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Defining Masculinity: Books That Celebrate the Sensitive Side of Boys

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Atlanta-based photographer and writer Kate T. Parker traveled around the country with her camera to capture portraits and quotes from boys ages 4 to 19 for her new book, The Heart of a Boy: Celebrating the Strength and Spirit of Boyhood. The book follows her 2017 release, Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves.

In her latest work, released in April, Parker describes her young subjects as possessing "both strength and softness." The boys featured include 4-year-old Jax, who holds a flower he picked for his mother, and Austin, 10, who started a lemonade stand to raise funds for a no-kill animal shelter.

"There's a national conversation going on about what defines masculinity and how to raise sons to become good people," Parker writes. "We need to look at what we are saying and showing our boys about who they are allowed to be."

With that sentiment in mind, we asked Maura D'Amore, director of the St. Michael's College gender studies program, to recommend children's books that offer a more nuanced portrayal of boys.

D'Amore's recommendations:

  • The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig features Brian, a boy who doesn't fit in with his classmates. Patrice Barton's illustrations subtly convey the child's unhappiness by depicting him in black and white while his classmates are in color. D'Amore credits this picture book with tapping into the emotional life of the main character "by picturing Brian again and again and again in the very scenes where he seems invisible to everyone around him." The boy is rewarded for his kindness when he earns a new friend.
  • Minh LĂȘ's Drawn Together features Caldecott winner Dan Santat's illustrations of a boy's nearly wordless relationship with his Thai grandfather. As the initially estranged pair begin drawing together, the boy discovers, "All the things we could never say come pouring out." The book was a National Public Radio 2018 Great Reads pick.
  • The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, originally published in 1968, was written by Jill Tomlinson, who intended to be an opera singer, not a writer. In the story, a young barn owl named Plop reaches out to strangers to overcome his fear of the dark. An enthusiastic boy shows him the dark can be exciting with a fireworks show, and an astronomer introduces Plop to the wonders of the night sky. In 2001, Paul Howard abridged and illustrated an adaptation. A board book version is also available.
  • The playful graphic novel Mr. Wolf's Class, by elementary-school teacher Aron Nels Steinke, features a diverse group of students in a fourth-grade classroom helmed by an inexperienced but well-intentioned male teacher. The Comics Journal describes Steinke's work as "funny, heartfelt, and completely charming."

Authors of note:

  • D'Amore loves Kevin Henkes' picture books, particularly ones featuring mice. Henkes "nails emotional complexity" in the animals' expressions and effectively conveys children's desires for their own autonomy.
  • Cynthia Rylant's early-reader series, Henry and Mudge, stars an introspective and independent young boy whose English mastiff helps him work through his problems.
  • Beverly Cleary's classic Henry Huggins chapter book series offers a rich exploration of children's interior lives through the eyes of a young boy navigating the complexity of friendships.

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