Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Less Boys Are Reading Books

The word "epidemic" is so overused these days, calling something an epidemic no longer grabs our attention. A NY Times article by Robert Lipsyte (author of One Fat Summer among other books) makes this very interesting and astute point about the current state of Y.A. Literature:

"The next spate of Y.A. fiction tended to be simplistic problem novels that read like after-school specials, and soon split along gender lines. Books with story lines about disease, divorce, death and dysfunction sold better for girls than did similar books for boys. The shift seemed to fundamentally alter the Y.A. landscape.

At the 2007 A.L.A. conference, a Harper executive said at least three-­quarters of her target audience were girls, and they wanted to read about mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires."

So, why are so many boys not reading these days? 20% of the book market is male. That's awful.

First of all, I agree with Lipsyte. Look at what's out there - no heterosexual boy is going to pick up a book about romance and other girly stuff. I'm sorry, but they just won't. Hell, a boy won't knowingly pick up a book with a female as the main protagonist. You have to trick a boy to read Hunger Games by NOT showing a picture of Katniss, the female protagonist, on the cover with a bow and arrow darting across a forest. Or maybe have the female author use their initials as to not give away their gender to their male audience (i.e. S.E. Hinton or J.K. Rowling).

Books marketed for girls are so much easier to find. Just go to any bookstore and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Boys judge a book by its cover. Big time. Is there a double standard? Oh hell-to-the-yeah. A girl can more easily enjoy a book that is marketed for boys. But a boy won't return the favor? But why? It's the same reason why it's perfectly fine for a girl to wear a boys sweater or jacket, but not very cool for a boy to wear a girl's. Who loses out? Boys do. Girls have the capacity to relate to a story, even if the main character is a boy. Guys can't do that very well.

Let's first stop trying to make everything so damn equal, i.e. raising children in a non-gender environment (which is total bullshit). Let's celebrate our differences. Science has shown time and time again that boys and girls' brains are completely different

Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! A Guide for Teachers and Parents points out that boys' brains light up differently when reading. The male brain shows much less cross-hemisphere activity than girls'.  Simply put, boy brain power is much more localized and focused in one area at a time.

A girls' brain scan will show activity all over the place - much more diffused brain power with both hemispheres busy at work. When boys are doing a task (like reading), they need more action, more stuff happening in order to engage their brains more...to make the experience more vivid and meaningful.

I don't care how pissed off militant feminists are with the fact that research has shown that in average girls, the regions of the brain responsible for math and science mature 4-8 years LATER than boys.  (Don't freak out, as I'm not saying a girl can't be a scientist or engineer). Acknowledge that there IS an inherent difference between almost all boys and girls, and we're past the first step to solving this epidemic.

Boys need books that they can relate to. Boys tend to internalize their own struggles, keep them locked away. They're not so willing to "talk it out" or "let it out" like girls. So books that appeal to them have to be daring enough to go there...to deal with stuff they normally would keep inside. The books have to speak to them, and the boys must want to be interested in reading those books.

Unfortunately, books with a female protagonist is an immediate turn off. Most boys don't think they can relate to girls. Don't get angry about this hasty (and usually incorrect) prejudice. Don't try to fight it. It's okay for now. Chill, Wild Bill.

Let's stop trying to shove books that WE think they need to be reading. It just won't work. Diary of a Wimpy Kid might not be your idea of fine literature, but damnit, if your 13 year old wants to read it - let him. Encourage reading!

Adolescent boys are constantly trying to make sense of the world around them, and in a very concrete way - that's why they tend to go after nonfiction books or magazines. But novels that stretch the imagination, filled with intense action, humor, color, and movement also appeal to boys.

Boys are only boys for so long. Once we get them hooked on reading, that's when there's the potential to open the whole world to them. Maybe we can get more of them thinking that reading a book with a little romance isn't so bad after all? But if we turn guys off to reading, we close the door on giving them the chance to explore beyond their normal preferences and comfort zones.

Hell, I read Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook. You don't get more open than that.

16 comments:

Milo James Fowler said...

Great post. I see this a lot with my students, parents begging me to give them titles their boys will want to read. I read the Hardy Boys when I was a kid, and while not the best literature, those simple tales of action and adventure turned me on to reading.

Jay Noel said...

When I was a high school English teacher, I got in trouble for giving out copies of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. It had once been taught, and there were hundreds of copies since teaching it hadn't been banned, just discouraged.

My female students like it because they got a little insight into the teenage boy psyche. My sophomore boys DEVOURED it.

In fact, many had gone to their public libraries or dragged their parents to the bookstore to either get the sequel or another Cormier book.

That's the kind of stuff we need if we're to encourage more boys to keep reading.

The Desert Rocks said...

I love this article Jay. I think even though there are obvious differences--I think school should promote reading any way they can. My husband loves all those Jack Ryan type things, Patterson, Baldacci, Grisham, DeMille etc. I just got him to read a book by LuAnne Rice and he was in tears at the end. Maybe boys are afraid to show their emotions. By the way, her pastel, lavender colored semi-chick lit book was about hockey.

Jay Noel said...

It is amazing how many bloggers blasted Lipsyte for his NY Times Article - blaming society and all this stuff.

Yes, societal pressures on boys does affect their behaviors (and choices). But a lot of it is rooted in biology.

There's a biological reason why boys do and think the way they do - and boys and girls are not the same. There's large section of our population that wants to treat boys and girls the SAME, and it's not only stupid, but worthless.

I'm not going to freak out over my 5 yr old picking up a Barbie. But my Lord, if he wants to go play with his Tonka truck, I'm going to let him and not blame his preference on society!

Jay Noel said...

Uh, not "does" affect. "Do" affect. I need to use more of my brain!

M Pax said...

I can see that as a problem. The YA explosion seems tailored for the female audience. I wasn't drawn to books with boys as the mc as a girl. Although I did read quite a few that I enjoyed. Mostly I was drawn to books with horses as the MC. :)

Jay Noel said...

It is a business...and if more girls buy books than boys, that the publishers will market to girls.

There is good stuff out there for boys to read, but it's more difficult to find. AND there's just not enough boys seeking books in the first place.

Many get tired of getting "recommendations" from teachers, librarians, and parents that they don't like. So they give up and maybe turn to comic books and video games.

Riann Colton said...

First thanks for the add. You're awesome.

I never seen teen boys in the YA section. Ever. If they're in the store, it's because it's where the teenage girls are between movies. If they buy, it's usually a graphic novel or the Sci-Fi fantasy series centered around computer games: Halo, WoW. Once in awhile there will be the odd Harry Potter book but I'm always asked where are the gamer fiction books or graphic novels

So get that YA book out there, Jay. Give 'em something to read. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the boys need you!

Jay Noel said...

No problem Riann.

The gamer books are obviously linked to the video games boys play. They probably also buy the gamer magazines. Boys will go to the periodicals too, maybe get an ESPN magazine. The graphic novels - that gives them the edgy and visual stimulus they crave.

See a pattern here???

Ugh...and if you glance at my progress bar, I'm 1% finished with my first revision. Daunting.

J.C. Martin said...

I don't even know many adult MEN who enjoy reading on a regular basis. I'd love to read a YA book with a male protagonist that isn't a graphic novel or gamer mag. Perhaps something funky and sporty. I remember the Hardy Boys detective series used to be pretty popular among my male classmates as a kid.

Jay Noel said...

I read the Hardy Boys too. I've always been much better at reading and writing, despite being Asian and being male! (Breaking the stereotypes).

These days, I don't mind what sex the protagonist is. In fact, when I read a book about a female OR written by a female, I get a little insight into the opposite sex.

But I won't lie - I love boy stuff. That's why I write about ninjas, kung fu, samurais, and pirates.

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

Weird how we were both writing on the same subject. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I would like it if there were more books out there that boys would like. There's a somewhat narrow window to get them hooked. Harry Potter is/was a great gateway drug, but we need more.

On the good side, I went into the Barnes and Noble in north Seattle and they had a whole display at the top of the stairs filled with dark, cool-looking books that should appeal to boys. (Though strangely, the cover art is mostly lacking the hot-girl art that drew me to so many fantasy novels in the 80's...weird).

I don't know what works for sure but I think just reading to your kids will help start them on the way.

Jay Noel said...

Great minds...great minds...

But I'm sorry for the rant I put up on your blog, but this is something I'm obviously passionate about. I'm a true believer in acknowledging the why...and then using that information to formulate strategies to help solve the problem.

Too many people out there want to see our children as genderless and completely equal. It's absurd!

I hope to keep fighting the good fight and defending the views that Lipsyte and many others that have raised the flag on this issue.

Mr. Shife said...

Enjoyed the blog. Definitely a subject near and dear to your heart. Right now it seems like boys got the video games to appeal to them and the books have a giant uphill battle competing against that.

Jay Noel said...

Thanks Shife. Girls have made great strides in math and science, thanks to educators and parents working together to first - recognize there's a gap, and secondly - create strategies to help them improve.

We need the same for boys and reading.

delmer said...

My boys all started reading at a young age and continue to be big readers today.

We have a "Wimpy Kid" book on the table at home right now.

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