Why Boys Don’t Read (Enough)

24 Jun

Why Boys Don’t Read (Enough)

OK, true story.

Back in 2003, I graduated as a librarian and set out on what I hoped would be a climb to the top of the field.  (Spoiler alert – it wasn’t.)  As I waited for my final exam results, I set out on a series of job interviews at various schools and universities around Greater Manchester, one of which remained stuck in my mind.  The interviewers asked what I’d do to encourage kids to read.  And my answer was that I would offer books that were popular at the time – the example I used was Harry Potter – so kids would read books they like and thus develop the reading muscles they need to move on to other, more advanced, books.  I even suggested that the kids should be allowed to nominate library books for purchase, on the grounds they were the ones the kids actually liked.

This answer did not go down too well with them.  They seemed to think I should choose books based on their literary merit.  They found the idea of selecting books based on the likes and dislikes of a handful of kids to be wrong-headed, perhaps even counter-productive.  As you have probably guessed, I didn’t get the job. 

But I still stand by my answer.  If you want kids to read, or do anything really, you have to present them with books that actually encourage them to read.

A few weeks back, a friend of mind pointed me to an article entitled ‘Boys Don’t Read Enough.’  The general gist of the article is that girls do better at reading than boys and it tries to offer a handful of explanations, but none of them are particularly convincing.  They tend, I think, to avoid the fundamental problem.  Adults are not children and therefore adults have a skewed idea of what children actually read.  Nor do they understand that children, even the cleverest of children, have a very limited mindset.

You can argue, for example, that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory defended slavery.  An adult might argue that the Oompa-Loompas are effectively slaves, and (at least originally) racist stereotypes.  A child wouldn’t know or care about the underlying issues – his mind would, hopefully, be swept into a world of wonder and mystery that combines chocolate with the sense that bad people get what they deserve.  (He wouldn’t care about the fridge horror in the fates of the four bratty kids either.)  Or you could argue that Dumbledore is a very dodgy character indeed in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (he left a one-year-old on a doorstep, for crying out loud) and the Dursleys are, at best, neglectful and, at worst, outright abusive.  Again, a child wouldn’t care about such details.  The whole story is more about a young boy who steps into a whole new world. 

One can also argue, if one wishes, that these books have little literary merit.  But that doesn’t matter.  The point is that the books appeal to kids.

But, throughout my schooling, I was frequently forced to read books that bored me, irritated me or generally frustrated me.  Bill’s New Frock was supposed, I believe, to teach us boys how different life was for girls.  I found it boring and silly.  Stone Cold was depressing as hell, as was Brother in the Land.  Oliver Twist (the condensed version) was interesting, but it was hard to draw a line between myself and Oliver.  The further the gap between me and the characters, the harder it was to feel for them.  Z for Zachariah started well, but grew harder to follow as the story progressed.  I’m not sure why I felt that way, at the time.  I do wonder, in hindsight, if it had something to do with the main character growing more and more feminine before things went to hell.  As an adult, I don’t blame her for crushing on the newcomer and considering marriage; as a child, it was just tedious. 

In some ways, I think that is an issue.  My mother had an old Girl Guide Annual I used to read.  The stories I liked best were the ones the heroine could be swapped out for a hero without severely altering the plot. It’s easy to say that stories about people who are different promote empathy, and perhaps they do, but it’s also easy to turn those stories into moralistic bore-fests.  It doesn’t help, I think, when people feel forced to read them. 

I think, judging by my experience, that young boys want exciting stories of action and adventure, not tedious lectures or inappropriate morality.  It is easy to blame Enid Blyton for not living up to modern-day standards on everything from race to gender roles, but Blyton died in 1968!  Her books are often simplistic and, looking back at them, it is clear there were aspects that could have been reasonably criticized even at the time.  And yet, what does that matter to a young reader?  Blyton’s stories have clear heroes and clear villains and even the more complex ones are still quite simplistic at heart.  They draw readers into their world in ways few modern stories can match.

Nor does it help when people over-think such matters.  Reams of paper and ink have been wasted debating ‘the problem of Susan,’ in which Susan Pensive is denied heaven for growing up, embracing her adult life and doing her best to forget Narnia.  Lewis is condemned for this by people who think too much and yet too little.  On one hand, Susan is not in heaven for the very simple reason she’s not actually dead!  On the other, more thoughtfully, the Narnia books were written for young boys and Susan, from the perspective of the target audience, is actually the least interesting female character.  She occupies the role of older sister, mother-figure without actually being the mother; she’s the kind of person a young boy would regard as boring, if not an outright opponent.  She’s neither the tomboy-type (like Lucy and Jill) nor the fascinating enemy (like Jadis).  She just is.

If you want young boys to read, you have to offer them books keyed to their interests and tastes – their real interests, not the interests you think they should have.  And that means acknowledging, right from the start, that those interests will be different from both young girls and adults of both genders.  Do not force them to read books that bore them, annoy them, or slander them.  Let them shape their reading habits so they develop their reading muscles, then proceed onwards to more meatier works.  I look back at some of the stuff I read as a kid and I roll my eyes.  Did I really read that crap?  Yes.  I did.  And it helped me develop the skills to read more. 

If you want boys to read, give them books they want to read.

21 Responses to “Why Boys Don’t Read (Enough)”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard June 24, 2021 at 5:00 pm #

    Amen.

    • Brian July 10, 2021 at 7:01 pm #

      I can’t agree more with your post or with the comments.
      What’s In It For Me? WIIFM.
      I find boys ask this subconsciously more than girls but merely more not exclusively.
      Math problems about apples and bushels as an example. One kid I tutored in math hated algebra and was failing. He loved basketball. I rewrote to problems as basketball stats and in one lesson he was turned around.
      I grieve for today’s kids.
      Too many parents don’t care or have time to care.
      Teachers are not allowed to go outside the lines and if they do get slapped down. They must either conform or leave.
      My sister’s was a public school teacher. They don’t let them take the subject books home. Never a library book.
      It’s not getting better.

    • Dan July 12, 2021 at 6:32 pm #

      I agree with an explicit premise: children will read books that they find enjoyable more readily than books that adults think they should like. But, I do not see that explaining the long standing differential between reading between girls and boys.

      But for this to be the essential reason for the differential between boys and girls reading, books have had to be written for girls. But, if we look back over the last 100 years, white boys are far more likely to take the dominant role. Yes, recently, some series have featured white girls. But, the mere idea of women oriented books in fantasy and SF created a backlash, with the Hugo awards gamed so only male authors were nominated.

      White males are about 25% of those under 20 in the US. Whites are about 50. But, outside of romance novels, we have more books written from a white male perspective (or with a white male hero), than female or a POC.

      Take the example of Harry Potter. The hero is a boy/male teenager, and 3/4 major supporting characters (Ron, Dumbeldore, Snape) are male. Classic sci-fi is made dominated, as are the major fantasy series of the last 20 years (e.g. Wheel of Time, Dresden File, Recluse), and are all at least implicitly white.

      So, white boys reading less than white girls must have a different cause. Socialization, and the expectations for boys and girls has long fit the bill. When I was interested in books and learning more than sports, I was mocked.

      And, the real solution lies with the family. Of the family I know personally, I’m the 2nd of 4 generations of avid readers: male and female. I’ll grant you my grandkids under 5 are not that big into reading yet (although they love being read to) but all three (2 girls 1 boy) over 5 are avid readers.

      My wife and I had a good strategy when our kids were growing up. They had to be in bed by a certain time, but were allowed to read in bed. Out of the 3 bio kids, 2 are now writers (one published, and one looking for his break in comedy writing while working a day job). My kids are passing this on.

      But, we didn’t treat girls and boys differently with regards to reading/writing. Since we are looking at a different outcome between boys and girls, it is just logical to look at how boys and girls are treated differently

      If one looks at avai

  2. CLYDE Thomass Poole June 24, 2021 at 5:05 pm #

    I enjoy reading and I attribute my joy to a librarian and the local public library that helped me pick out books that I would enjoy. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and on and on. Of course that was 60 years ago more or less.

    • randallberger June 25, 2021 at 9:16 am #

      Clyde … you and I are similar age and it was my school library that had a sci-fi section I devoured. I think I nearly read myself blind … certainly into glasses by 18 … starting with the 20+ books in the Hardy Boys series at maybe 8 or 9, then onward and upward from there.

  3. Derek Haig June 24, 2021 at 5:11 pm #

    Agree entirely. I read all the Just William books and the secret seven then moved onto G A Henty C S Forrester then to many others. I’m over 70 and have huge range of books both in print and electronic! Subjects range from serious history to science fiction and fantasy.
    None of the books that were required reading from school are amongst them.

  4. AC Young June 24, 2021 at 6:28 pm #

    Agreed.

    Some books the reader just has to force him/herself to finish – I suspect personal taste plays a part as to which books fall into this category. Some of those that I’ve read are, in my opinion, well worth reading (once). Other books are well written, well constructed, but just don’t fit the reader’s tastes. I’ve read some of these too. (Some, horror of horrors, fall into both categories.)

    To be able to read these, to even enjoy them (and to some degree a fair proportion of works falling into the above two categories can be enjoyed), I would suggest that the reader (of either gender) needs to have developed a certain amount of stamina. For starters I think that they need to have read, and thoroughly enjoyed, works that are at least as long. Introducing them to other works, works that others find enjoyable, may help as well – although forcing them to finish those they don’t personally enjoy is likely to be counterproductive.

    Perhaps gender stereotypes may help initially, but there are a fair number of adults of both genders who enjoy works that are stereotypically for the other, so at some point gentle prodding outside the comfort zone may be suitable.

  5. Robert Kaliski June 24, 2021 at 7:26 pm #

    My mother read to me and had me reading before I hit the 1st grade. We made weekly trips to the library to borrow another pile of books to read for a week. Say what you will about Amazon, I have a childhood dream of all the books in the world at my beck and call.

    Is it any wonder boys love action oriented video games vs being told to read certain books in school? First those books usually have some sort of heavy handed moral story shoved down your throat. Second, you take away their choice. Nobody likes to be told you have to do something. Video games drop you into a world where YOU are the master of your fate, not a passive viewer of the characters.

    Perhaps I was lucky that a friend of my mother gave me a set of science fiction books that really sparked my interest in reading. My interests, not some bunch of politicians who decided what books were “approved” for children. If the only sports I was allowed to watch were what the rest of the world calls football or snookers, my television would gater a thick layer of dust.

  6. peterrhodan June 24, 2021 at 11:37 pm #

    The usual problem of people with some power thinking THEY KNOW BEST. Something that is endemic in religions and common to most politicians.
    The crap i was forced to read at school was atrocious
    The Pearl – phht
    never finished it – asked the older brother of a friend for a synopsis to get a fair score for that book….
    I can’t even remember the others
    The only fiction I ever read at school that I remember and which I enjoyed was The Eagle Of The Ninth
    On the other hand I liked to read the Pendragon stories in my grandfathers Boys Own Annuals and Biggles Pioneer Air fighter
    I read my first Sci-Fi at 13 and that was all the fiction I have read pretty much ever since
    I can still name the first 5 sci-fi books I bought – Foundation, I, Robot, The Mad God’s Amulet, Days of Glory and some Arthur C Clarke thing that was horrible. (like most of his stuff to my teenage eyes)
    I agree totally with you, Chris. Give kids the things they want to read and they can progress to literary masterpieces later.
    (having reached a terribly depressing 63 years of age, I tend to still find many of the literary masterpieces are pretty ordinary in my humble opinion – a bit like Oscar winning movies)

  7. Warren The Ape June 25, 2021 at 2:45 am #

    I read a lot as a boy. But then again, I had teachers that read books to us in class.

    The Phantom Tollbooth, the first three books (published order) in The Chronicles of Narnia and Rabbit Hill in the fourth grade alone.

    Then I started reading on my own. John Christopher’s books like the Beyond The Burning Lands & Tripods Trilogy. Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Then later Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Alan Dean Foster (Splinter in the Minds Eye was the first adult-sized novel I read of his…also, I think, in the fourth grade. )

    I read so much, I got into trouble. I didn’t do my chores and one time my rather pissed off dad came into my room, saw me reading Dragonsdawn (paperback) and ripped it in half and told me to go finish them.

    So the copy I have now is the replacement one I got over thirty years ago. Of course, I re-read it on Kindle. It’s in a box somewhere from when I last moved. But I still have it.

    I know of other boys my age who got to read Playboy. They had to read the articles and then could look at the centerfolds. Their parents were desperate to get them to read and so resorted to that.

    Talk about moral hazard. I should have held out as one of the non-readers so I wouldn’t have had to stash my playboys under the bed.

  8. randallberger June 25, 2021 at 9:23 am #

    Terrific essay, Chris … I wholeheartedly agree. I also think not only did JK Rowling get an entire generation of children to read … including my three daughters … but also bring many adults back to reading. We were living in London in 2002 and I remember sitting on the train looking at all the people reading Harry Potter books with special adult covers! (I actually tested for one of the talking paintings in the second film!)

  9. Stuart the Viking June 25, 2021 at 3:11 pm #

    Chris, you hit the nail squarely on the head. Unfortunately, it seems like the pervasive attitude in academia, which casts a big shadow over the Library systems, is exactly what you ran into. The question they asked you wasn’t what they were asking. They weren’t asking how to “get kids to read more”. They were asking how to get those snot-nose little heathens to read WHAT’s GOOD FOR THEM! So any answer that didn’t include ways to make kids to read the books that they think kids should be reading is automatically wrong.

    Sadly, that way of thinking is the way the world is going these days.

    • Timothy A Schmidt June 25, 2021 at 11:05 pm #

      It’s not just these days. If anything the attitude you describe was even more prevalent in the past. I remember being forced to read Conrad (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim). They may or may not be classics but to a teenage boy they were boring in the extreme. Getting caught reading fantasy or sci-fi, Clark, Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley were my favorites, was a sure way to get in trouble.

    • randallberger June 26, 2021 at 12:40 am #

      I read all of these books in school. And in most cases swath movies! I read the reason TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was banned was because it made people feel “uncomfortable” … that’s the POINT!

      Randall Berger Actor, Writer, Celebrant 48 William Street, CASTLEMAINE VIC 3450 randall.berger@bigpond.com http://www.randallberger.com +61 418 598 239

      >

  10. Dale Switzer June 25, 2021 at 11:49 pm #

    You mention that you read things as a boy that you cannot stand now. My experience is similar. I discovered Zane Grey in 5th grade at my community library and read every western that he wrote. I can’t read anything of his now. In fact, in three books he makes a hero of the character Lewis Wetzel – one of the most truly despicable mass murderers of Native Americans in history. I read all of the Hardy Boys – again I can’t make it through them now. I read the Tom Swift: Boy scientist series. These are truly awful, awful books. If I were an adult librarian I would probably not want to stock them. But because they were in the library, I am now a voracious reader. Because Zane Grey and Joseph Altsheler gave me a love for American history, I can recognize that their historical interpretations were very bad.

    Adults are so intent to mold the opinions of children that they forget that our goal should be to develop their ability to think. I used to read all of my father’s high school “Literature and Life” books that his mother had kept. These books were written in the 1920’s and very strongly pushed a jingoistic Americanism. There is even an article in one of these books defending the plantation slavery system. Yet I did not grow up assimilating the OPINIONS of these books, I grew up with a love of reading and a love of thinking and understanding.

    The opinions of the culture come and go. The McCarthyite red scare of our parents turns into the McCarthyite cancel culture of our children. The idolization of Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver turns into idolization of Martin Luther King and Zimmerman, but the ability to think, organize information, and separate opinions from facts remains the same throughout the generations. It is these skills that we should be inculcating in our children instead of worrying about indoctrinating them into the dominate religious thought of the moment.

  11. Mark P June 26, 2021 at 8:12 am #

    In my lower years at junior school I was behind in my reading. It didn’t interest me.
    The school books were boring.
    In desperation my parents introduced me to sci-fi.
    I started with Clifford Simak, then E.E.(doc) Smith and Edger Rice Burroughs. After that I was hooked.
    You need to start kids with books they want to read.

  12. Gary W Blievernicht July 8, 2021 at 2:01 pm #

    During my elementary years, the school library went from basically a closet to taking over two classrooms and had a large increase in fiction books around my 5th or 6th grade. The books that launched my reading in SF, were Heinlein’s “boy’s books” and Donald A. Wollheim’s Mike Mars series.

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