciezka, who grew up with five male siblings. “Which was beating each other up and punching.”
Depicting the reality of childhood — slugging, noogies, warts and all — is necessary to draw in young readers, whose baloney detectors are notoriously refined, and who can almost always taste the vitamin mixed in with the pudding. “Middle grade is truly the most visceral reading experience you will ever have,” says Jennifer Hunt, a vice president of development and acquisition at Penguin’s young-reader imprint Dial. But getting that visceral reaction can require abandoning preconceived notions of what children’s literature “should” look like.
“Shakespeare is not where [kids] are at,” Hunt says. “Are you giving them what they’re interested in? Or are you giving them what you’re interested in?”
The irony of lamenting the lack of reading choices for boys is that there’s a lot — a lot! — of great stuff out there.
The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series has become a cross-gender favorite, as have the “39 Clues” series, the “Baseball Card Adventures” books and anything written by Rick Riordan. Librarians at the Palisades branch of the D.C. Public Library have founded a unisex book club based entirely on the “Dear America” series — faux journals written from the perspectives of historical kids.
And let no one discount Captain Underpants. Dav Pilkey’s books have been reliably providing disobedient humor for boys for more than a decade — and have the banned-book status to prove it. “Any parent that has a boy between 8 and 10,” says Hunt, “I like to give them a boxed set.”
The question of why (some) boys don’t read is part of the much thornier question of who (some) boys want to be: You can give a boy a tutu — and please do — but some of them are going to whip it off their waists and turn it into a frilly pink war headdress. Often the books that most appeal to male kids are literally discounted: Parents mistakenly believe that sci-fi books don’t count as reading, that gross-out books don’t count as reading, that nonfiction books crammed with football statistics don’t count as reading. Instead, boys are steered toward traditional narrative fiction and asked to sit on the prairie with Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“I got e-mail from parents and teachers early on, saying ‘This is the first book that my reluctant reader has ever read,’ ” says Jeff Kinney, author of the “Wimpy Kid” series. “I’ve since come to realize that their ‘reluctant readers’ were just regular boys.”
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So will American boys be interested in “Boys Camp”?
Tripp, Thomas and Jenkins think so. Their books are the opposite of raunchy — but to the argument that boys want boogers, not bonding, they argue that they’ve got a couple of sons at home who are already on board. These boys, they say, would love to read books with gentler humor, books where the male protagonists occasionally cried, books with all of the heart of the “American Girl” series. But, you know, for dudes.
There are some notable differences between the two projects. Unlike the “American Girl” books, “Boys Camp” isn’t a historical series. Camp Wolf Trail, where the books are set, is a modern locale, based on a real summer camp in Maryland. The characters are all loosely related cabin mates. The volume written by Tripp features an Indian American tennis phenom named Vik, who feels pressured to succeed in a sport he’s no longer sure he loves. His new friends teach him to play basketball instead, and Vik’s story becomes about the balance between finding success at something and finding joy in it. Other planned books feature a city slicker who hopes his book learning will compensate for real-world inexperience and a cutup who’s afraid that people won’t like the shy kid inside.
Tripp has tapped a team of writers to write the individual books — a planned total of six. So far, the women have stories but no publishing plan. They have a logo but no book covers to put it on. The “American Girl” books are published by the Pleasant Company, an independent corporation with which Tripp is not officially affiliated. As a result, Team Boys Camp is exploring both traditional and self-publishing, making the rounds at book fairs and chatting up the concept to anyone who will listen.
A lot of people are listening, they say. “We started as a raindrop,” Tripp says, “but it’s joined with others,” and now she hopes they’re becoming a waterfall. “A lot of people are talking about this.”