Of Saints, Sinners and Reluctant Boy Readers 

For many boys, reading is a chore. Ask any teacher, librarian or parent of boys and you’ll like get the same viewpoint – boys, more than girls, tend to be reluctant readers. Why? Better yet, what can we do to turn the tables around?

Let me offer myself as a case study. I don’t recall my parents or my siblings reading to me. We didn’t have many books in the house when I was growing up either. The books we did have were mostly practical ones – a set of encyclopedias, a dictionary or two, the occasional information manual, and an assortment of religious titles. Yet despite the lack of books and home-grown reading experiences, I became an avid reader.

Some of the credit goes one of the few books in our home, a thick, imposing volume called Lives of Saints. It contained dozens of short biographies about saints from every period of history – early Christianity to the present. From the age of 10 on, I spent hours reading and re-reading the book.

There were a number of reasons why the book became my favourite. The entries were just a few pages each, short enough to read in 10 -15 minutes. Although there were chapter headings, the stories could be read in any order. For a kid like me, this was a definite plus. No need to bookmark places or waste time catching up on the plot. Just dive in anywhere.

St. Sebastian by Giovanni Bazzi c. 1576

But the main reason I liked the book had more to do with the content than with the format. These were stories about heroes, people marked outstanding for their faithful deeds. While I enjoyed reading about saints with gentle natures like St. Francis of Assisi, it was the stories about martyrs from the early days of Christianity that I favoured. I cringed when I read about St. Sebastian who died gloriously in 286 A.D, his body riddled by a dozen arrows during a target practice ordered by Emperor Diocletian. I read faster when I encountered the story about St. Stephen – stoned in 36 A.D. – and re-read several times the entry about St. Perpetua – ultimately executed by a gladiator in 203 A.D. after being trampled and gored.

Looking back on my bloody fascination, I can see why I so loved those stories. I wasn’t a sadist in the making. I was just a typical boy, exhibiting the hallmarks typical of many boy-readers.

Action forward, life lived large …

For boys, action – not drama – moves the story forward. Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where over-sized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds. Even though my martyred saints died horrible deaths, they stood by their principles. They might have been footnote figures in history, but they lived life on the edge.

Feelings via action…

Perhaps it was a consequence of the dry tone of the writing, but in almost every story, feelings and emotion took a back seat to action. Saints stoically faced death. They didn’t flinch or wimp out. Research shows that boys are turned off by explicit expressions of emotion. They have an easier time accepting feelings if they are a result of action unfolding on the page.

Repeat, repeat…

That I gobbled up the book and revisited it many times demonstrates another typical boy-reader feature. Once hooked on a type of story, genre, or series, boys are likely to read more of the same rather than pick up something different. They’ll go full out on a theme, particular author, or style of writing, and perhaps even binge read before switching to something else.

MadalinIonut / Pixabay

In this day of video games and cell phone distractions, getting boys to read anything can be a challenge. If there is anything to glean from my early reading experience, perhaps it is this. To cultivate boy readers, let them satisfy their thirst for action and adventure. Allow them to wallow in lives lived large and extreme. Let them tackle quick reads before moving on to heavier, denser material. Let them binge on comic books or manga or books about dinosaurs and superheroes, or even martyred saints and the sinners who did them in, if that’s what it takes.

Allow boys choices and give them time. When it comes to reading, one size does not fit all.


  • realationaleric

    February 26, 2017 at 4:55 am Reply

    I read encyclopedias, reader’s digest, and the dictionary as a kid. Love what you say here Larry!

    • Larry Verstraete

      February 28, 2017 at 10:29 am Reply

      Thanks, Eric. Finding the just right material is so important. Whatever it takes, right?

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