I'm headed in a serious direction today that really has nothing to do with the stories I write, but is of concern: boys and reading. This is a long one, so bear with me.
Along about the third or fourth grade, boys begin expressing a dislike of reading that endures through their teen years. A lot of professorial research has gone into the why of this decline in male readership, but it’s not that difficult to figure out.
Boys will read if they’re interested in what they’re reading.
I have always enjoyed reading, but I did not necessarily enjoy reading what I was assigned to read, which was normally dry old novels written by chauvinistic, old men long since dead. But--and we’re going back decades now--put a Barbara Cartland bodice-ripper in my hands and my teenaged eyes were glued to the page.
Boys really aren’t that different. I should know; I have two sons.
When they were beginning that “chapter book” stage, our bookshelves were loaded with Magic Tree House series books by Mary Pope Osborne, Goosebumps books by R. L. Stine, and, a little later, the 39 Clues series.
My studious elder son preferred books of adventure, particularly the Alex Rider series by British author Anthony Horowitz. Immersing himself in the dangerous adventures of a teenaged spy sparked his own imagination, particularly with regard to the amazing gadgets that such fictional spies get to use. Dreaming of high tech machines and the capacity for destruction, he purchased and read magazines on firearms and supercars. Now a college student majoring in mechanical engineering, my elder son maintains an enduring fascination with high-end sports cars and modern weapons.
My younger son’s interests veered in a different direction. This is the boy who watched Phantom of the Opera and Auntie Mame with me. He enjoys fantastic tales of derring-do. The Redwall series by Brian Jacques, the award-winning Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo, and the Percy Jackson & the Olympians, the Kane Chronicles, the Heroes of Olympus series written by Rick Riordan occupied him for many hours.
I attempted to steer their book selections, but my suggestions were nearly always declined. That could have been because Mom’s an idiot--an attitude many children develop and maintain until they’re about 30 years old--or because I completely misunderstood their interest.
What puzzles me, though, is that my two boys showed no real interest in comic books. I’ve read articles proclaiming that, although they might be castigated as garbage and totally devoid of socially redeeming qualities, comic books often serve as the preferred reading material for boys. Comic books include all those features that modern psychology claims fascinates boys: vividly colored pictures, pictures of revealingly clad women with exaggerated thigh and mammary proportions, high adventure with often gratuitous violence, and concise text that still tells a full story. Perhaps modern video games have taken the place of comic books.
My sons bucked the trend in having no interest in reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, either.
Regardless of the age, boys like adventure. They like monsters, dangerous situations, and clever heroes who still fight like mixed martial arts masters. Some appreciate fantastic technology and futuristic science while others prefer science fiction and sword and sorcery. They also like authors that don’t “talk down” to them. Children eight to 18 may still be children, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid.
I have learned, though, that the surest and quickest way to shut down a boy’s--or girl’s--interest in reading is to tell him (or her) what to read and to turn reading into a loathsome chore. That practical observation is bolstered by testimony from high school boys and the researchers who actually talk to them.
That said, it’s a centuries-documented observation that boys lose interest in reading by a far greater margin than girls. In this digital age, males whose reading skills are lagging find their academic success hindered and their job prospects limited. In her article “Why Boys Don’t Read,” writer Linda Jacobson reports that boys and girls “approach reading in fundamentally different ways.” Girls read for pleasure; boys read for purpose. Put simply, boys want to learn something from what they read and be able to apply that knowledge immediately, whether it’s choosing the right skateboard or learning how to perform magic tricks or figuring out how to fix a transmission.
Other experts, Jacobson says, theorize that, because most teachers are women who assign reading that appeals primarily to girls, boys are further turned off by reading. That can be compounded if the boy’s father doesn’t read much, if at all, and his mother reads avidly. Boys then perceive reading as a feminine activity. I'll have ask my kids about that one.
The final nail in the coffin was been pounded into place by the lure of video games. A 2010 study titled “Effects of Video-Game Ownership on Young Boys’ Academic and Behavioral Functioning: A Randomized, Controlled Study” by Robert Weis and Brittany C. Cerankosky and published in Psychological Science showed a strong link between video game use and lower reading and writing scores.
Child psychologist and syndicated columnist John D. Rosemond isn’t surprised. In his February 2016 column, he observes: “Over the past five years or so, hundreds of parents have complained to me about teenage children who have difficulty getting out of bed on school mornings. Two observations are pertinent: first, at least 90 percent of these tales concern boys; second, nearly all of the boys in question have a problem self-limiting when it comes to video games and cell phones.” He firmly states that video games and other electronic devices are not only distracting, but addictive, and foment addictive behaviors.
The rationale that boys experience video games, especially role playing games, as immersive stories sounds good on the surface. Role playing game devotees state that the social storytelling aspect of the activity stimulates their brains “to process language, the cause and effect of events, and also relate it to our own pre-existing experiences,” according to Patrick Allan, writing for Lifehacker. Generally acknowledged, role playing games arose from literature, much of it very poorly written and drenched in heroic fantasy.
There’s a great deal of writing involved in role playing games. Role playing games require storytelling and, the boutique game developers especially require good storytellers. The interactive narrative offers an outlet for boys who have come to dislike reading and but haven’t outgrown their love of adventure and danger. Many of these boutique games involve lush, detailed graphics that further capture interest. Boys are visual creatures, you know. These stories can be set in times and places that may or may not exist, just like books. The interactive aspect involves the player and engages the emotions, just like a good book should.
Perhaps just as important as what boys read is why they read. If we can’t get them to read, then the what becomes irrelevant.