Boys and Reading

Everybody knows that boys read less than girls, but the current trends border on a national emergency. If you're an involved parent, or a teacher or editor or writer who works with boys, you already know what a brand new report by the Center On Education Policy (CEP, on 3/17/10) confirms. Boys read less-certainly fewer "whole books"-and they score less on reading tests than girls: up to 16 percent in some states, and 10 percent on a national average. It's not that boys can't read (though clearly many cannot read well); they actually "hate" reading. How can a "stupid novel" compete with Warcraft 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV?

But it's not the fault of the boys-it's our general culture that's failing them. The implicit message from electronic games, movies, advertising, sports and television is that books and reading are for girls. Unfortunately, publishers, bookstores, and even authors themselves are sometimes complicit.

On a recent trip to New York City to meet with my editor, I had time to kill before lunch so I dropped by a big book store on Sixth Avenue. In the Teen Section of somewhere around 300 titles, 275 were obviously "girl books". Pink and foil covers. Chick-lit heavy on "gossip." Handsome vampire dudes. Fun mash-ups of authors such as Jane Austen, but also lots of well-written, often brutally realistic fiction that mirrors teen-girl life in the 21st century. For boys there were a handful of fantasy titles. Those, plus one shelf of middle-grade sports and adventure novels housed in the "Kids" area, a separate, brightly flowered section of the store that no teen boy would ever set foot inside. The problem here is significant: if there are no new, good coming-of-age novels for boys-a Catcher In The Rye for the 21st century -- then boys will never come of age.

Young men acting dumb and dumber is the prevailing modern metaphor across film and television, but in real life, a non-reading, stuck-in-neutral male population has dire effects at several levels. Males who don't read lag behind in many ways, but especially in terms of upward mobility. At present, for every 185 girls entering college only 100 young men join them; this might be great for freshmen guys looking to party but it's no way to be a country. Guys who don't read probably vote less, are more easily manipulated by bumper-sticker logic, and are less engaged in civic issues. They are not, we can generalize, the type of citizen the writers of our constitution had in mind to lead the country.

Three years ago, as an outreach to boys, I pitched to my editor a boy-book idea: a stock car novel for teenagers who love cars and hate their English classes (we are, after all, a NASCAR nation). He loved it, and we launched a series. My concept was Stealth Lit: catch boys' attention with racy book covers (of cars), hold them with good writing-with a main character who grows and changes. A few good books for teachers and librarians to hand to those boys who "never read."

To make sure that we got boys' attention, we sponsored a stock car team (a real race car) complete with a handsome teenaged driver, and supported all of it with a strong, integrated web presence. We visited schools across the country with our No. 16 "Bookmobile" in tow, but the series so far has not gotten great "traction," as editor described it-certainly not bestseller numbers that we had hoped for.

The bias against boy books in publishing has gotten so bad nowadays that my editor now reads manuscripts, he confessed, with an eye toward "re-gendering." That is, 'I sort of like this novel but what if the main character were a girl instead of a boy?' Books are, in the end, a business-which is why book stores don't carry much for teen boys, which means publishers won't publish them and writers won't write them. (I know authors who have caved in and "re-gendered" a perfectly good novel.)

Though the jury's still on out on our stock car series, my editor and I consoled ourselves that for now at least we were doing "God's work" for boys. But I'm sure that's cold comfort for him at editorial meetings.

Right now our publishing venture is supported mainly teachers and librarians across the country who are keeping the faith with boys. When I do a school visit, invariably a teacher will murmur to me, "That boy you just talked to? He's never read a whole book in his life-until now." Or, "See that kid? That's the first time he's raised his hand all year." It's the few and the brave-teachers, librarians, editors like mine, and involved parents -- who are, just barely, holding the line for boys. But it's going to take a national effort to get boys reading and thinking and involved-and we need to start now.

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