Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner

9780226644929Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner by Vivian Gussin Paley

publication date: 1986
pages: 128
ISBN-10: 0226644928
ISBN-13: 978-0226644929

I stumbled upon Boys and Girls while reading a The Atlantic article about Swedish grammar schools that remove all references to gender. The article described Boys and Girls as “a classic book on children’s play.” I’m pleased I found that description intriguing because Boys and Girls was an absolute joy to read.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to be a teacher, a parent, a feminist, or a psychologist or who simply wonders how innate the differences between men and women are. Even if you don’t fit into those categories, I would still recommend the book, if only to experience Paley’s concise, artless, and passionate writing.

In Boys and Girls, Paley, a kindergarten teacher, documents and reflects on the happenings in her class for one year. It sounds deceptively simple, but the book is multi-layered. Paley spends most of the book recounting the differences between boys and girls. For instance, boys hop and girls skip. Boys run during gym and girls somersault. Once Paley is forced to deliberate on the children’s behavior and her reactions to it, she realizes that she treats boys more negatively than girls. That is the second, more subtle, layer to Boys and Girls. Paley explores her own, and – by implication – society’s preconceptions about boys’ behavior and learning. A third layer to the book is Paley’s struggle to be an inspired teacher. She clearly loves her job and she attempts to correct any misstep of her own—no matter how minor. These layers lead to a book that doesn’t so much as argue a point; it informs the reader and persuades. Paley doesn’t end the book with one over-arching implementable thesis. Instead, she tells the reader what she did and provokes the reader to come to her own conclusions

Boys and Girls is not without fault. Paley’s most regrettable flaw is her decision to use a separate dialect for Franklin, the only black child in her class. She informs us Franklin is black, so I don’t know why she needed an awkward, and probably inaccurate, separate dialect for him. Clearly, Paley admires and appreciates Franklin, so I sense no malice in her treatment of him. However, her use of a “black” dialect is unnecessary, clunky, and coarse.

Also, the book is older, so some of the information could be obsolete. For example, Paley notes that many of the children in her class do not have a TV at home. Also, none of the connective technology that fills ours homes today, such as wi-fi and smart phones, were available when Boys and Girls was written. Even though the book does not, and could not, discuss the consequences of these technologies on children, I still found it relevant.

Overall, Boys and Girls is interesting and charming. It is not necessarily an exciting book, but it is still one I would recommend.

As an aside, the foreword in my edition, written by Philip W. Jackson, was terrible. At one point he actually asks whether there is “at least a grain of truth in stereotypes?” That’s certainly a sentiment Paley would never agree to.

6/6: instant classic

Here is a collection of reader reviews of the book:


2 comments on “Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner

  1. Rachel A says:

    I don’t know why, but I’m surprised that she found she treated girls better than boys. I guess it is the 80s…

    • I think she understood the girls’ behavior more than the boys. The boys would run around, point fake guns at each other, and knock down blocks. She saw that as violent and reckless. Whereas the girls would play house and skip in a circle, which she saw as constructive.

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