Can Children’s Literature Change Nerds?


I’ve been nerdy lately, reading a new book about nerds. nerds
Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, by David Anderegg, Ph.D.

Nerds as a Cultural Stereotype, and Why Authors of Children’s Literature Should Care

Andeggers postulates that the reason we have so few kids interested in science/math these days is the cultural shift of creating a Nerd/Jock dichotomy. He traces the history of the nerd in American literature, as an intellectual who can’t get sex v. the jock, a man who does things and doesn’t just think (and btw, he always gets the girl). He says that in middle school, just when science and math need to accelerate is also when hormones rule. And kids quickly learn the cultural stereotypes that nerds (who love science/math + technology) will never get laid, while jocks will always get laid.

It’s an interesting premise and he draws it out fairly well, drawing upon his experience as a child psychologist and many interviews with kids. Of course, he has a few suggestions.

How to Counteract the Nerd Stereotype

First, he suggests that kids need fully developed heroes, for example, Odysseus. The Greek legend shows both a thinking man and a man of action. Likewise, Harry Potter is seen by Anderegg as a fully developed character. Certainly Harry’s round glasses would be considered nerdy in America! But Harry combines intelligence with action and never catches the term, “nerd.”

In a broader sense, Anderegg argues that ‘tweens, especially, need literature that doesn’t make fun of intellectualism, but instead promotes it. They need a thinking hero/ine. For example, the Simpsons features a Dad, who is stupid. Yes, over the course of a single episode, Homer will learn something, but overall, he is an anti-intellectual.

When Glamour/Jock/Anti-intellectual equals social acceptance and Nerd/passion for a topic/intellectualism equals being shunned — what would you choose? Certainly, there are ‘tweens who can ignore all this and do their own thing, but there are far more who succumb and suppress their natural inclinations toward a certain topic.

How Does This Affect Your Writing?

  • Overall tone v. Redemption at the end.
    Anderegg says that ‘tweens often miss the message at the end of a story. If the idea is that anti-intellectualism equals social acceptance, but at the end, the main character finds a way out of that, then what will ‘tweens remember? Anderegg says the take-away for most ‘tweens is “Don’t Be a Nerd.” They don’t remember or understand the change at the end.

    When we write something that has a “hopeful ending” because the character escapes the stereotype, will kids get it? Anderegg is skeptical. Instead, he thinks the overall tone of the story is what will stay with a child reader. Will that change how you write your story?

    What sort of milieu or tone do you give to your stories?
    After reading your story, what will kids want to emulate?

  • Mirror cultural stereotypes v. Write against the grain.
    Will you mimic the cultural stereotypes you see in middle or high school culture? Or will you deliberately step outside that culture and show kids there is another option? Could Ichabod Crane (the first use of the nerd or anti-intellectual stereotype in American literature, Anderegg says) really win the girl and defeat the man of action?

    How important to you is a fully developed hero/ine?
    Do you tend to use stereotypes for a quick characterization?
    Do you elevate the beautiful, the athletic, the strong while putting down the smart, the bookworm, the nerd, the geek?

Of course, you could also ask these questions about other stereotypes: the drama queen, the goth, the bookworm, the geek, etc.

I’m not suggesting any of these options is better or worse than the others. I am saying that Anderegg’s work as a child psychologist who studies the nerd stereotype should make us –those who write for children– step back and think again about what we do when we write a middle grade or young adult novel. We have the ability to touch the culture of our times, for better or for worse.

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  • Kristin
    October 1, 2008

    In the Star Trek world, intelligent engineers frequently get laid by gorgeous and exotic aliens. That’s one of the reasons nerds adore the show.

  • Sherrie Lorance
    October 1, 2008

    Thank you for this insightful post, Darcy. You helped me think more deeply about a character in my WIP.

  • darcy
    October 1, 2008

    Kristin– Good point. Hadn’t thought of that.

    And it’s interesting that Star Trek had its own version of nerds/intellectuals in Spock and Data.

    Sherrie — Thanks!