Writing for Fickle Boy-Readers

When it comes to reading, boys tend to be less than enthusiastic.  Ask any frustrated teacher, librarian or parent who is trying to find enticing material for the young male reader.  If that doesn’t convince you, check the statistics. According to the International Reading Association, 39.9% of boys surveyed called reading ‘boring’; 11.1% said the stories they were asked to read were boring; 7.7% said they just couldn’t get into it.  Compared to girls, boys spend less time reading, prefer activities like watching television or movies, and score a grade and a half lower on reading tests. For many boys, reading is ‘something that girls do’.

The reasons for the dismal record are varied and complex, mired in genetics, social stereotypes and environmental influences at home and at school.  For writers of material for young people, though, the news is a silver lining of sorts. The market is rich in opportunities for those who know how and what to write for the fickle boy-reader. Witness the success of series books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, proof that despite their lacklustre reading interests, boys can, and will become hooked if the material and approach are right.

Boy readerFor writers up to the challenge, here are a few things that turn on – and turn off – boy readers, and perhaps editors who are looking for marketable boy material, too.

Guys lead…

According to Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope? (Robert Lipsyte, New York Times, August 19, 2011) while girls will read books about boys, boys – especially teenagers – rarely read books with predominately female characters – at least not willingly or openly.  Whatever the genre, a strong male cast with one or more central male protagonists encourages boys to read further.

Go big, go bold…

boy adventurerCall it stereotypical, but it’s often true: boys tend to be adventurous, competitive, and risk-takers when it comes to physical pursuits. In Why Johnny Won’t Read (School Library Journal, 08/01/2004), Michael Sullivan says: “Developmentally, boys view the world as a place filled with rules and tools, and their job is to understand how it works in order to get things done.”  All of this plays out in the topics that interest boys – sports, dinosaurs and daredevils, mystery and adventure, magical and supernatural encounters.  Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where oversized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds.

 Action first, then emotion….

Just watch a group of boys at play. Roughhousing and competition are mainstays.  Feelings and emotions, meanwhile, often take a backseat. While girls find satisfaction in internal reflection, dialogue and passages that strike an emotional chord, for many boy readers this is a turn-off According to www.guysread.com/about/, “boys aren’t practiced and often don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction”.  To grab boys’, action and plot – physical stuff – should be front and center.  Emotions and feelings – the things we often associate with character development – can follow but as a consequence.

Fast and sure starts …

No tortured and slow beginnings for boy readers who don’t have the reading skills or patience for this. The first few paragraphs must capture their attention, and embroiling boy readers in action from the start is one way to win them over.

Add sensory jolts…

Boy brains function differently than girl brains, and that impacts the way that boys process information.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (Jossey-Bass, 2002) writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’ and to fully engage boys while they read, they need additional sensory input – a boost of sound, color, motion, or other physical stimulation.  Authors wise to this, reach boy readers by delivering extra doses of sensory detail.

 

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