Yesterday at the London Book Fair, I participated in a panel hosted by publisher Lisa Edwards about boys and men reading.
If you know me well, you know this is a subject I’m passionate about. I was a reluctant reader as a boy, and getting (and keeping) boys reading guides my writing. My goal is to write stories that are competitive with the best of films and video games…and those media keep raising the bar!
But why does it matter?
Because I believe that reading builds empathy.
Reading about another person, and projecting yourself into the life of that protagonist, is an act of practising empathy. It’s getting out of your own head, your own heart, and into someone else’s.
We all need more of that, but boys (and men) certainly do.
Now, I also think that every reader is unique, and that it’s fraught to paint with the broad brush of gender, and while stereotypes help nobody, some generalized observations may help more kids more of the time.
And having interacted with about 15,000 kids in the past year (on book tour), I’ve observed six “S” factors that hinder boys reading:
1. Sleep. (that scoops 8-10 away….well, maybe 12 for teenagers!)
2. School. (again, kids lose 5 hours at school…and I can tell you from experience, most of them (esp. the boys) are not enjoying what they’re reading at school (I’m looking at you Jane Eyre!)
3. Screens. (tv, console video games, FaceTime, netflix, minecraft, MMOs, and you know what, I’ll include mirrors in this list too)
Those first three are probably not limited to just boys, though I notice that many boys do way more gaming than girls (and that’s another issue…why are girls locked out of the pleasure of video games?)
4. Social. Of course, both boys and girls have social lives, but in the UK, in my observation, boys don’t socialise over books. Some do, most don’t. They do, however, socialise over…
5. Sports. I’ve noticed many publishers take an easy route here and think, “oh, boys like football, and we want them to read, let’s give them books about football.” In my observation, that’s great for some kids, but most boys who like football want to PLAY football (or watch it…or talk about it), they don’t want to read fiction about it.
6. Surging testosterone. I have two boys. I used to be one. The physiology of a little dude is different than that of a girl; that’s the science. It doesn’t excuse anything, but it sure does explain why boys often have a tougher time sitting still and concentrating. (for more on this topic, I suggest you read Noel Janis-Norton’s (no, no relation!) new book: Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys.
So what can we do?
In my opinion, there’s a lot we can do:
1. Broaden the range of books on offer. Don’t assume they don’t read just because they’re not reading what’s on offer. There’s a vicious circle in assuming boys don’t read (especially at the YA level) and thus publisher may choose to publish less for boys. Also, this is where a trained librarian (and good bookseller) is vital… to broaden the range and select the right book for the specific child.
I’m trying to do my bit…
I wrote MetaWars to be as compelling as a video game.
I wrote Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie to be a funny middle-grade place to graduate into after reading Wimpy Kid.
I wrote Stomp School (my upcoming picture book) to celebrate and reconcile the lives of working parents in the eyes of pre-schoolers.
2. Give boys books with men as protagonists. Many boys don’t want to read about other boys…they aspire upwards. Just look at all the super heroes, with the exception of Spider-Man (whose main audience seems to be 4-6 year olds these days!), they are all men, not boys.
3. Get to know the audience. I spend a lot of time in schools. It’s not just a way to showcase my work, it’s a crucial way to get to know my readership. The talented people who pick which books to publish generally don’t do this. And that’s a miss. I said flippantly yesterday that none of my editors had even met a 9 year old boy. Of course they had, but when I get a note asking me to pull back on the poo jokes, I do ask aloud….have you ever met a 9 year old boy?
4. Let Books Be Books. We ought to de-gender books to broaden (not limit) their readership. We’re great at this for picture books, but beyond five years old (basically school age) we all fall into the boy vs. pink trap. And it is a trap. I think we’ve got start with parents. It’s not OK to label pink for girls and blue for boys. Nor is OK to tell boys that a certain type of book is “for girls.” But the cover designs don’t help. Sadly, I’ve asked a few boys about Jacqueline Wilson, and they confess they like her books but “wouldn’t be caught dead” on the school yard with one (and one implied he’d get the sh*t kicked out of him). That’s a problem on many levels.
5. Broaden our definition of reading. Let’s make sure we don’t demonise books because they’re not what we think kids should be reading. The first place I’d start is by celebrating reading comic books. We live in a visual culture, and visual literacy is just as important as verbal literacy. Author/Illustrator Sarah McIntyre talks a lot about this (her blog is worth following at http://jabberworks.livejournal.com) and I was happy Steve White, senior editor at Titan Comics was on hand to share his perspective from the world of comics. Non-fiction, the web, wikis, and even trading card games all require reading and thus provide necessary practice at the skill of reading. My good friend Jon Scieszka speaks passionately about this, and then actually does something about it through his awesome Guys Read initiative (learn more about it here: http://www.guysread.com).
So, we’re not going to fix this with one one-hour panel, but I think keeping the conversation going, being mindful of the reason why it’s important, and working together to offer our boys (and men) the most compelling reading experiences possible is well worth our while.
From twitter, the talented author Elen Caldecott rightly reminds us to make sure boys actually see men reading…
@thejeffnorton I think role models help too – boys seeing men read (Dads, uncles, older brothers, famous footballers….)
— Elen Caldecott (@ElenCaldecott) April 16, 2015
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