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Boys and reading - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Boys and reading
My boss sent out an article today about the widening gap between boys and girls as far as reading is concerned. (Here; you may have to register at the Washington Post if you haven't already.) I wish I couldn't confirm it, but unfortunately, despite our good luck in having a large group of boys who are happy and comfortable hanging out in the library, getting them to crack books is like pulling teeth... no matter what the book, at this age. Reading has already been designated, even by the smart ones, as something boring that they don't want their pals to see them do.

I'm very tempted to put several copies around the computers and ask the kids (girls and boys both) to tell me what they make of it. (ETA, happily, so far I've already gotten one boy saying, in front of his friends, that he reads, so the situation may not be entirely dire.)

I find it problematic that reading has decreased for everyone, but this extreme gender gap is very troubling to me. I have no intention of sacrificing one gender for the other's benefit, and focusing an effort just on boys would be very much against my deep-held personal belief (so would focusing an effort just on girls). On the other hand, I was a girl who liked all those adventure books and so on that psychologists insist on calling "boy books." I thought of them as "better books."

Which brings me to this line from the article, when they're discussing the kinds of books being published in droves at the moment.

According to reading interest surveys, both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an "issues" approach, and children are not interested in reading about ways to reform society -- or themselves.

So, obviously, this market is being driven artificially, by adults deciding what children should like... I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, as I'd rather have my non-existant theoretical children reading Edgar Allan Poe than R.L. Stine, but when there's an entire class of books that kids aren't going for at all on their own, how did it get to be the dominant product on the market? Are parents checking to see if their kids are reading the books they're buying?

Or, self-incriminatingly, are librarians?
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rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: January 27th, 2005 07:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Don't forget the evil summer reading lists in your calculations. There are some kids (girls mostly) who wallow in the problem novels, but by and large I see them going out in summer, when they have appeared on list after list after list after list...

litlefallofrain From: litlefallofrain Date: January 27th, 2005 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I started out responding, but found I actually have quite a lot to say on the subject, so I've made an entry on my own journal instead of taking up space in yours.

Thank you for getting me started though!
mafdet From: mafdet Date: January 27th, 2005 08:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
Summer reading lists are, IMO, a bad idea. It's not a bad idea to have kids read books over the summer; rather, I balk at the idea that kids ought to be required to read certain books, ones that they don't choose. What is the rationale behind assigned reading instead of letting kids pick? I figure that as long as they aren't reading porn or something, it's better to get kids reading, period, than reading certain "books of merit."

I know when I was a kid, we didn't have those horrible "you gotta read THESE books and THESE books only" lists, but I did read books over the summer, and most of these were fantasy and/or historical.

I think that requiring kids to read certain books instead of letting them choose is what kills the joy of reading for them, as reading becomes a chore rather than something to look forward to. Rather like feeding kids nutritious but dreary food like liver, plain boiled vegetables, etc. makes them crave pizza and desserts. Kids - boys and girls alike - would read IF they were allowed to choose. The huge success of the Harry Potter books is an example of that. Lots of boys love to read about Harry and his adventures. So what if the books aren't problem novels or deep, meaningful Litrachoor? Kids are reading! That's the important thing.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: January 27th, 2005 09:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
It is because somebody or other can't stand the idea of kids having a period off school without homework.
From: pyxidis Date: January 28th, 2005 05:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I think there is a place for summer reading in our schools, but not in elementary education. Children should be encouraged to read during the summers (One of the reasons I'm a fan of summer reading programs at libraries). However, I'm in agreement, that it become a burden on children so young to read books that they have little interest in reading. Even if their choice is not of the highest caliber, they are reading and refining their skills. Taste can come later.

At the high school level, I think it serves a good purpose. It allows teachers to give their students a broader education in the literature their students are studying. Did I always enjoy what I was assigned? Certainly not. I'm I glad I read it? Certainly. (Though, I was always one of those freak kids who could get assigned a book and really enjoy it.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 28th, 2005 05:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of out-of-class assignments anyway. And if the books aren't then discussed, then what's the point of it? I'd rather see a few good books read during the year and talked about in class than a dozen books looked up on Sparknotes and glared at when they're seen in a pile.

And I can't think of a better way to eventually get to classic literature than inculcating a love of reading by letting people choose the books they want to read.

I also can't help but note that the drop in reading that the article observes seems to have occurred roughly over the time period that summer reading lists became popular.
From: pyxidis Date: January 28th, 2005 06:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Theoretically though, I teacher should discuss it, and a good teacher will. Further, summer reading list in high school should be limited to the honors and AP students. These students should be dedicated enough to read and value the works. At that level the main concern should not be if they are having fun, (though hopefully they are) but gaining an good education.

Summer assignments are annoying, I never exactly looked forward to them, but I did them properly. (This may have to do with how I was raised--I was not ever allowed to read an abridged books..) I will recognize that I am a more educated person for it. It is a pointless exercise unless it is done right, and that I was I recommend it kept at the secondary level and among students who can be reasonably expected to take it seriously.

I'll always have an appreciate for summer reading, it forced me to read Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities, and Tom Sawyer, all of which I have reread on my own for enjoyment.
sofamiliar From: sofamiliar Date: January 27th, 2005 09:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I'm in my senior year of high school, and I've noticed that the guys at my (extremely small) school nearly all have some kind of reading they really enjoy. Some of it I don't care for (A certain friend is a positive Civil War fiend), and some of it I do. Maybe I just know somewhat intelligent boys, but it's especially concentrated in my circle of friends. We all have different tastes, but we all love reading in general and are constantly recommending books to one another and broadening our tastes. From what I've seen in the public schools and heard from my other friends in those schools, it's about the same.

I think reading is mostly a problem for younger boys, who, honestly, don't seem to have very much of an attention span anyway. If they can find one book that really hooks them, then they can go on to be great readers, but I think that if the parents, teachers or other adults around them don't try, then certainly the little boys aren't going to put away their Gameboy and beg to go to the library.

I don't know what it is about girls, but it seems that all the girls I've known all had something they liked to read, whether it was trashy romances or really good general fiction.

I think the thing is that girls have whole genres devoted to them, while I have never seen a 'boy series' in the young adult section. It could be supply and demand, but it could also probably be just feeding the problem.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: January 27th, 2005 09:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
I might be talking out of my hat here, but my impression from sampling that YA shelves at my old library was that even in non-problem novels girls are being catered to a lot more, even in (maybe even especially in) the fantasy genre. My three younger brothers are all pretty big readers, thanks mostly to the fact that my parents made sure books were the only form of entertainment at home, and that we had a lot of good ones, but I noticed that while my brothers enjoyed the "girl" books a good bit (they liked Little House, for example), they did tend to go a lot more for the action/adventure/fantasy type stuff starring male protagonists. They also got more heavily into military-type nonfiction at an early age; one of my brothers amassed two enormous series of books; one of these series had a book devoted to the battles of several different wars, and the other series was about different kinds of ships ("The Windjammers" "The Great Liners" "The Frigates" and the favourite, "The Pirates"). They also enjoyed the Flashman series when they were older - again, strong male protagonist, lots of adventure and history thrown in (OK, and a lot of gratuitous sex, but they were older).

I might have missed something, but the adventure story with a strong male lead is something that seems to be rather unusual now; that's one of the things that makes Harry Potter stand out; it's recent fantasy with a *male* lead. The other recent fantasy/historical series - the Alanna series, the Philip Pullman books, "Boston Jane", one-offs like "Ella Enchanted" and things like that - usually have a lovely, often magically-tlented girl at the center of them. Not saying that's a bad thing, but the new fantasy novels have, perhaps inevitably, developed a somewhat different style of adventure, one that might bore a ten-year-old boy. Also, as for problem novels, although both girls and boys dislike them, if anyone reads them it tends to be girls (I read them, mostly out of habit rather than dying to find out what would happen next). Also - not to be grossly stereotypical - girls do tend to be the drama-queen gender who are more likely in general to read books whose main theme is simply Oh-The-Misery.

I'm not endorsing that view that boys should *only* read about boy protagonists and girls should only read about girls, just saying that in their very young years (the best time to catch them :)) that's probably what they're going to want for the most part. Girls have a lot of admittedly-not-great series to start them off (anyone remember the Babysitters Club/Saddle Club/Gymnasts/what-have-you?), but boys are a bit lacking in what I like to think of as Preliminary Pulp. If there were a modern-day equivalent of Horatio Alger or G.A. Henty around, especially the latter, that might help. (God knows neither of those two was a literary genius, and it's almost impossible to read their stuff as an adult, but then, I doubt I could crack a Gymnasts book at this age either).
sonetka From: sonetka Date: January 27th, 2005 09:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Also wanted to add - getting the boys into military nonfiction might be a good way to start them off. Also, I realized that I forgot the Ender series in major boy-oriented books (though doesn't Petra take over the POV in the later Bean books? I forget).
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: January 28th, 2005 08:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's not that publishers don't try to cater to boys; in fact, publishers are constantly publishing books they hope boys will read. The fact is, boys don't read fiction as much as girls do. This is true even among adults - men are more likely to read the paper on the subway than a novel.

So you are seeing books with great female protagonists on the shelves because those are the ones that sell. The same goes for pulp fiction. In the last three years my company launched two paperback series they thought boys would like, and both tanked. Book publishing is a business, and publishers can't keep printing books that don't sell, nor can bookstores carry them. That's why a series like Harry Potter is the Holy Grail of children's books - both boys and girls read it.
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: January 27th, 2005 10:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
According to reading interest surveys, both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an "issues" approach, and children are not interested in reading about ways to reform society -- or themselves.

Is that from the same place that said that women don't really enjoy doing housework? *rolls eyes* Anyone could have told them that. I stopped reading children and young adults books in fourth grade. They're stupid. Give me scifi and fantasy from the adult section any time.
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: January 27th, 2005 10:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ok, edit to say that I did read four books and liked them and bought them about one parent (usually the father) stealing the kid and the kid going back to the other parent. Taking Tara Mueller was one, and there was another about a girl named Elizabeth. But that was it.

I don't know. Maybe Children/YA has changed in ten years. But in my library/book stores there wasn't anything I liked between Berenstein Bears and Star Trek books.
readerravenclaw From: readerravenclaw Date: January 28th, 2005 01:25 am (UTC) (Link)
I have to disagree with you on that point; I think that many, many, many children's books are very well written, enjoyable, and not focused on "issues" - at least not in the sense that you seem to be talking about issues. (All good stories are focused on issues - but good stories don't preach or moralize, or drive issues home with a hammer, and certainly needn't be depressing!) That may be the case for YA, but I couldn't say, as I've never felt the urge to browse the YA section; if I knew of specific YA authors who were good, I'd go and get their books, but for the most part, I stayed firmly in the children's section all throughout high school. It's possible that more recent books are more "issue-driven" than the older books, but that's one of the wonderful things about a library; there are more of the older/classic books than there are new/fad books.
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: January 28th, 2005 01:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I find your attitude interesting, because I've largely given up on adult SF & Fantasy in favor of YA books, finding the latter superior. [Mind you, I am mostly talking about YA SF & Fantasy, rather than the so-called "problem novels" that everyone complains about.]

I won't clutter up Fern's LJ with my reasons, but earlier this month I explained it in my own blog
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: January 28th, 2005 01:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Your post is interesting, but I think we're talking about different things. I don't have time to read new Scifi/Fantasy stuff. The newest stuff I've read was probably the lastest Orson Scott Card in the Ender series *shudders*. So, yeah, see where you're coming from.
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: January 28th, 2005 01:38 am (UTC) (Link)
And, scarily enough, I'm now seeing Ender's Game shelved in the YA section (I think they may actually have released a larger-type intended-for-YA version)
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: January 28th, 2005 12:33 am (UTC) (Link)
It seems a bit ironic that reading rates are going down so much and at the same time, you walk into the young adult section of any bookstore and are faced with several shelves of NEW! EXCITING! material. As a couple of people have already pointed out, the majority of the books are geared towards girls, which I think raises a bit of a chicken-or-egg question: are there more "books-for-girls" because fewer boys are reading, or are fewer boys reading because there are more "books-for-girls"? I mean, which trend started first?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 28th, 2005 12:54 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, the article says that the discrepancy has been around since mass publishing became common in the mid-1800s--it's just that there's been a very sudden increase in the size of the gap (though, notably, both girls and boys are reading less than they used to--I wonder if they're counting reading things like LJs and fanfic, though!).

The thing is, despite the huge surge in "YA titles," I haven't seen a big surge in readership of YA titles at work. There are a couple of YA writers (Louise Rennison with the Georgia Nicholson books comes to mind immediately, as well as Cecily von Ziegasar, with Gossip Girl) who are popular, and a handful of others have risen and fallen, but on five years experience, I'd have to say that the authors who tend to be wildly popular aren't specifically writing YA stuff. When I came, it was Omar Tyree this, and Omar Tyree that. Eric Jerome Dickey was the fallback position. Now, it's all about Zane. If I had a nickel for every pained look I've gotten from girls when I tell them that all the Zane books are out, I'd be able to pay off my student loans. Next year, it will undoubtedly be someone else. And of course, every six months or so, there's another run on A Child Called It. (:barfs:) (:hates on this book beyond all rationality:)

All of these are books that are passed around among groups of girls saying, "Ooo! This book is really sexy! You should read it!"... there doesn't seem to be an equivalent social thing among boys. Lots of Lord of the Rings requests when the movies were out (I'll give Jackson that), which is a good thing. But I don't remember a single instance of a boy coming to me in the last five years and being horrendously disappointed because I don't have something from an author that all of his friends are reading.

Erm, put that way, it doesn't sound like a bad thing, does it?
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: January 28th, 2005 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Erm, put that way, it doesn't sound like a bad thing, does it?

Hee... no, not really. Do you think that girls are, as a rule, more faddish than boys in areas other than reading? My gut instinct is yes, but that's possibly just because I am a girl, and I remember what girls in my high school were like, and I know what my sister and her friends are like, and I never really paid attention to what boys obsess over.

Another thought that's been chasing around in my head since I read your post earlier is something that was discussed in both my sociology class and my children's lit class last year: basically, the fact that childhood is an entirely socially-constructed concept. Before there was a whole subsection of literature devoted to children, kids read their parents' books, if they read at all. I mean, fairy tales/folktales have always been around but were originally intended to be enjoyed by everyone, not just children... and then someone decided that childhood should be a time for having fun, and then someone decided that kids should have books written just for them, so you have the totally didactic teach-kids-things books, and then you have Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll who thought that books didn't necessarily need to teach kids anything, and then you have... well, you know. And then childhood sort of got extended, because kids stay in school longer, and start careers later, and then somebody said "hey! now we have all these older kids, and they're too old to read children's books, but we don't think they're old enough yet for adult books..." so more and more YA books started to be written - so what's next?

Actually, this doesn't have anything to do with the original topic, does it? But I haven't been able to get it out of my head all evening, so I thought I'd write it out anyway...
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: January 28th, 2005 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Speaking as a voracious reader, I think that reading is still "uncool" for boys. Girls are "allowed" to be studious, but that cultural more hasn't opened up for boys yet.
coralia13 From: coralia13 Date: January 28th, 2005 05:26 am (UTC) (Link)
Hello! I hope you don't mind if I friend you - I have become quite attached to your stories on the SQ, and was very excited to see you have a LiveJournal (with more chapters of Shifts!!) Do with this as you will - ignore me, endure me, or friend back. Thanks for your excellent stories!
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 28th, 2005 08:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
The funny part is, those books circulate more or less without repackaging! (And of course, if the naughty bits were taken out of Zane, she'd be pamphlets.)
darkirony From: darkirony Date: January 29th, 2005 12:16 am (UTC) (Link)


When I go to the barnes and noble and see what is going on in the "interesting" young readers section (honestly the coolest stuff is there, not in the older persons fantasy and sci fic section) it doesn't look like the people makin' money think kids don't read.

In any event, my sister the librarian enrolls her son in book bowl. Nothing like a little competition to get things moving along. Also, she mentioned something interesting the other day. Many of the kids who are homeschooled, they're parents won't let them read anything except nonfiction. And sure enough b&n has a huge section of children's nonfiction. For me, this would have been death as a child when imagination is churning the strongest.

And yes, I borrow books from my 9 year old niece, I admit it. I even return them. My nephew keeps trying to get me into Redwall. I think the trick is trying enough times until something just clicks with the kid and then it will take care of itself. Honestly I don't read things I don't feel like reading; I'd expect a kid to be even less likely to.

From: st_sophie Date: January 29th, 2005 03:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Hi, Fern - I don't really post on livejournal much, but I have been following your journal for Shifts-related puposes ;-) and really enjoy reading your opinions on topics such as this.

In Australia we have a few series of books aimed especially at boys that are very popular - my mum is a grade 3/4 primary school teacher, and the kids in her class (and other age groups, up to year 9-10 in highschool) love reading these series and authors:

- anything by Paul Jennigs (http://www.penguin.com.au/PUFFIN/Catalog/f_catalog.cfm)
- anything by Morris Gleitzman
- anything by Terry Denton
- Tim Winton's Lockie Leonard series
- Garry Lyon and Felice Arena's 'Specky Magee' series, which is one of the most popular books apart from the HP series for kids to read, aimed specifically at boys.
- Any of the "Aussie Bites" or "Aussie Nibbles" series - which are extremely popular! ( http://www.penguin.com.au/PUFFIN/Features/AussieBitesKidsClub/library/f_library.cfm)

Most of these books aimed at boys revolve around sport, adventure, mystery and action. They have become pretty acceptable to read now in Australian schools, and heaps of kids are reading them, which is the most important thing.

~ Sophie
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