Thursday, October 15, 2009

Boys and Books

by Dave White

Men don't read.

I hear that all the time. I'll be at a book signing or at a bar or at a school workshop and I hear two complaints. Men don't read. And the other one is "people don't read." I have no solution for this generation. However, I can trace the origin of the problem. And for a minute, I'd like you to forget the other distractions like XBox, iPods, computers, TV, movies and the like...

As discussions go, and researching the way to teach reading goes, the new hot theory is this. Kids need to read books that interest them. That's right, the big theory now is groundshaking. Earthshattering. It's a breakthrough. I'll restate it, just so you have it.

In order to get kids to enjoy reading, they need to read things that interest them.


I mean, I can't believe no one thought of that, he says knowingly. And this leads to the crux of the problem, doesn't it.

People don't like to read because it has always been promoted to them as WORK. You have to read a book and write an essay on it. You have to discuss what goes on in the book. In school, you have to pour over every word and find meaning in it. You can't just enjoy the book. So it is ingrained in you that reading is work. That's going to knock a bunch of readers out to begin with.

Reading is starting behind the 8 ball.

And then we move on to boys. Boys read less than girls. Why? Well, let's go back to the big breakthrough. Kids have to read things that interest them. And what interests boys? Guns, explosions, drugs, sex, music, sports. You know, the fun stuff. The stuff the DSD guys write about.

And where are you exposed to reading mostly? (Especially if your parents aren't readers... Which they should be. Speaking as a teacher, PARENTS... READ TO YOUR KIDS)...


And who teaches kids... especially at a younger age?


And, let's face it. Women have different tastes in literature than men do. It's not a sexism thing. Women like different types of stories. Women pick out stories about a boy who's father won't kiss him good night anymore because he's too old. Women read you stories about ducks and supermarket attendants. I know, I've heard these stories. They're not bad stories. Some are actually really well written, and are going to inspire other girls to read. But you know what? That's not what boys want to read.

When I was in middle school I read James Lee Burke, Ian Fleming, Michael Crichton, and Jefferey Archer. I was reading crime and gang stuff. I was buying Spider-man comics up the wazoo. My dad (there's that parent thing) used to buy me Spider-man stuff when I was in elementary school. I went beyond what the teachers wanted us to read because I didn't like what teachers wanted us to read.

I try to get my kids to read. I remind them, every day, to bring in something THEY want to read. We read gang stories. We read mysteries, both old and new. I also try to mix in the stuff that girls would like too. You have to get everyone to read.

That's why I think THE OUTSIDERS is the perfect book for teens. It's got the stuff that boys like: the violence, the gangs, the blood. But it also has the heart and sappy moments that girls that age like.

Does it sound like I'm being sexist? Maybe. But it's also true, at a young age, boys think girls are icky. And when you are taught by a female with female tastes, AND IT'S CONSIDERED WORK, you are turning off boy readers.

What's the solution? Let kids read what they want. Don't look down on comics or crime novels or books with violence in them. Don't look down on video game magazines. They are reading. And a good book will lead a kid to another good book and so on.

And parents, encourage your kids to read beyond the curriculum. Get them excited. Take them to Barnes and Noble. Take them to the comic shop.

What do you think?


Declan Burke said...

The Outsiders - a bang-up brilliant book for boys.

Erm, any chance they'd read Treasure Island? No? Damn their eyes ...

Cheers, Dec

Jen said...

"Women have different tastes in literature than men do. It's not a sexism thing. Women like different types of stories."

I think that's the definition of "a sexism thing." :) Which is not to say it isn't sometimes true, but the way you state it makes me wince. I'm going to put my head in the sand and assume you know how much you were exaggerating.

But your solution is a good one. It frustrates me that some parents rely on strangers in the classroom to direct their kids' perceptions of everything. If the parents aren't valuing time reading, why would the kids?

Jay Stringer said...

Kids definatley need to be encouraged to read whatever engages them, regardless of wether its on the curriculum or is to the teachers tastes.

And comic books, give them comic books. Lots of them. The prefect way to learn to read, and to gain an understanding of structure and character.

I've said it before, but someday i'd love to out together an anthology of YA crime fiction.

formulaic666 said...

Couldn't agree with you more. I was really lucky that my English Teacher would slip me books as I went out of the door after class that were things he thought I would like; Day Of The Triffids, Empire Of The Sun, To Kill A Mockingbird. He always handed me them without remark, he just knew I liked to read.

Dave White said...

Of course I'm exaggerating Jen. A little, but also when I look at the types of books that are selected in schools, I think the deck is stacked against boys until 8th grade or so.

Keith Snyder said...

Absolutely. The way reading and literature are taught in school is right-intentioned and wrongheaded.

And while we're at it... keep classic literature out of middle school. Just because THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA is short doesn't mean 16-year-olds can understand it. Is that really the readership Hemingway had in mind?

I refused to read anything I was assigned my senior year in high school. The idea that some adult could tell me what to put into my brain was offensive. I spent the entire semester of AP English writing a round-robin story with my friends instead. It was more useful than books those were.

Unknown said...

I don't think all women have the same taste in literature. (My mom's a great example of this, to get me to read she'd buy me a tons of X-men comics, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Joe Lansdale, et cetera. Plus she read guys like Ed McBain, Jim Thompson,Richard Stark/Westlake.)But for the most part, I agree that women read differently. Every English teacher I had in high school were women and every single one of them picked books from authors like Pearl S. Buck, Virgina Woolf, Carson McClures, so on and so forth. And I appreciate these novels now, but when I was in school I just blew off these reading assignments so I could crack open King's newest doorstop or tear through the newest issues of Daredevil and Wolverine.

And you're right, the best way to get kids to read is to read to them and making reading a central form of entertainment in the household.

Jeff Abbott said...

My 10-yr old son is a very avid reader, but he is also tough on books -- if he doesn't like it, he won't finish it. He loves Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels (and having been at one of Rick's signings with 3000 people, I can say the books appeal to both boys and girls). I gladly buy him the first book in any series and he can see if he warms up to it. He was a bit cool on Artemis Fowl (which I loved) but he loved Inkheart. He started an Alex Rider, didn't get into it, but then started it again on a better day and loved it. The key is to keep presenting books to them, and listen to their tastes. My boy likes action in his books, so I'll keep giving him action. Would love it if he'd give Treasure Island or A Wrinkle in Time a try.

Anonymous said...

I asked my stepson, who's 15, about whether kids his age would read or not. He said, "Sure, if you write something we like."

Right now, teen boys aren't big on books because the big thing is Twilight, which doesn't appeal to them, whereas Harry Potter pretty much grabbed everybody and grew up along with the audience.

Some lit authors will be gnashing their teeth over that, but when it seems like work to the reader, the author has failed.

John McFetridge said...

Good post, Dave.

I think it's important to not give up on kids, especially boys. I never read many books when I was a kid, or even as a teenager. I don't think anyone who knew me before I got into my twenties would ever have pegged me as someone who would love books.

I guess I find there's too much emphasis on this, "getting kids when they're young, or it's too late." There's a lot of presure on parents to have their kids signed up for every kind of lesson before they can walk.

Maybe that whole "quality time," thing is a joke (I hope so, my kids get quantity time with me, but it's very rarely quality ;) but when it comes to books I know that for me what turned me into a lover of books was a few really good ones - not reading something every day when I was young.

Dave White said...

You're right, it's never too late, John. But there are opportunities to get kids early and you have to at least try to take advantage of them.

Scott D. Parker said...

I have a soon-to-be eight-year-old who is, I think, on the cusp of being a good reader. More and more, I see him sitting down with one of his books and reading to himself. He starts by reading the books *I* used to read to him. Recently, I've started reading to him these A to Z Mysteries. These are neat books with three child characters who live in the town of Green Lawn. At the front of each book, there's a map of the town and when the characters walk around town, we flip to the map and follow their progress. And most chapters end on a cliffhanger so he's getting to where he *wants* to know what comes next. He loves Tom and Jerry and I've let him read my old 70s-era T&J comics. I point out *how* to read a comic as well. Now that I've read such classics (Tarzan, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues) for myself, I'll happily let my boy read them if he wants. I like Jeff's idea of providing my boy with Book #1 of any series.

As to pouring over each and every word in a classic book for ulterior meaning, I think that, as Mike Knowles wrote last weekend, sometimes a goat really is just a goat. My standard smart-ass response back in high school when questioned why Author A wrote Book A was this: to pay rent. Still think that way, too.

Jay Stringer said...

I remember my brother wasn't much of a reader when he was younger, and a lot if people decided I was the reader and he was something else. Around his tenth birthday I bought him a copy if the hobbit and everyone said it was a waste of money.

I said just leave him alone, let him take his time. He read it in one weekend.

Harry Potter was the big thing for him as with others his age. Someones already mentioned that Twilight isn't really going to appeal to boys. There may be something in that. Is there a really strong series out there for boys to latch on to?

Nicola Griffith said...

Go read Guys Lit Wire. Here's what they say about themselves:

Guys Lit Wire was created after a broad discussion among YA bloggers within the lit blogosphere about the lack of books for teenage boys. There seems to be a perception that boys don't read as much as girls, especially teenage boys. As the YA Columnist for Bookslut it has been especially clear to me that whether or not boys want to read more, finding books for boys is not so easy. There are so many more books targeted toward female readers than male that it is really quite amazing - and also very disturbing.

So we decided to do something about it.

Anonymous said...

Not that I'm any expert on teenage males, but someone else said the trick to getting boys to read is just introducing them to one good book, which will lead to another, and so on and so on.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is probably the most perfect book for that purpose.

I first read it in middle school, and now, 10 or 12 years later, I still remember the feeling I had when I finished it. Oh, THAT'S what reading is supposed to be like.

Karel said...

Great article and very interesting thesis. I'll be able to test this on my 5yr old son, for whom I am the most important story teller right now.

As a matter of fact, I don't think kids should be ENCOURAGED to read at all. They should be given ample opportunity. I think this is a subtle difference.

Most kids are being given ample opportunity to watch TV (like, all the time) and nothing else.

Given TV is not a part of my life while my son is awake, he gravitates to all sorts of creative stuff. Including his kids books.

There surely is a huge difference in taste between the sexes. As long as we acknowledge this, that's effectively a big advantage. It's healthy for kids to be exposed to a good mix to enhance their ability to see both sides later in life.

Anonymous said...

As a female teacher of elementary age students, I think parents need to step up to the plate and allow their children to choose selections that they find their children enjoying. I also know that I am "locked into" certain books and can't pick books for class reading. However, in my classroom library, I have picture books, mysteries, "girly" books and tons of nonfiction books that the boys always choose.
As a mother, I have 2 sons, each with his own reading style. One who will read almost anything and the other who will read "how to" books and perhaps his brother's books. Each always read comics - but with different heroes.
All teachers in every subject need to encourage reading - and all parents should read with, to, and listen to their child read and speak.
Good post, Dave!

Dana King said...

I couldn't agree with you more. School does more to drum the love of reading out of kids than it does them any benefit. I'm not saying the great works should be ignored, but, as you said, too often reading is put forward is work, almost as punishment, and, to add insult to injury, they're taught nothing worth reading is any fun to read.

It's too easy for school officials to forget the role reading plays in life after school. Someone who was taught to love to read can always go back and read A LIGHT IN AUGUST when he's 30 or 40; he might even get it then. That's far better than forcing it down his throat when he's 15, while coincidentally helping him to decide he's only doing this as long as he absolutely has to.