Great Books for Boys and Girls
If librarian Kathleen Odean can't find a good book to recommend to her students at Lincoln Elementary School in Rhode Island, who can? Odean recently authored Great Books for Girls and Great Books for Boys to help parents and kids find good books among the 4,000 new titles published each year. We asked Kathleen how she decided which books to include.
FamilyEducation Network: What qualifies you to pick great books for kids?
Odean: As a librarian, I've been reviewing books for school library journals for 17 years. I've been on the committees that pick the Newbery and Caldecott Awards. Plus, I'm a big reader myself.
FEN: Where did you get the idea to put together a list of books for boys and girls?
Odean: In my work, I always try to balance what I present when I read picture books to kids. One day, a dad came into my library looking for a novel about a sports team for his second-grade daughter. I couldn't find one. I turned to my reference books, and there was no way to look up that topic. I remembered booklets from the 1970s that listed strong girls in children's books, and I wondered why there wasn't anything like that anymore. So I decided to come up with my own.
The media offers us images of women that have mainly to do with beauty, and very little to do with strength, or competence, or leadership. So I decided that Great Books for Girls was a good idea.
FEN: What made you decide to write Great Books for Boys?
Odean: My editor asked me to do a book for boys. At first I wasn't sure I saw the point. Then I did a little research. When you look at national statistics, boys traditionally do worse in reading and writing.
Our role models for boys aren't that good, either. Admittedly, when children look around, they see men in roles of power. But most violence is perpetrated by males. And for the most part, the sports figures we offer them aren't exactly models of morality.
FEN: I've read that one reason that boys do worse in reading is that they lose interest. Do you see this happening?
Odean: I'm not an expert in reading, but I can speak as someone who hands out books. I see the same enthusiasm about books from boys and girls who are five or six-years-old. By fifth grade, boys are saying, "Hey, you ought to read this really good book," less often.
In our society, reading is seen as a feminine activity. Kids are mainly read to by their moms. Most of their grade-school teachers are female. And then, at about the time they hit adolescence, boys start to absorb the message that reading is less cool. And, of course, coolness is very important.
FEN: Have you included any favorites from your childhood on these lists?
Odean: A few: Eloise, Island of the Blue Dolphins. However, most older books contain quite traditional, stereotypical roles for males and females. Or they're out of print. Some people were annoyed at Great Books for Girls because I deliberately didn't put in their favorite books: Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables....
FEN: Little House on the Prairie isn't listed in Great Books for Girls?
Odean: In Little House in the Big Woods, all the action is done by males. The girls sit there listening to stories about Pa and Grampa. The one time the mom does something strong, it's sort of by accident.
But just because a book isn't on my list doesn't mean it's not a good book. There are many fine books that just don't fit my criteria -- they fail to present images of strong women. Parents shouldn't choose only what they find on my lists. I give them a good selection, and a good start.
FEN: What do you tell parents whose kids won't read?
Odean: I always joke that parents have higher standards for their children than they have for themselves. When parents say, "I want a classic for my child," I want to ask, "You're taking Dickens for your child, while you read Sue Grafton?" Parents have the best intentions, but they aren't necessarily the path to making their children readers.
Sometimes parents need to be reminded that their kids are reading, even if it's not reading material that the parent would choose for the child. For example, a child may choose to read about motorcycles or snails. But if the parent thinks the child should be reading something else, the book on motorcyles "doesn't count." A reporter recently told me about her grown-up son, "He never read anything but the sports page. Now he reads the paper, but he doesn't really read." Well, that is reading!
Great Books for Girls and Great Books for Boys are published by Ballantine Books.
More on: Reading Difficulties