Kara Newhouse has roamed the world and feels most at home among children’s books.
There aren’t many things I remember from “family and consumer sciences” classes in middle school. Topics like financial planning and family budgeting didn’t seem relevant to my life, and the dry manner in which such subjects were taught did nothing to entice me. One day in child development class has stuck in my memory, though. We were learning about teenage pregnancy. After watching a video about a teenage mom whose boyfriend left after the baby was born, our teacher began talking to us from the assumption that, in the majority of teen pregnancies, fathers don’t take responsibility. A classmate of mine spoke out in anger about the assumption — her brother was 18 and taking primary care of his 2-year-old daughter. Our teacher called the brother an exception to the rule, which only made my classmate angrier and disinvested in anything the teacher had to say on the topic.
Perhaps that family and consumer sciences teacher could use a little perspective from the world of young adult fiction. Specifically, from the book Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman. Published in 2010, this novel is written in the voice of Dante, a 17-year-old whose future plans are set dramatically off course by the revelation of fatherhood. Just months before he’s supposed to head to university, Dante’s ex-girlfriend, who left school a year prior, shows up at his door with a baby. She tells Dante that he’s the father and then she does a runner. (Blackman is a British author and hence the book is full of British lingo like “does a runner,” which sounds a bit nicer than “ditches her daughter in Dante’s living room.”)
A book written by a woman author from the perspective of a teenage boy, addressing an issue typically associated with teenage girls, Boys Don’t Cry is chock full of gender threads to discuss. The fact that Dante’s younger brother, Adam, is gay plays an important role in the plot as well. What the book really centers on is emotions and how the characters express, or don’t express their feelings. When Dante learns that he has a child, he goes through a convincing gamut of emotions, tied up with physical reactions ranging from horrible stomach knots to impulses to run far and fast. Mostly he feels scared and alone, not knowing how to care for an infant. When his father insists that Dante actually hold his daughter, he thinks,
Did he think I’d hold it in my arms and suddenly realize just how much I loved it? Well, I didn’t. I felt nothing. And that, more than anything else, scared the hell out of me the most.
But Dante isn’t actually alone. From the moment he finds out he is a grandfather, Dante’s dad, despite calling his son bloody stupid, kicks into high gear, guiding and demanding Dante in how to be a responsible single father. And he would know— since Dante’s mother died when Dante and Adam were small children.
Thus it happens that besides being about a teen dad, this novel focuses on an all-male, emotionally-stifled household into which a baby girl is dropped. It’s a fairly predictable trajectory, then, that by falling in love with and focusing on Emma, the boys and men of the house learn to share their feelings with each other and communicate about their relationships. A family that lost its mother misses out on the ability to be sensitive and expressive until a gal of another generation comes along! Prodding from a pushy aunt helps the process.
So I had to wonder, would this trajectory work if Dante’s baby were a boy? In the overall idea, perhaps, but it’s surprising for me to realize how, even at age one, I would imagine the character’s ways of relating to the other characters differ based on gender. Of course Dante and his family would love his child if it were male, but could a baby boy be written with the same sort of emotion-prompting charm with which Blackman endowed Emma? It’s possible, but it may make the story seem as if it were trying too hard.
Because the tricky thing about gendered behaviors is that — even though it’s eye-opening to understand them as the results of socialization and expectation — people really carry them out. While I don’t think it’s the only way boys and men can or do exist in the world, the stubbornly critical and secretly loving relationship between Dante and his father is a fair representation of the ways many men I know interact. Changing those relationships may take more than hanging out with babies and ladies, but it’s still fun to read about Dante and his family trying to figure it out.
Which makes me curious about what other books are out there offering stereotype-breaking models to young male readers. (Did I mention the title-worthy line that Dante says to his brother in one of the final chapters? “Boys don’t cry, but real men do.”) Maybe it’s not just my middle school FCS teacher who should read Boys Don’t Cry. What if, for instance YA fiction were used as curriculum material for learning about topics like teen pregnancy? Reading this novel certainly would’ve been more relatable to me than dull birth statistics, and perhaps less angering for my classmate. It would also have the potential to broaden teenage boys’ ideas about how to respond to their feelings and relate to others.