Why, allegedly, boys ‘don’t read’…

J.M. Aucoin . Misc., Writing about writing 944 No Comments

Goosebumps by RL StineI was visiting the Passive Voice blog, as I usually do, and there was a post about why boys don’t read. Or, better put, why publishers think boys don’t read. It’s actually a post with an excerpt from another post… but I digress…

Maybe I’m old-fashioned (and I know that means I have the wrong beliefs and should probably be silenced now. Sorry, I’m a loud-mouthed woman who isn’t afraid to exercise my First Amendment rights). But I still feel that the story is the thing we should be concerned with and not the message. As I said earlier, folks won’t read the message if they don’t read the story. The corollary to this is: why is publishing in trouble? Because it forgot that readers, on the whole, read to be entertained and to forget about their troubles.

Don’t believe me, ask yourself why so many in publishing are trying to convince us that boys don’t read. Oh, I think there are those who sit in their ivory towers in NYC who actually believe that. Why? Because they look at the sales for their middle grade and YA books and see that the majority of those buying their books are girls. So, therefore, boys don’t read.

No, quite the contrary. Boys don’t read, on the whole, about sparkly vampires or angsty teen problems. They want stories that speak to them. Adventure and fun and characters they can identify with. (Sound familiar?) So they turn to other options, manga being just one of them. But the publishing powers that be fail to recognize that fact.

YA Bestsellers

Good luck getting a young teenage boy to read any of this…

I’m not really hip on the YA books since I don’t read them but the popular ones that come to mind are Harry PotterThe Hunger Games and Twilight, and only one of them (Potter) probably really interests 12-year-old boys. Hunger Games, maybe, since it’s got some action involved, but I’d imagine most boys that age want a protagonist they can really relate to.

Look at the current Top 5 YA Best-Sellers. 80% of them have a female lead and that fifth book has a male lead but is a YA romance book. The rest of the Top 10 isn’t much better if you’re a YA boy.

I know when I was that young I had trouble finding books that I liked. I hated the crap I was forced to read in school and by the time I finished required reading I didn’t want to suffer to find something that interested me. I did try Hardy Boys but those stories were too out-of-date for when I was a kid and I couldn’t really relate with the characters or stories. The Matt Christopher books were one of my favorites, but reading sports books got repetitive after a while. Goosebumps was high on my list that I enjoyed reading but I was sent to a Catholic school and they outlawed those books for reasons that are still beyond me. Maybe because Catholicism hates fun but that’s a different post for another time…

Point is, it was hard to find books that interested young-me.

It wasn’t until college when I discovered Rafael Sabatini’s work — Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk — and actually read The Three Musketeers did I find books that interested me. Romantic swashbucklers with high action, adventure, drama, romance, and a lot of fun. Kinda wish I knew that when I was younger but there’s a good chance my taste in stories were different, too.

But that’s what I aim for in my own writing — action, adventure, and fun. In college I wrote pirate stories (spoiler: still do) and everyone in my writing class looked at me in either awe or confusion as why I would write a swashbuckler. I loved it. And one of my classmates announced to the class that she read one of my short-stories to these two 12-year-old boys she babysat and they loved it. I wasn’t writing for an audience that young, but it still captivated them.

To this day that might be one of the best compliments I’ve received.

The Most Dangerous Game

The best

There are two stories that I was forced to read in school that I enjoyed — The Giver and “The Most Dangerous Game.” To this day “The Most Dangerous Game” sits as my favorite short-story I’ve ever read. And it was full of action and suspense. It also had a message that wasn’t beaten over our heads like some literature does.

Alas, the publishing industry isn’t one to take chances. They’re like modern TV stations. They want to keep printing what they know will sell and is hot until people get tired of it and move on. How many Harry Potter-like books came out after that series made it big? A ton. Now vampires/werewolves are all the rage because of Twilight but they’re not the type of monster stories that’s going to capture your average YA male. When I worked in a book store we sold more Halo books (based off the video game) to young boys than any other particular title or series. Action. Adventure. Explosions. Not saying all boys want to read that but it definitely is more in line with their interests than what’s out there. Alas, modern publishing companies don’t want to take a risk on stories that might interest boys because it’s been decided that they don’t read.

Not true. They just read different stories.

But they’ll never find out what works for young boys if they keep looking for the next-Twilight and not the first XYZ.

 

J.M. Aucoin

Author. Fencer. Sometimes actor. Full-time nerd. I write swashbucklers & historical adventure novels.
  • Karen

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    The thing we find in my high school is that boys like nonfiction; they want true stories, not “fake” stuff. Actually, _The Hunger Games_ is a big hit with the boys; most of them have seen the movie, and Katniss isn’t your typical “girl”…at least from the movie. I haven’t read the books, but I suspect that’s the case.

    Reply

    • Justin

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      What sort of non-fic are they into?

      I enjoyed ‘Hunger Games’ and agree that she’s a captive enough character to get both genders interested but I think those type of books are few and far between.

      Reply

  • Dan

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    Good post. When I was 10-12 I was reading The Lord of the Rings, David Eddings’ Belgariad, and lots and lots of “Choose your own Adventure” type books. LotR was the “serious” stuff, while “Choose your own Adventure” was pulpy and lots of fun, and Belgariad was somewhere in the middle. It’s total crap that boys don’t read. As you say, they need stuff that speaks to them.

    Reply

    • Justin

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      Oh man. I forgot all about the “Choose Your Adventure” books. That was another genre that my Catholic school banished from students because they said “it wasn’t real reading.”

      Basically I was stuck between reading books that bored me and not being allowed to read what I wanted at school. Yikes. How did I survive?

      Reply

  • Dan

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    Regarding the 12-year-old boys liking the story you wrote–I didn’t think about it at the time, but having beta-read one of your stories, I can totally see it. If the rest of your stories are similar in tone, I think that you might do well to categorize them as YA boys fiction. I think there’s a niche there waiting to be filled.

    Reply

    • Justin

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      Hmmm… yea, maybe. The three Hawking stories are pretty similar in tone. I use a swear or two in one of them I think. Not sure if that hurts the YA label or not. The novel I’m editing is probably a bit more adult in its themes and definitely in its language.

      I tend not to think of age when I write. I just go for the story I want to tell and whoever reads it and likes it works for me… be they 14 or 41. I think a lot of young adults/teenagers can handle “adult” stories anyways and swashbucklers lend themselves well to be enjoyed by multiple age groups.

      Your idea is definitely an interesting one. I’ll have to give it more thought for sure.

      Reply

  • Jack Badelaire (@jbadelaire)

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    When I was in the last years of grade school and going into junior high, I read a lot of Vietnam and WW2 memoirs, as well as Men’s Adventure novels like Able Team, Phoenix Force, The Executioner, The Wingman, and so on. Later, as I got into sci-fi and fantasy, I read a ton of Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Robert E. Howard, Dennis L. McKiernan, D&D media tie-in novels…well the list goes on and on. I read a LOT as a kid – maybe too much, honestly, because I was a bit of an introvert.

    But the point is, there is a lot of material out there that COULD appeal to boys, but I think a lot of it is supplanted by comics, video games…well probably mostly video games…and a million other distractions, but at the end of the day, I’m sure you can get boys to read. I have two teenage nephews who really enjoyed Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of Napoleonic adventures – those certainly aren’t Hardy Boys material, but I can guarantee you, if I’d found those as a teenager, I’d have read them all in a heartbeat.

    Interestingly enough, and a real compliment if I must say so, I was asked to give, and happily donated, my first two Commando novels to a high school library, because one of my readers felt that they were good “young men’s adventure stories”. As you say Justin, pretty high compliments indeed.

    Reply

    • Justin

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      Funny that you mention comics. I was talking to Kate about this and she’s like “sooo.. YA fiction is to boys like comics is to girls. Publishers say girls don’t read comics so they don’t print comics with stories/characters that girls would read so they don’t read comics.” Same with YA fiction for boys. It’s quite the tail chasing.

      And congrats on donated the first two Commando novels! That’s awesome. I think that series can be enjoyed by several age groups. That’s awesome news.

      Reply

  • Tom Johnson

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    Back in the day, Doc Savage was good reading for boys. Rick Brant was also pretty good reading for boys seeking adventure. I owned a bookstore for thirty years, and never sold a comic book to boys. A few girls did buy them. Most of the comic book buyers were men between ages of 25 to 50. For many years I think boys were more interested in electronic games, like the X-Box, etc. Personally, I would like to see more books aimed at young boys. Not the massive killing and sex machines in the men’s adventure stories like The Executioner and that genre. But fun stuff like swashbucklers in the Three Musketeers style. JMHO.

    Reply

    • Justin

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      Yea video games and comics probably hold their interest more. Then again, you look at that Top YA fiction list and it’s not hard to understand why.

      I’d also love to see more YA swashbucklers, but I’m also biased. It’d be cool if there were just story’s that got their interest more. And, of course, that varies greatly from kid to kid, but most of the stuff out there seems to not be doing it.

      Reply

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