Ideas for Getting Boys into Reading
What boys DO like - a brave appraisal
To answer a question such as "What DO boys like to read?" is almost impossible. All manner of conflicting generalisations get in the way. For example, are we talking about willing readers or reluctant readers. Are we looking for books a boy will read by himself or books to read to a boy.
By way of introducing this section, I will blaze ahead regardless with a few point distilled from my years as a librarian in an all boys school. More detailed consideration and practical assessments of what we parents (and teacher) can do will follow.
* It is a mistake to believe that boys in general and reluctant readers in particular, do not like fiction. It is often the type of fiction presented to them that is the source of their rejection. On the whole, boys enjoy books which place action ahead of emotion and where what the characters do is more important that what the characters think or feel. Hence, the apparent preference for the action novel. These are the equivalent of thrillers and detective stories in adult reading matter. They often come in series to help marketing
* Boys tend to like books which match their image of themselves. They want to be able to identify themselves and what they would like to be and do. This is why books about characters engaged in sport have always held at least an initial attraction for boys.
* Unfortunately, many novels with sporting action and themes fail because they do not deliver what the boy is expecting. This is often the unrealistic hope that reading the book will be just like playing the game. Sorry boys - no can do. There is a fundamental difference between doing something and reading about it. Other boys are lost when the story does not go where they want it to go which is in a direction close to their own personal experience. Few sport centred novels live up to expectation.
* Boys love to have fun so they want books that are fun, that make them laugh and appeal to their sense of madcap mayhem. This is all tied up with their image of the quintessential boy and as much as boyishness can be defined and distilled, they love to find it in the books they read. Few writers are able to capture that "boyishness" in print.
* A significant part of the mayhem that boys love is poking fun at others, especially adults. Boys continually find themselves told to behave, to be tidier and less boisterous so books where the characters triumphantly break out of these restrictions are greatly prized.
* Boys have an image of themselves as anarchic beings bringing chaos to stultifying order, even when they are the gentlest and most amenable lambs you would hope to have in the house. Used cynically, this can serve to re-enforce the most destructive and dehumanising aspects of masculine stereotypes. Yet such cynicism badly misreads what boys are about. Yes, they love tales of subversion but this subversion is oddly true to a sense of justice and right. Boys will grin and cheer when the villain comes to a sticky or humiliating end but only when it is clear that such a fate is richly deserved.
Two Kinds of Book
Right, then. Down to business. To build a culture of reading around our boys, the first thing we need to do is recognise the difference between:
books for reading TO reluctant boys, and
books for reading BY reluctant boys
This difference is real and vital in developing a connection to books. It is as simply the difference between books a boy will enjoy reading by himself and books a boy will enjoy only when an adults read them to him. This is particularly important when boys are in middle and upper Primary school. Adults who have never been reluctant readers cannot recall a time when reading was anything other than easy and a pleasure. Such adults in particular need to understand this difference.
There are a number of factors involved. When the reading is the job of someone else, difficulty and in particular, the length does not deter a reluctant reader. Two hundred, three hundred pages - it does not matter as long as it is a great story. New words and sophisticated sentence structures are no problem because the adult will smooth the way for meaning.
When it comes to the content of a book, there is an unconscious understanding between adults and boys about what is expected and acceptable. For example, boys enjoy swearing like bullock drivers amongst themselves but never dare so much as a "bloody" in front of an adult. So it is with books.
In reading books to boys, adult and boys together can explore the emotional experience of characters. It is here boys learn that such elements are essential and valuable parts of the story rather than an interruption to the swift flow of events and since someone else is reading, they accept it (and take an understated interest in it.)
Robert Newton Peck's "A Day No Pigs Would Die" is about the son of a dying pig farmer in a strict religious community in Vermont. As a book for reluctant readers to try on their own, it would not be at the top of my list. The story takes place amid a culture many boys would find "weird," some of the colloquial dialogue is difficult to interpret and at times in this 180 page book, the relationships of the characters take precedence over what is happening. These are not qualities that normally entice reluctant male readers.
But if you read this novel to your son, a few chapters each night, both you and he will be immersed in the day to day struggle of a family you will come to care deeply about. At the end, you may well weep together for the sadness and the joy the book gives you.
What a human experience to share with your son. What a literary experience to encourage his interest in books and deepen his concept of what a story can do.
There are thousands of such books, a good selection appearing in List 6. Good and willing readers tackle them on their own. Unfortunately, for reasons of content and difficulty, reluctant readers will rarely do so. Yet all boys should gain access to these stories. They do love them, even if some may not feel able to tell you so. They serve a vital linguistic purpose also. A boy will find it much easier to read challenging works when he has heard more sophisticated sentence structures read to him and been introduced to a far wider vocabulary by such reading.
These are the books to read to your son, right through into upper Primary school and into secondary until he tells you he does not want it any more. With any luck, this will be because he would rather read it on his own. If he can and does, then you no longer have a reluctant reader.
Boyishness, Good Books and a Little Heresy.
What is a good book for a boy?
You might well answer this way: A good book for a boy is one that takes him to places he has never imagined and shows him things that dazzle his mind. A good book challenges him to think about the world and his place in it. A good book stands firm in the face of the stereotypes that society presses on him, drawing out the emotional experience of his humanity which he might otherwise deny and repress. A good book is a rollicking yarn that tweaks his sense of adventure and absorbs him so completely that he battles alongside the hero and rejoices in the final victory as if it was his own.
So much for fiction. How about this. A good book for a boy is one that provides the information his thirsty mind seeks and inspires him to discover more. It fascinates him and opens up the possibilities of knowledge. It expands his world.
Stop! Stop! Let's get serious here.
There are thousands of such books already in print and hundreds more published each year. Yet still reluctant boy readers are with us in grim battalions. So let's sweep away all the lyrical definitions of the good book that adults create and replace it with this simple statement.
A good book for a boy is one he wants to read.
The problem for many reluctant readers is that they are not being offered and encouraged to read the books and other reading material that they want to read. In short, the corner store is not stocking its shelves with what the customer wants to buy.
In an earlier section, it was shown that many boys are drawn into a masculine culture that is wary of books and reading. There is an underlying suspicion and discomfort, stemming from the association with the feminine and the "school-approved" which they have learned to disdain.
Yet, the reverse is also true. Some women and no small number of men in the roles of teacher, librarian and parent can be suspicious and uncomfortable with boyishness. By this I am certainly not chanting "boys will be boys" and defending oafish behaviour. By boyishness, I mean that innocuous immaturity best described by the old expression, "frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails."
Boys love the ghoulish, the gross and the disgusting. Yet how often is this allowed to appear in children's books? When it does, it is carefully sanitised so as not to offend adult sensibilities. Almost every title that has ever attempted to make story out of the messy, the uncouth and the horrible that so fascinates boys has attracted criticism or outright bans.
Paul Jennings' stories were initially dismissed as toilet jokes. Roald Dahl's "The Twits" was castigated for the nose picking and other filthy habits portrayed. Raymond Briggs' "Fungus the Bogey Man" was banned in some US States and a Principal I once worked under tried to ban "How to Eat Fried Worms" simply because of the title.
All of these books have achieved legendary status, especially amongst boys. They are all quite well written as well, yet managed to avoid "sanitization." Libraries and bookshops stock them with relish.
But there are many more books that fall outside the bounds of what is counted worthy. Series horror in the vein of the Goosebump phenomenon in the early 1990s are typical. These are formula stories, with at times ghastly and gory events described in their pages. Adults disdain them, even fear them.
Yet such books have managed to do what many teachers, librarians and parents have tried to do but failed. They have found the right wave length for boys. Boys actually want to read them.
So here is my heresy. The books we need to spark an interest amongst the reluctant reader may not be "good" books at all but books that do not rate well on the criteria of literary merit.
Should we fret about this? No. Here is an ever greater heresy. A story is words on a page. Reading it involves decoding those words to make meaning. Perceptions of quality are judgements applied arbitrarily on top of this. What adults value in a book is not necessarily what boys value in a book. It does not have to be the same, either, except in one vital aspect. If we are to address reluctance to read, both adults and boys must value material that boys do want to read. Adults must be prepared to let boys walk amongst familiar territory before they are asked to run amid the richness that the wider adult world offers. There is plenty of scope for that amongst the books read TO boys.
Am I saying here that we should immerse our boys in nothing but dross?
No, I am saying that when we are encouraging boys to invest their time and effort in something they have so far seemed reluctant to do, we should consult them sincerely about what they might actually want to read. Then there is a chance they will see that, hey, reading is all right, reading is cool fun, reading can be full of the stuff that appeals to them, makes them laugh, makes them recoil with the cry, "That's gross," and makes them quickly thrust the book under the nose of a mate with the words, "Hey, you gotta read this."
This is how we build a culture of books and reading amongst our boys. As they mature towards manhood, their fascination for the ghoulish and disgusting will wane but what will proceed into manhood with the boys is a culture of reading established and nourished through the years of boyhood.
In this, do we risk denying boys all the wonderful things books of high literary quality can offer?
No, not if we are reading the good books to them ourselves, at home and in the classroom. When the book is thoughtfully selected, reluctant readers love being read to. As noted earlier, once an adult takes over the effort of reading, a boy can sit back and enjoy access to more difficult texts which offer the "higher" qualities listed earlier. That is why reading to your son is so vital and why it should continue as long as he still enjoys being read to, even at twelve or thirteen years of age.
In the mean time he finds his boyishness identified and celebrated in the books he reads for himself. He reads them happily, books become a part of his life and his reading skills are constantly practised and improved, even though the quality of what he reads may not always meet with the approval of some. When the day comes for him to say, "Mum (or Dad), I don't want you to read to me any more," the reason will be because he is already reading books of similar calibre for himself. He will read such books, because his immaturity is falling away and he wants something more than mere boyishness in what he reads for himself.
He will read these books because he is comfortable with the culture of reading that has been built around him.
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