(Sorry, I know it’s the last Monday of the month and this is not a comic. I’m kind of stuck in a time warp over here and forgot how to read a calendar until far too late. I’ll have a comic for you next week, promise! Bises!)
I know I’ve mentioned it about a thousand times, but bear with me. The reading program I work with—Gals Read—is fantastic. (Probably why I can’t stop talking about it, haha.) I love the students and I love what the program brings them. Gals Read, for all the 4th grade lady-types, is a sister program to another program called Guys Read, which is tailored toward the boy end of the spectrum. But the real heart and soul of both programs is to show even the most reluctant readers that reading is fun and that libraries are awesome. Simple!
Ehhh… maybe not totally simple.
(First, a quick caveat: In the program, we speak in generalities and averages about what boys need and what girls need, and never the twain shall meet. We know that’s not true. Lots of boys eat up thoughtful literary books, and lots of girls love a good fart joke. I know. So for the rest of this post, when I talk about girls this and boys that, just be aware that I know there are always exceptions. I’m an exception. My kids are exceptions. You’re probably an exception. I’m not talking about individuals here, but a broad composite Student based on nation-wide averages. Okay, back to the show.)
Although the Guys Read and Gals Read programs are very similar—in organization, in structure, in mission—they’re made for different groups of kids with different needs. The students have more similarities than they have differences (all our students are 4th graders, live in the same region, have similar-ish socioeconomic backgrounds, etc.), but it’s the differences that help us to sharpen the focus of our programs.
For the Fellas
Although all students’ reading for pleasure starts to drop off around 4th grade, it hits boys hardest. There are lots of reasons for this, but we focus our efforts on just two. One is that boys don’t have a lot of manly reading role models; most of the folks they regularly see with books in hand (their primary caregivers, teachers, and school librarians) are predominantly women when kids are eight and younger, so it’s easy for boys to grow to view reading as a feminine pastime. The other problem that boys encounter is their own immaturity. (That’s what gets me every time, too, ugh.) Most boys just do not have the emotional maturity to enjoy long stretches of The Tale of Despereaux or Number the Stars or the majority of the kinds of books that dominate fourth grade recommended reading lists. (For the record, those are both fantastic books that you and your little person totally should read.) And so for a lot of these boys, reading becomes a chore: boring drudgery you do only when assigned.
Guys Read attempts to address these problems by bringing in an array of volunteer men who read goofball-friendly books. These books are image heavy (usually graphic novels) to keep the kids’ attention easier and are usually a bit wacky. The volunteers park the kids with their lunches and read them outrageous, silly, adventurous, out-there rollicking good stories. Fun times for all. Whee!
For the Ladies
So, girls don’t really lack for reading role models the same way that the boys do. And a glance at their reading scores will show that, while the number of girls who read for pleasure does indeed dip, it doesn’t drop as much or nearly as sharply as the boys’ do. Plus, girls at this age are maturing socially and emotionally much faster than boys, so they are more likely to handle and enjoy the more thoughtful, literary books that teachers tend to assign. So why have Gals Read at all?
To be completely honest, this question haunts me.
For nearly a decade, there was no Gals Read, because there wasn’t a perceived need. But the girls asked for it long enough that the program directors found the means to make it happen. They kept with the same format of pairs of volunteer readers going in during lunch to read to the students. The girls loved it. The volunteers and teachers and librarians all loved it. Everyone was happy.
But the question was still kind of there, floating unanswered. Why are we bothering with Gals Read? Why have it if the girls don’t need it? Was it simply outside pressure? Political correctness?
And really, maybe it was, at least at first. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think I may finally have an answer for the naysayers.
But first, just a liiiiiitle more data about the needs of girls.
Girls’ confidence plummets around this age. Despite having, yes, higher scores, they perceive themselves as being less intelligent than their peers. Despite higher social and emotional maturity, they perceive themselves as socially inept. Despite having lots of female reading role models, they don’t have a lot of female leadership role models, or female role models who are confident about their social standing at all, or their contributions to the world, or even something so inconsequential as their appearance.
Girls at this age begin to worry. They are less prone to taking risks, particularly among their peers. They are desperate for acceptance, and struggle to be perfect, in all ways, at all times. By the time they are teenagers, this will blossom into anxiety and depression, which they are three times more likely to suffer from than their male peers. They feel that they are of less value and have less to contribute to society than the average person.
It doesn’t end in their day to day lives, either. History books rarely mention more than two or three women for whole eras of history. (And the stats are significantly worse for BIPOC women.) Science, mathematics, and technology—the fields of the future—are all seen as masculine fields. Literary prizes are less likely to be awarded to books with female protagonists. And repeated studies have shown that even children’s books are dominated by male characters. If girls have prominent roles in the stories at all, it is often as supporting characters to far less capable male protagonists. (I am looking at you, Hermione Granger.)
So… yeah. *climbs off soap box, kicks it back under desk*
The girls in my program do not need help with their reading scores. But that does not mean they don’t need these stories.
Girls need to see girls and women who are heroes. They need to see that women and girls are imperfect and awesome. They need to see lady folk in tough situations who come out on top. They need to see brave girls, and flawed girls, and girls whose input and efforts matter. Through the safety of a story, students can explore what it is to be a girl in a world that often feels stacked against them, how the straightest path isn’t always the best path, and that their best is good enough and more. They need to see girls and women who overcome.
What we have to offer the girls in this program is nothing less than a portal into new possibilities: a love of books. It’s a safe way to explore life’s struggles and see the possible outcomes. And it’s darned fun too. Library cards are free and librarians are eager to help anyone who will ask.
And that is why our students need Gals Read. Maybe the reasons are different for girls than they are for boys. And maybe the approach is a little different too. But in the end, the heart of the two programs are the same: reading is fun, and libraries are awesome.
So find yourself a little person to read to (from six feet away, haha) and just imagine all the amazing adventures they’re going to have. Stay safe, keep reading, and happy writing.