For the past couple of weeks, I have been reading my oldest son the 1937 Laura Ingalls Wilder classic, On the Banks of Plum Creek. It goes slowly, because we read at bedtime, and he mercifully falls asleep fast. He’s interested in it, mostly for its depiction of the Ingalls girls’ small adventures. (The episode with their slow destruction of the haystack was especially amusing.) For me it is an opportunity to revisit an old classic. My son is hearing these books now, at age seven — the exact age at which I read them. I haven’t picked them up in the nearly forty years since.
My gateway into the Laura Ingalls Wilder books was actually the second in the series, 1933’s Farmer Boy, given as a gift and read after exhausting the oeuvre of E.B. White. Because of that entry point, it did not occur to me that the whole series was broadly considered girls’ literature. In any case, the next series I read were the L. Frank Baum Oz books and all things Tolkien: I moved directly into fantasy boys’ lit, the sort of thing that nearly guaranteed that freshman-year lunches in high school would be spent alone reading Dune. This in fact came to pass.
The social division between boys’ and girls’ books is apparently discouraged now. It is, observationally, eschewed by everyone except boys and girls. There is certainly value in a directed literature for boys. A fellow who later on went to achieve minor fame shooting down an Iranian drone over Syria once told me that fiction reading is necessary — I had told him I exclusively read nonfiction — because it is the mind training itself, rehearsing for new scenarios. There is the illustrative tale of Michel Cojot, who ruined his career and marriage obsessing over whether he, a French Jew, would have acted with honor in the Holocaust. Cojot ended up one of the Entebbe hostages, and proved himself a hero. Upon the transit to Israel, one of his fellow passengers remarked that it seemed as if Cojot had prepared his whole life for this. Cojot, a man at last at peace, realized that he had.