Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading

by Tommy Greenwald
Roaring Brook Press (July 2011)
Ages 9-12

If there's one topic that makes my blood boil, it's the issue of boys who hate reading, the reason being that this is usually followed by the need to write more books that boys like—in other words, books that don't have girls for main characters. Before I launch into a mini rant, I need to state first that Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading does not perpetuate that heinous cultural bias.

Once I realized this, my ire had no where to go. In fact, one of Charlie's tips is: If you have to read, read about girls. What's not to love about that? Tommy Greenwald created such a likeable character in Charlie—a boy whose sole aim is to get through school without ever reading a book—I simply gave up looking to be irritated and went along for the ride. Sure, he's a cheater and a schemer, but he's a fundamentally good kid with a great sense of humor.

The premise of the book is, of course, ironic. Here's a boy who hates to read so much he's written a slew of tips to get out of the dreaded task. He even makes an agreement to keep his chapters short and his syllables mono—promises he can't keep, given that it turns out he's actually got a good story to tell. So, while on the face of it, this appears to be a fluffy little book of tips, it's actually a fluffy-esque little book with great pacing and a narrative arc that's satisfying.

(Now for the rant.)

Although Charlie's reason for not wanting to read has nothing to do with girl characters—the book he's currently avoiding is about a boy and it involves baseball, so there goes that theory—in real life, it's a reason that many people seem to accept as valid. Why is that? Can't boys be encouraged to broaden their gender-centric horizons? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no, at least not enough of them. It's a deep societal bias. (The Institute on Gender in the Media states that only 28% of speaking characters in film and television--both real and animated--are female. This, despite the fact that girls and women compose 51% of the population.)

A case in point: I was volunteering at the book van one day, and we had a stack of Powerpuff Girls books. Two little boys came along at different times of the day and each grabbed a Powerpuff Girls. One mother told her son to put it back. "That's for girls," she said. Her tone was so harsh, he dropped it immediately. The other mother didn't object to her son's choice, at least not at the time (who knows if it ended up being discarded). I might have suggested a better book, but not because of gender.

It's far from a scientific study, but the reaction of the mother who objected to the girl book gave me the chills. She was teaching her son that reading about girls is bad. Her tone was shaming. Girls, on the other hand, read all sorts of books regardless of the main character's gender.

If the idea is to write books about boys so that boys have books to read, I refuse to acquiesce. If, however, the idea is to write an engaging story that clips along, then I'm all for that. I don't write for genders, I write for readers. I do believe that boys may gravitate toward more plot-driven than character-driven stories, and I think that's a valid consideration. There are girls who also prefer similar plot-driven stories.

Fortunately, this is not an issue in Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading, a book for readers looking for a good story with lots of laughs. I would especially recommend this book to reluctant readers of any species or gender.

Source: I borrowed my copy from the library. Libraries are great. You could borrow this very book from one for free. However, if you decide you want a copy of your very own, I suggest buying one from an independent bookseller, or even Barnes & Noble, because they have four walls and people you can interact with. Plus, there are no shipping charges and they say nice things like, What a great choice you made. I need to read this, too! And that feels good.


Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

what a fantastic entry. I am teaching an enormous class of 150 students, and I definitely have the impression that few people in the class actually read. There is a kind of acceptance of this as a so-what? that scares me, and there is also, I think, a kind of white male privilege subset that thinks "I don't have to read (and I also don't have to pay attention in [or attend] class) that this elderly white lady is teaching". I think this goes beyond the classroom, and starts early -- as your bookmobile experience suggests.

Grier Jewell said...

Oh no, don't get me started on white male privilege. There have been recent publishing scandals regarding the whitewashing of book covers (presumably so that readers white readers aren't "put off" that the main characters aren't Caucasian).

Maybe if kids are prohibited from reading because it's dangerous then they'd be more interested.

Ms. Yingling said...

Every February for the past couple of years, I've had a "Boys Read Pink" challenge in my middle school library. I dare the boys to read the girliest books they can find, and they are usually surprised that the books are "just like boy books, but with girls". I regularly recommend books like Alanna and the Gallagher Girl books for boys, and it is almost as if they need permission to read them! Never thought about the home influence telling them not to. Hmmm.

Grier Jewell said...

Yay Karen!