Do we sell boys short?

Okay, maybe I’m getting defensive because I have two boys. One is a reader. One is not…yet.

But why are boys put into a box when it comes to reading?

I’m tired of the excuses. Video games. Technology. Short attention spans. To a certain degree, I disagree. I dare to disagree.

Boys have more than one side. (I’m sure no one would argue that.)

Fun. Compassionate. Competitive. Sensitive. Caring. Silly. Serious. Shallow. Deep- thinking. Protective. Aggressive. Off the wall. Focused. Impulsive. Thoughtful.

Can’t they love video games, Captain Underpants, Garfield, graphic novels and enjoy other books too? Don’t get me wrong I love am okay with Captain Underpants when it gets boys into reading. And who doesn’t like a light, fun read?

Back to my son who isn’t a voracious reader yet. He can read. But he’ll only read Magic Tree House and Nate the Great. And he’s read all of them. I think he’s stuck. A little scared of pages with more print and less pictures.

But, I’m not ready to stuff him into a tiny box with duct tape labeled “non reader”.

He’ll get there. And if not, I’ll try my hardest to find books that appeal to him.

Reasons teen boys might not read a lot:

  • Practice for sports is every day.
  • More socialization.
  • Most YA books have pictures of girls on the front?
  • More homework. 
  • More social events on the weekends.
  • Teens sleep more and later on weekends.
  • Maybe they think it’s not cool? (I hope not!)
  • Hard to find a section at the library for them.
  • Habit – from a young age we don’t limit t.v. or video games?

Am I missing any reasons?  (And, of course, this does not apply to all boys. There are plenty of girls too who might not like to read.)

What do you think? Do we sell boys short when it comes to what they might read? And hence, what we offer them?

37 Responses to Do we sell boys short?

  1. Elaine September 8, 2010 at 7:34 am #

    My cornflakes have gone soggy while I tried to consider how I wanted to respond to this: good job!
    I have six brothers, I grew up surrounded by testosterone soup. My autistic son is a reader and one who finds release and expression in writing. He is the raw – no need to hide anything, why would you, male.
    Books have to reflect current interests, which the writing available for boys is successful at. But, as far as depth goes, most books address the reflections boys use to judge their worth in society (the stereo-types that even to boys seem like them.) They don’t tap the maelstrom of hormonally inducted fears and longings – but then neither do most boys.

    • Laura September 8, 2010 at 10:13 am #

      I’ve had other parents comment to me, “wow, you’re so lucky, you have all readers.” And instead of saying thank you, lately, I’ve been saying, “Yes, and it took a lot of hard work, not only teaching them to read but searching for the right books and developing the habit.” And I’m still working on the third. I’m not content that he just knows how to read.

  2. Jody Hedlund September 8, 2010 at 11:05 am #

    Great post, Laura. My oldest son is a voracious reader–when he has something he likes. I think the lack of reading material he enjoys is a contributor to his non-reading phases.

  3. Stina Lindenblatt September 8, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    My 15 yo nephew was visiting this summer with his 17 yo niece. She was shopping like crazy for books (or maybe that was because I kept buying them for her). She owns over 200 and refuses to use the library. He on the other hand, only read one series that is written by a single author! He won’t read anything else until he’s finished the series, which is going to take a few more years. He had no answer when I asked why he doesn’t read much. To him, one book a month was tons.

    My two son’s are like yours Laura. My 10 yo taught himself to read. At 5, when other kids were learning sight words, he was reading the notes of his physiotherapist. In grade 4, he was tested to be at a grade 8 reading level.

    My 8 yo doesn’t read much. I wish he would read the Magic Tree House series (my 10 yo still reads them). He’s jealous that his brother is a great reader, so he reads books above his level (Magic Tree House books are for babies, according to him), and ends up giving up on them, and not understanding most of the words. Frustrating to say the least! And he prefers not to read if he can. That’s why we have family reading time. My three kids and I read on my bed for 30 mins to an hour. They love it. We did it everyday during the summer, and still do it on the weekends.

    Whew! That’s the longest comment I’ve ever written. 😉

    • Laura September 8, 2010 at 11:37 am #

      Jody – My younger boys love nonfiction. I’d love to see teen creative nonfiction focused on boys. I think they’d eat it up.

      Stina – My youngest is like that. Refuses to read only the 2 series. But I’ll keep working on him. And if he doesn’t turn out to be a voracious reader, I’ll accept that. There are many successful, happy adults that don’t read a lot! Hopefullly your son and mine will get over that hump.

  4. Matthew September 8, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    Well both my kids are girls, but I was a boy once upon a time …

    I actually loved reading back then, almost as much as I do now, but there was a time from about 16 until 21, 22 or so where I hardly read at all. Life, girls, school … things just got in the way.

    I was into Fantasy and Spy novels, so there wasn’t really a lack of things for me to read, especially since I just read adult novels, but I do think there is very little YA specifically for boys these days.

    My current WIP features a kick ass male teen MC, so I’m hoping that will help a little.

    Thanks for making me think Laura!

  5. Laura September 8, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    Matthew – I def. think we underestimate how busy highschoolers are compared to kids in elementary.

  6. Jennifer Shirk September 8, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    Yeah, I do–and I have a girl!

    I sometimes think there just isn’t enough good YA for boys our there. I realized this when I was looking for a b-day present for my nephew.

  7. Benoit Lelievre September 8, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    It’s a very interesting topic you’re putting up there Laura. I was in your boy’s situation a few years ago and my mother was in your shoes. What got me into reading basically is that my mother kept bringing me back some books from the library every time she went. She put them on my bedside table. Most of them were stupid YA crime novels, but they made a lasting impression on me and on how I perceive literature. I don’t know if your boy is the loner type like I was, but when you have nothing to do, reading is suddenly a great entertainment. The first few pages are hard to read, but if the writing is compelling, by page 6 it’s going to be smooth sailing.

    As for why teen boys don’t read a lot, I have my own theory on this. Literature suffers from awful PR. Lit. & English teachers (oh and believe me, I know very well what I’m talking about here) are mostly outcast intellectuals with self-esteem problems. They revere the likes of Joyce and Fitzgerald and therefore make for a very dry portrait of literature. Don’t get me wrong, I like Joyce and revere Fitzgerald as a deity, but they are beasts to approach with care. African hunters don’t throw their sons at the lions to teach them to be men, so we shouldn’t throw the likes of Fitzgerald and Sallinger to high schoolers. The notion of “necessary reading” is bullshit to me. All it does it to turn kids away from books. I come from a French-Canadian upbringing and our “necessary reading” made me want to poke my eyes out. Without my mother’s YA crime novels, I would’ve probably turned away from reading too.

    You want to get kids into reading? Present something that can reach them. Not necessarily YA or middle grade, but something that talks to them. I won’t lie to you, reading is hard work and will never be easier than television, but when done well, it’s infinitely more rewarding. Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick, David Morrell, J.G Ballard…there are many writers that reach present.

    • Laura September 8, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

      Jennifer – I’m going to have to face that when my boys are older. I’m sure I’ll be turning to adult stuff too for them. Or searching for compelling nonfiction!

      Benoit – Thanks for sharing your opinion. I agree. I’m not sure why the “classics” are the only thing ever taught in literature when different readers like different things. I’d think the goal of literature classes would be to develop life long readers, not just turn potential readers off. I’m all for variety and challenging but too bad it seems nothing has changed in a long time.

  8. Jennifer Hoffine September 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    I agree with the person who said there’s very little YA written specifically for boys these days. And the good stuff seems to suffer from having the same protag over and over again. I love John Green and KING DORK and CARTER FINALLY GETS IT and WHALE TALK, but WHALE TALK is the only one on that list with a distinctly different protag.

    I think female YA protags used to suffer from the same problem, but the popularity of paranormal and female YA in general has helped the genre branch out more where female protags are concerned.

    I’ve been wanting to read that Vlad series, vamps with a male protag. Has anyone read?

  9. Laura Marcella September 8, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    I think it’s another one of those terrible double standards. It’s perfectly okay for girls to stick their noses in a book 24/7 and not be labeled a “sissy” or a nerd, but it’s a completely different story when a boy does it. Boys are expected to only like “boy” things: sports, video games, getting dirty. It’s okay for girls to like those things and also want to do things like sit quietly and read. Those double standards for children are silly and really sad.

  10. Benoit Lelievre September 8, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    You’re right, nothing has changed and as I graduated from Literature (Master Degree), I could see that nothing would change for a long time. The same frustrated, withdrawn people that validate themselves with intellect and risky readings are going to go into school and turn more people away from reading. I’ve heard them saying so much silly crap, calling themselves an elite and saying literature is not a democratic medium. Those are the people teaching literature to your kids.

    As for YA novels for teenage boys, I agree they aren’t legion. They are almost all crime novels. Even sci-fi is predominantly women. If you want a wide array of male YA novels, you want to check Star Wars/Diablo/Video Game novels. But it’s no excuse. Plenty of writers have short, compact novels and short stories that can appeal to any reader. Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick have AMAZING short stories. The point is to bring them to readers methodically.

  11. Patti Nielson September 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    I have two teenage boys, neither or readers. I’ve tried everything. I’ve bought all the good books with male protagonists, but nothing. I’m not sure why they don’t read, but either does husband. He only reads non-fiction so that might have something to do with it.

  12. write-brained September 8, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Oh yeah all of your reasons are soooooo spot-on! And darn-it, like you, I will find things for my little guy to read!

  13. Benoit Lelievre September 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    Patti, I’m curious (the question of males & first steps in literature is makin my intellect boil), what do you refer as good books with a male protagonist? Nothing in literature is absolute. Your good might not be their good. You might aim too high, too low or aside the target. If you want, I think I can help with this.

    Laura, can I make your blog my suggestion of the week on Dead End Follies? It engages you to nothing, but having a feature post written by me. I think you put up some of the most pertinent points to debate around literature.

  14. patti September 8, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    I was blessed to have one boy, one girl. All I know is they SURE were different.

    A regret? That I didn’t let them develop in THEIR way and tried to make them fit some predetermined (by whom, I’m not sure) mold!

    Blessings, dear one.

  15. Kelly Polark September 8, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    Thankfully all of my kids loved reading at an early age. Unfortunately though, my 11 yr stopped reading for fun (except for Guitar magazines) a year ago. I was stumped. He voraciously read through the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series the year before. I think he just hasn’t found something that interests him as much as those series. I know there are some YA books that he would love for the silliness, but they are yet too old for him. I am wondering which book can spark his love for reading again.

  16. Paul September 8, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    I think it often comes down to matching the right book with the right person, be it boy or girl. Sure, some kids might like reading more than others. And some kids haven’t connected with that first book they love that opens a whole new world to them.

    I taught mostly boys for 15 years. Most of them were reluctant readers but when I introduced a book one of them connected to he couldn’t put it down. Sometimes that book was fantasy, sometimes realistic, sometimes it was a romance. You never know…

  17. Benoit Lelievre September 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    Paul got it right. It takes the right book at the right time to ignite the fire.

  18. Karen Strong September 8, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    I have a large extended family where I’m the only girl so I grew up around a LOT of boys. And I think that everything you say is true about them.

    When I go to the YA section, just looking at the covers says a lot about who are the main readers of YA: Girls. Girls almost on every cover.

    Even when I go to writer conferences, there are more women than men — not that men have to write for boys but most of the women writers write for the YA girl audience.

    I don’t know. Maybe teen boys don’t read as much because there isn’t much out there?

    Most of my boy cousins stopped reading when they got to high school because they got involved in sports — but they loved reading sport magazines and newspaper articles. So maybe it’s the subject matter?

    Hmm…great post Laura. Lots to think about.

    • Laura September 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

      Sure, Benoit. Any mention would be appreciated.

      I think we all have to realize that can’t we figure out one boy and assume it’s the same for the rest of them. And, I hate to say this, but it’s okay if all boys/girls are not voracious readers. We can keep searching for the right book for them, but pressuring them isn’t going to encourage them to read.

      And I would absolutely love to see some rockin’ creative nonfiction not only for YA but middle grade too. Boys don’t always want to escape, but they love to learn. My boys love to read riveting nonfiction.

      And Kelly, it sounds like your boys are inbetween stages. That’s the hardest!

      Thanks everyone for joining the conversation!

  19. Susan R. Mills September 8, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    I’ve got two boys and neither of them particularly like to read. It makes me sad, but every once in a while they will find a book that captures their attention and they won’t put it down. So, I know they have it in them.

  20. Sherrie Petersen September 8, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    My son is ten (almost 11) and when he finds a book that he loves, he devours it. He still thinks girls should be on another planet so he doesn’t want any hint of romance in his books. But he’s having a hard time finding books at his advanced reading level that have all the adventure and humor without the love interest.

  21. Karen Lange September 8, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    I agree with you. I have two sons, both now in their twenties, and they had a slow start but became avid readers. I made sure they had plenty to choose from when they were growing up. They both went through the stage where they were intimidated by “too many words on a page”. (That’s an exact quote from my oldest:) Now they continue to be readers, not always of books, but trade publications and other things too.

    I think sometimes boys’ way of looking at and doing things just makes them more active, which doesn’t lend itself to sitting down and reading. Especially at a younger age. Once they find adventure within a book’s pages though, they are often hooked.

    Good topic! 🙂

  22. Catherine A. Winn September 8, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    I think we do sell them short. We’ve been told, and having taught for years, girls will read anything that appeals to them. Boys don’t want to read a “girl” book. They don’t want to be seen with it. I think if the publishers encouraged more boy books and put boys on the covers, they would pick them up to read. There are plenty of adult male readers devouring best sellers, I would love to know how they developed their love for reading as children. What problems did they face when looking for books in the library or bookstore? Did they hide what they were reading from other boys who didn’t read?

  23. Julie Musil September 9, 2010 at 1:44 am #

    I have three sons. My 10 year old twins will ready anything with boy humor in it, such as Underpants and Wimpy Kid. They love those, which is fine with me. To me, reading is reading, and I wouldn’t enjoy it if someone forced me to read something I didn’t care two cents about.

    My 13 year old loves to read, but mostly nonfiction. He’s devouring the book by the Man vs. Wild guy, Bear Gryls (can’t spell the last name). Or he loves books like Old Yeller.

    I take my sons to the library and just let ’em loose. They bring home stacks of books that THEY like and want to read. Perfect!

  24. Benoit Lelievre September 9, 2010 at 1:52 am #

    Good thinking Julie. Thing is, you have to bring them to the library very young. Before it has some kind of emasculated meaning in the mind of a testosterone driven teen. I like young people, but teenage brain sometimes can draw stupid conclusions from meaningless things such as reading a book.

    It all shifts gears when they hit 17-18 and start to respect knowledge. I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy at 14, but it took me YEARS before I touched anything else literary. I think it was Voltaire at like 18…and it was for class! If they’re not readers by 14, they can always become later.

    • Laura September 9, 2010 at 2:27 am #

      There is so much to think about. Maybe there will come a time when there is a really cool section of YA filled with covers appealing to boys. Fiction and non fiction. I bet it would draw a crowd.

      I don’t think it helps when writers hear that boys don’t read books and boy YA books are hard to sell – even though agents and editors are asking for them. The hundreds of hours it takes to get a book written and ready for submission makes a writer think twice about writing a hard-to-sell book. And as someone mentioned – most YA writers are female.

  25. Jackee September 9, 2010 at 4:10 am #

    Great, bold thoughts, Laura! I agree–we don’t give boys enough credit and label them non-readers too early. On the flip side, I think when boys are voracious readers, they are VORACIOUS, you know? They read anything and everything they can get their hands on generally. For all the other boys not in this category, I believe another reason they have a hard time wanting to read is because they have a narrow set of interests they want to read about. They’re not as willing to branch out, maybe? Like my son, he’ll only read books about motorized things, trains in particular. My two cents. Just thinking out loud…

    Awesome topic! :o)

  26. Jo Schaffer September 9, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    Totally! I have a 12 year old and a ten year old boy. And although one is more of a reader than the other–they should not be underestimated!
    I think it is all about exposure to good books and literature. Before they could read I read aloud to them. I take them to libraries and encourage them to find books they will enjoy.
    There is plenty out there for all kids regaurdless of gender and if we don’t assume the stereotype they are less likely to live up to it.

  27. Dayana Stockdale September 9, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    I think that boys will not read a book if they would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. My husband loved to read as a child, and now he does as an adult. But as a teen, he didn’t. Puberty and all them raging hormones are tough stuff, and I don’t think reading is how boys deal with it. Girls hole up and think and cry and want to read about what they’re going through. I think during puberty is when males and females behave the most differently. During this time, boys want the action. They want to do stuff, not read about other people doing stuff.

    • Laura September 9, 2010 at 10:19 am #

      Jackee- I agree, not all boys – or anyone – are going to be voracious readers. And that’s okay.

      Jo – Okay, you bring up another good point. Kids in general should not be underestimated.

      Dayana – I don’t even remember reading a lot during highschool. A little bit. But friends and school and sports took precedence for sure.

  28. Laura Lofgreen September 9, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    I am an expert in this area. I have four sons. I think you hit all the key points, although Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a huge success in this home. Also Dragon Fabel and Series of Unfortunate Events. Magic Tree house and Junie B. Jone are great too, but I insist my kids read at least 1/2 an hour a day.

  29. Quinn September 10, 2010 at 5:43 am #

    I just wanted to comment on one of the reasons you gave for boys not reading as much. You said it could be because most YA books have pictures of girls on the cover. I think this is tricky because right now having character pics on the cover is popular. This is problematic because I don’t think a boy would want to carry around a book that has a picture of a boy’s face on the cover either — at least not in the style that most books have.

    I think we need to rethink cover design if we want to appeal to boys. Even books that would appeal to boys generally have a cover that appeals to girls … and this I think is a problem.

  30. Lia Keyes September 10, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    The comments about the all-consuming nature of school sports in the average boy’s schedule is an extremely good one. My son resented the amount of time it took and bowed out of sports in high school, even though he made the swim team, because he just didn’t want to commit so many hours to something he had no intention of going pro with.

    I grew up in England, where sports were important and a required part of the school day, but only those who wanted to be on competitive teams, representing the school, had to invest extra hours into training and meets. For the average child, there was some form of sports every other day of the week, but built in to a slightly longer school day than children in America seem to have.

    When I got home I had about four hours of homework to do, but I always had time for books, too. Mind you, suitable television was only on between 4-6 pm daily for children and there was no internet to vie for our attention. Kids have too much on their plates these days, for sure.

    The ironic thing is that all those extra curricular activities are essential for college entrance. An application that doesn’t include years of sports, music and community service is looked at askance. If our children could put their reading activities on their college applications it would help, but that’s never going to happen, is it? So they don’t read.

  31. Susan Pauling September 13, 2010 at 12:10 am #

    Being a mom of 3 boys, I hate the stereo-typing. I also hate when people tell me that I should be thankful that I don’t have girls because they are so emotional. My typical response, “You know I am a girl??” I love my boys for all the same reasons that you love yours. Our children are a gift and each one is uniquely and wonderfully made.

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