Getting Boys Reading

Boys and books. I was a boy who loved books, and I grew into a man who loves books enough to write them. Some men seemingly make it their life’s mission to write books aimed squarely at boys. I spoke at a conference with Glynn Parry and Nick Earls on this very topic, and Glynn said that when copies of Mosh are repeatedly stolen from school libraries he knows that he’s nailed it. I remember reading some of my own work and a bit of Mosh to a group of Year 10 boys. Afterward they came at me in waves asking for the name of the book. Not mine Glynn’s! He’d nailed it, with a book about hard mosh rock and cyber-culture. Not top of the pops as far as grand themes go, but these boys were keen.

I have written fourteen books. My first, Almost Wednesday, was about a young man who sees it as his birthright to take his place at the head of the family in his father’s absence, but can’t seem to get a handle on the role. So I guess that was a book for boys. But then came a book written from the point of view of a teenage girl. I made a concerted effort to get into the head of a girl in that one, and I doubt the Glynn Parry groupies would have paid it too much attention. Perhaps Captain Mack put things back to arights, since it was a book about bullying, and war, and bravery, and being strong, and being rewarded for simple survival. Yes, here was the genuine article, a book about boys, for boys. But now, true to what is fast turning into a pattern, comes another book about a girl, Bridget, whose father is drawn back to ocean racing. Ah, sailing. So there is something in this one for the boys after all. It’s even got a yacht on the cover. That should get them in.

And that’s what it so often seems to come down to getting them in. The book industry is just that, an industry. Industry (noun); a branch of trade or manufacture. Not a service designed to expand minds and extend souls, but a trade, a business. Where do boys figure in the equation, if at all, since our presence here at this seminar as well as pretty much everything we observe in our places of work seems to confirm the perception that more girls read than boys? Is it going to take a brave publisher? Or do they already exist?

Shortly after my first novel was released, and when I was planning Full Moon Racing the YA book featuring the 16 yo girl another children’s writer gave me a dire warning. “Don’t write from a girl’s POV,” she said with a sombre shake of her head. “Boys will read books about boys but not about girls. But girls they’ll read about girls or boys. Write a boys’ book instead, so you don’t halve your market.”

I ignored her advice and wrote Full Moon Racing anyway. Stacked against the success of Captain Mack it sold a mere handful, but in assessing the relative sales between the two there are a number of factors that need to be considered. YAF against junior fiction, second book against third book, relatively unrecognized book against CBC Honour book, girls’ book against boys’ book. So I choose to write off that book as a mostly-satisfactory novel followed by a much stronger work written for a more sales-friendly age group. That’s what my pride would have me believe. Or maybe, just maybe, my colleague was dead right.

I think we need to be careful not to bunch all boys into the “reluctant readers” category, and all girls into the “strong readers” category. But we all see predominant numbers of girls at literary lunches and other children’s literature events, which demonstrates to me anecdotally that by and large, girls are more interested in books and everything to do with them. But that point is not as obvious as it might sound. I think that girls are interested in the stories and the characters, but it goes beyond that. They’re also interested in the process. They are interested in how a story grows, they are interested in the lives of the people who write the books, and most exciting of all, they are interested in writing for themselves. They want to know how to do it.

Is this the primary difference? In the main, are boys just into the story and not that interested in the way that story grows from a seed in the mind of the writer? Are boys happy to be simply consumers, while the girls seem more interested in the hard creative work?

Historically and generally and I hesitate to be so general boys have enjoyed books written in simple themes, and I mean this especially in reference to the junior fiction category of children’s literature. Goodies and baddies, cops and robbers, English public-school children and jewel-thieves in railway tunnels, explorers and mutant beasts. For generations boys have preferred Famous Five over Anne of Green Gables. That’s the chicken.

Historically, “boy’s own” publications have explored these themes. More recently kiddie-pulp such as Animorphs and Goosebumps have also explored these themes based around good versus evil, and fear versus relief. That’s the egg. In many talks I have presented the argument that Goosebumps can’t be so bad, since it gets 10 year old boys into bookstores. I have then gone on to present the secondary argument that such a theory is spurious, in much the same way that Playboy will get boys into a newsagent but they won’t buy a copy of the Financial Review while they’re in there. But perhaps on further thought there is something in this. We’ll get to this in a minute or two.

In a perfect world, boys would be more interested in Harry Potter than Digimon, Pokemon and Dragon Ball X. Let’s face it, in a perfect world they’d be more interested in Captain Mack than in Harry Potter. But you can’t have everything, least of all a perfect world. So we should give up on this fanciful notion that boys will turn off their TVs and Playstations. When a classic like The Jungle Book spawns a movie followed by a video game, I think we need to think about strengthening lines rather than going over the top. No, Playstation isn’t going anywhere. It’s here to stay, and so too are the simplistic good vs evil themes ensconced in it and all the manga-based trash cartoons that are used to sell pencil-cases and burgers. And let’s not forget for a minute that boys love it. They truly do. But is it because it’s all they understand? Please, don’t insult them. Don’t insult us as males. Boys can understand more. I know I did when I was that age. But in this age of entertainment, boys don’t have to. It’s all too easy to digest what they’re getting.

Boys are different. They do like different things from girls. Are they created different, or are they made different. A Nobel prize goes to the first person with their hand up and a convincing answer. But I do know this. Anthropologists have demonstrated that even in the most primitive cultures, if young boys have access to something that will roll along the ground, be it a ball, a coconut or whatever, they will eventually start to kick it. And they will compete. They are playing sport. Perhaps it’s a deep urge which forges bonds or prepares young men for battle or whatever. It doesn’t matter. Fact is, boys compete. They love that stuff.

Why do men and boys love sport so much? I think it’s because the village is no longer in danger. William Wallace is no longer a hero to his people, but a solicitor in Beecroft, and Rob Roy is no longer the leader of an uprising, but a network administrator in Castle Hill. In times gone by, battle between clans or villages was a serious business that involved everyone, but it was the men who did the cool stuff. They made battle plans, they trained and prepared themselves. As they formed their battle lines, their voices roared as one. Once in battle, wounds went unfelt thanks to the adrenaline rush that comes with combat. Villagers stood on the sidelines and cheered, and the younger men and boys looked on, wishing for their chance to prove themselves, even in death. That stuff is lacking now, but I think that somewhere down deep in their primitive souls boys feel it stirring. They want to strut and gloat and be the strongest. A schoolyard scuffle and a game of football is the closest they get now. Maybe a book simply isn’t going to do it for them in the same way.

Am I suggesting that we should write books about sport to lure boys to the joys of reading? No, not necessarily. Books that contain sport often work well, but books about sport rarely do.

Like the rest of you, I have been interested to read James Moloney’s comments and observations on this topic, and enjoyed what he had to say today. I acknowledge what he has said about the figures not adding up. Boys will read Playstation magazine and cricket monthlies, but reject a book, so it’s not that they can’t read it’s just that their tastes don’t include books. I also agree with what James says about boys having to see their fathers reading before they will read for themselves.

Incidentally, there is something further to this which has interested me for some time. Two of Martin Sheen’s sons became actors, as did one of Kirk Douglas’s. Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minelli were both the daughters of actresses, and three of Victor Richardson’s grandsons played cricket for Australia. I think you get my point. My father studied children’s literature, it is now a great love of mine, and most rewarding of all, I now see that my own 8 year old daughter would rather talk to me about characterizing one of her stories than watch TV. We become what we see those around us being. We become what we see as normal. If international cricket is what happens when dad goes to work, then that’s normal. If mum goes to the film shoot or the recording studio, or pops up on TV during the day, that’s normal. If boys see their father reading, they’ll read too. I mentioned this to a friend, and his comment was, “But what if all they see Dad reading is Playstation magazine or Inside Edge?” Fair point.

So what are we to do? I shudder as I say this, but perhaps we should be embracing the very works that we have derided for so long. I’m not saying for a moment that Goosebumps and Animorphs can’t be done better. Of course they can. I feel that for the most part they are insulting to readers in terms of character development and stylistic execution. But boys aren’t reading these books because they like the way they’re written. No, they read them because they like what they’re about.

Bill Condon, after 50 something books, no writes highly-regarded and much-awarded YA book, such as “The Dogs”. He confessed to me some years ago ago that after many years of “baked-bean books” as he calls them, he had written a serious book and promptly landed a CBC shortlisting. He also told me that he felt like a pretender, which of course he isn’t. But perhaps much the same thing could happen with our young male readers. Maybe after years of baked-bean books and jokes about methane and exploding outhouses, they at last will come to their first “serious” book. Those years of enjoying books for the sake of a story alone may stand them in good stead as they go forth into a book of deeper emotional themes.

When you go to McDonalds, part of the required sales pitch by the staff is to suggest-sell. This means they ask you if you’d like fries, or a dessert, or a bigger serve. It must work, because they keep doing it. I think that we need to do a bit more suggest-selling. Did you like that book about the hidden treasure map? Here, try this one it’s called Treasure Island, or Swallows and Amazons, or whatever. Did you enjoy that fantasy book? Try this one about the lion and the witch, or the Harry Potter book, or The Hobbit. Did you like that Goosebumps story about the boy with the turned eye who befriends an old POW veteran? Here, try this one Well, I guess it’s worth a try.

Is there any such thing as a sure-fire strategy for encouraging boys to read? I think sure-fire is a bit strong, but nor should we lose heart. I don’t feel that boys are a lost cause not by a long way. But I do think it will take time. A long time. Anyone who believes that any one thing they do in the school or public library, or in the classroom, or in their bookstore window will immediately turn around a generation of boys with thumbs that work better than their brains should prepare themselves for disappointment. I think it will take a lot longer than that. I think it will take a lot of books that are perhaps perceived as shallow or unidimensional, and it will take a lot more fart jokes before as many boys as girls are reading. But that does not make it a lost cause. It makes it a challenging and exciting one.

One final point. If we accept this model of graduating from simple fiction to more complex fiction, we need to be cautious of demonizing any one genre. By deriding fantasy as an entire genre we risk discouraging the boy reading bad fantasy from ever moving towards more challenging fiction of any kind. The same goes for horror, romance, detective fiction or whatever. We need to be wary of making a reader ashamed of what they are reading. Nothing smarts like ridicule.

We must stock our libraries not just with lots of books, but lots of kinds of books. Give the sheepish boy nosing about the library in his lunch-break plenty to choose from. I can’t stress this next point strongly enough: this awakening awareness of the vastness of the world of fiction is as much a part of the early education of the male reader as anything else we’ve mentioned.

Are boys different? Of course they are. Do we see a need for a solution? Of course we do we’re here today, aren’t we? What is that solution? I feel that part of the solution is in meeting the boys in a place of interest to them, and if that is where the walls creep with a million spiders or mouldy bananas come to life, then perhaps we should quell our snobbish view of such fiction and see it as the baby-food we wouldn’t eat ourselves but which does our infants so much good.