Research has repeatedly shown that boys don’t read as much as girls, and there’s evidence to say this affects their performance in school. Why is this, and what can we do about it?
Pick up any leaflet on how boys and girls compare when it comes to their education, and you’re likely to read a common talking point: girls regularly outstrip boys when it comes to literacy rates. What’s more, according to the National Assessment of Education in Progress (and dating back well into the 1960s) the gender gap in reading extends across school life right up to the age of 17. Other studies, such as the 2010 Kid and Family Reading Report by Scholastic found that, even when controlling for socioeconomic status, girls were far more likely than boys (62 percent to 39 percent) to say they felt it was either “extremely” or “very important” to read books outside of school.
So why aren’t they reading? There are a number of theories.
One idea is that because schools tend to insist on teaching classic books over contemporary (for a number of reasons, including that classics are less likely to be challenged by “concerned” parents) boys may feel that books are hard to understand and of little relevance to their lives. Another theory is that girls’ brains are simply hardwired for literacy in a way that boys aren’t, though of course even if we accept this biological bit of determinism, we know that environment also plays an important part in shaping our behavior so this can never be a complete explanation.
Other theories suggest that boys gravitate more toward factual books, and therefore shun fiction. Despite there being some evidence to support the latter assertion, the number of non-fiction books aimed at children has declined over the last few years. Are boys refusing to read because there isn’t a wealth of material available to them? I’m reluctant to believe that. Pick up a Brandon Sanderson book and find near-cinematic battle scenes, enduring relationships and expert high concept storytelling that can rival any TV program or video game, and it seems hard to accept that there’s no contemporary material for boys. Or, is it that boys’ books aren’t as high profiled as girls’ books?
Author Jonathan Emmett has announced controversial research he has carried out which, he says, shows that the publishing industry is female dominated and that this in turn is leading to books being tailored toward more of a female market at the expense, he says, of boys’ interests. To support his assertion, he looked at 450 reviews of children’s books in five national newspapers to gauge what material was on offer, what publishing houses were releasing those titles, who was editing them and, among other things, the make up of book judging panels that are honoring the books.
Emmett says that 41 percent of children’s fiction were authored by men. However, tw0-thirds of all reviews were by women. He found the same was roughly true for picture books (for which Emmett himself has won awards), with 47 percent of the books being authored by men while 80 percent of reviews were by women.
You’ve probably already guessed at my main critique of this study. It relies very heavily on the notion that men and women’s tastes are so very different that this kind of disparity would create a significant shift toward female-oriented material over selections that would appeal to boys, and enough of a shift that it would therein deter boys from picking up picturebooks and fiction.
I think that female reviewers would take particular exception with the implication that they’re incapable of being impartial and judging the book on its merits simply because they are women. The same too with Emmett’s findings about how young fiction judging panels tend to be dominated by women.
However, some female authors have said they agree with the general thesis of Emmett’s work, saying that the fact that certain parts of the industry are dominated by women could mean a lack of sensitivity when it comes to generating fiction for boys and young men.
Even if you don’t want to indulge Emmett’s theory, there is another factor that Emmett raises that certainly deserves a mention: video games. Technological advances have meant that video games now have cinematic graphics and offer immersive gameplay, and what’s more they can play these expansive games with their friends, working toward common goals. While still offering engaging storylines, it’s a very different kind of storytelling to the solitary experience of reading. Books will have to be seriously heavy-hitting if they want to compete, then, and this is where some say that books for boys are falling down: they’re just not good enough.
While it is argued that fiction for girls and women is becoming more diverse, and even that women’s Young Adult fiction is currently undergoing a golden age, books for boys tend to revert to type. Pirates. Dinosaurs. Secret Agents. Cowboys. All these with lashings of moral tales about what boys should be when they become men. Is it any wonder, the argument goes, that boys aren’t reading if the books that are being hurled at them are often so, well, forcibly “manly”?
Those are just some of the theories, but what to do about all this? Sure, there are little fixes that can be made, for instance insuring that the industry is giving proper thought to how to engage with boys. Video game tie-ins, something that is already popular, might be one solution, and we might also find engagement by overlapping fiction and nonfiction books that have already proved popular among young boys.
Yet one really fundamental issue here seems to have been overlooked. When we talk about how to get boys reading, we do so by grouping them by gender, and I think that’s a problem. Just in the same way that we flinch at gender stereotypes when it comes to girls and their fiction, we should instead be encouraging a look at what boys as individuals want from their books and not relying on lazy notions of what boys should like based on their gender.
By abandoning the false notion of a Star Trek-like boy-Borg collective, we’ll get a more accurate picture of what boys are really looking for from their fiction, whether ultimately it is superheroes or high fashion, or whatever whets their appetite, and by doing so can start to get more young men loving what’s literary once more.
If you are interested in getting the men in your life reading, whatever their age, or are yourself of the male persuasion and would like a few suggestions as to what books might appeal to your various tastes, why not check out our Care2 reading lists:
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