WANTED: Strong Male Protagonist

I have written this post many times.  I’ll write and write and write, never being able to get my words across the way that I want.  Usually, when I post I just write a couple hundred words about what I’m think of a book and hit “publish”.  Always trying to shed a positive light on both reading and the teaching of reading.

In my many ways I feel that it is a great time to be a middle grade reader.  (My guest post at Lemme Library where I talk about the “Golden Age of Kid Lit“.) As great of a time that it is to be a kid reader, I am concerned about the male protagonist in middle grade fiction.  I have been reading a ton of middle grade fictions as a round one judge for Cybils (these are my thoughts no one elses), and I’m feeling a little nervous for the boy readers in my class.

I have a long list of titles that show these characters that concern me, but I have chosen to write about a character from my childhood.  A type of character that I hope does not disappear from children’s literature.  Before I get started, I would like to give thanks to my online friend, who helped me find a way to share my feelings, without bashing books.

My childhood was spent in a small house in a town of less than 700 people. Of those 700, nine lived in my house.  My parents, myself, and my 6 younger siblings.  We shared one bathroom, and since we didn’t know any different it wasn’t a big deal (it helped that my parents have 6 sons and only 1 daughter).

Our small rural elementary school was surrounded by woods.  Woods, that in fifth grade, my buddies and I dubbed: The Canadian Wilderness. Each day after school we would grab our hatchets (I know very unsafe) and head to the woods where we became Brian Robeson. Brian is the male protagonist in my favorite MG novel of all time, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  In the woods we would build shelters, cut/chop “stuff” with our hatchets, and hunt for deer (We never saw a deer, but we did see tons of squirrels. No animals were harmed.).

Sitting in the woods we would talk about Hatchet.  We would recap the events that occurred in our daily read aloud, and think about how we would have handled ourselves in Brian’s shoes.

I feel that Brian Robeson is the type of characters that kids need to read about.  More than 20 years after it was published, Hatchet is still being read over and over again by students throughout the county.  I can’t help but think that it might have something to do with the character that Gary Paulsen created.  Don’t get me wrong the plot of this story is crazy awesome, but without Brian this is just an adventure story.  Brian is dealing with the divorce of his parents.  Throughout the book you see how hard this divorce is on Brian.  I mean, he is stranded in the woods, and he still can’t stop thinking about the separation of his parents.  I love how this book shows how divorce is alway weighs on kids.  This book taught me that I can’t just crawl into a hole and cry when things don’t go my way, I have to fight.  Brian taught me to fight.  He taught me that no matter how bad things get, I still have control of my situation.  I can’t always control other things, but I can control me. Okay, I’m starting to tear up, so I am going to end spare you my any more of my life-long man-crush of Brian Robeson.

Not all books can be Hatchet, and I don’t expect every book published, to do for kids what Hatchet did for me, and I do see strong male characters in some of my reading. My concern is what some of the most popular books being published today tell the young men in our classrooms.

Kids are still reading Hatchet today for many reasons. One of those reasons I believe, is that they are not getting what they need from some of the books being published today.  Kids are not dumb.  As we teach them to be thinkers, and we help them to become great readers, I believe that they will not stand for being insulted with anything less than great writing.  I believe, in my heart, that they will turn to books like Hatchet, Shiloh, and Bud, Not Buddy.  My hope is that our future leaders chose the right characters to model their lives after.  I just hope they don’t have to continue to work so hard to find those role models.

8 Comments
  1. I can’t tell you how much I loved Hatchet and have continued to read it over the years. (I have reread it with students and also just for my own pleasure!) I agree that our students need strong male protagonists who portray intelligence, thoughtfulness, and strength via middle grade and YA novels that boys can really sink their reading teeth into. I like what I see from some authors and am very pleased that authors like Paulsen, Walter Dean Myers, Mike Lupica, Christopher Paul Curtis, Gordon Korman, and more are still writing books that are appealing to MG and YA readers, especially boys. Even Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read books are amazing and very appealing to boys. (Especially true if you let the boys read the book in chunks as boys tend to read…)

    So, as teachers, its really important to find and highlight quality books. Give kids plenty of time to read and plenty of ways to share what they reading with others. Keep read and recommending Hatchet too!

  2. Holy cow! That is a huge family. I’ve never been able to read Hatchet all the way through. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe. It’s just not that interesting to me. I like wilderness-y stuff but I also like girly stuff. The only Paulsen I’ve ever read is Lawn Boy. I’ve been trying to get through the original Guys Read but that’s really hard for me to read, too.

    I do agree that boys need strong male protagonists as much as girls need strong female protagonists (that, I can talk more about!). Thanks for sharing about a book that was so important to you growing up. I love hearing about what books people identified with when they were kids.

    • I have been reading a lot of MG with strong female protagonists. I’m sure they have their own share of questionable characters, but I feel better for the girls than I do for the boys.

  3. I love your thoughts about Hatchet. I teach in a small town about half the size of the one you grew up in. Last year I had an energetic group of 7th grade boys in my classroom. Hatchet was the one book that they all really connected with. Since then I have searched high and low to find more books like this that my boys will like, but I haven’t found very many.

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