Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Crisis With Boys Not Reading Has Nothing to do With Girls

We've talked about this before.  Boys aren't reading YA.  In some cases they're not reading at all.  Literacy amongst boys is down.  There aren't a lot of books in YA geared toward boys.  Maureen Johnson, who is a really awesome author by the way (I got Suite Scarlett on my Kindle as a free download and her writing hooked me), wrote a moving post about the issue.  It was countered by an equally awesome post by Guys Lit Wire.

I'm not as eloquent as either writer.  Go read those posts and then come back and read this.  Because I'm not going to add any arguments to theirs.  Both Colleen at Guys Lit Wire and Maureen, have put it out there better than I could.  All I'm going to do is tell you a story.  I'll be here waiting when you come back.

You're back!  Here's the story:  I remember the first time I became ashamed of reading.  I don't remember the exact moment I got hooked on reading.  I used to love staying home sick because I could gather a stack of book--Super Fudge and Ramona Quimby and The Great Brain and The Chronicles of Narnia and (my personal favorite) A Wrinkle in Time.  It just seemed to me that I was born with books in my hands and I was always proud of that.  My vocabulary level was far beyond my age group.  I was reading adult books in the 4th and 5th grades.  But it wasn't until 6th grade that I became ashamed of my love of reading.

I was sitting in class after PE.  I'd already changed and there were a few minutes left before the next period.  I loved those moments because I could sneak in a few pages without getting in trouble with my teacher.  I was reading Robert Jordan's THE WHEEL OF TIME.  Just about as perfect a fantasy novel as you're ever likely to find.  That's the cover off to the side.  His name was Matt Wheeler and I didn't hear him walk up.  He was bigger than me (almost everyone was back then) but he wasn't known for being a bully.  In fact, he was usually pretty decent.  Anyway, he stood there for a minute I guess.  I didn't pay any attention because, when I was reading, people usually didn't pay attention to me.

Then he slapped the book out of my hands so hard that the front cover ripped off.  I still have that book by the way, dog-eared and frayed and missing the cover).  He said, "What is that gay shit?" and kicked the book around.  I didn't see anything particularly wrong with the cover but I suppose the fancy lady riding the horse was a little odd.  I mean, no one was playing ball on the front.  Then everyone laughed.  The PE coach looked on but didn't do anything.  I fought back tears, grabbed my book, and shoved it in my bag.

From that moment on, I rarely read where anyone could see me.  I bought hardback books so I could remove the jackets and in some instances I tore the covers off to keep the boys from seeing what I was reading.  If I got to school early and was reading, the moment another boy came along, I put my book away and did nothing.  And I did my very best to choose books that didn't look like girl books.  I was ashamed to be seen reading.  Ashamed of being a reader at all.  I was already skinny and socially awkward and bad at sports.  I couldn't afford to do anything else to make it worse.  Reading made it worse.

Of course, I didn't give up reading; I was too in love with words to stay away.  But it became my secret habit.  At least for the rest of middle school.  In high school I gravitated toward other readers but I was still hyper-aware of what I was reading.  I was careful not to read anything that could get me ridiculed.  It's possible that if I hadn't already loved reading as much as I did, that I would have give it up completely.  I know guys who did.

So that's it.  That's my story.  Infer from it what you will.


  1. I have a soft spot in my heart for the kid that was mocked in school. I was one for many years; occasionally I still am today.

    While I'm sure it's harder for boys, this was a problem for me as a girl growing up, as well. Yes, girls my age were reading. Part of the battle won, I suppose. But in middle school they were reading Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Nancy Drew, or at best R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike. I finished reading those before I was out of 3rd grade. And I've always been a fantasy addict. I had moved on to Anne Rice and Stephen King by 7th grade. Everyone thought I was weird, creepy, and antisocial. Teachers repeatedly tried to "counsel" me, like I was disturbed for wanting to read different books from everyone else.

    But I think all of us have faced ridicule for our obsession with sitting in the corner alone and reading. I would put some responsibility on teachers and parents, especially fathers when we're talking about young boys, for breaking this cycle and making reading fun for both genders at all ages. One of my earliest memories is sitting in my Father's lap as he traced the words on the page in one of my books (usually the Encyclopedia) and that has stuck with me my entire life.

    Hopefully, we'll get boys reading again in the next generation. In the meantime, someone has to write some books for those boys to read when they finally come around.


    P.S. - Robert Jordan rocks my world!

  2. Urgh. Stories like yours make me so angry. Interesting that the teacher did nothing, though I wonder if it would've been worse for you if he'd stepped in. I'm glad you didn't give up, but sad for those who did.

    In a similar but opposite vein: I remember some of the male athletes at my middle and high school doing needlepoint in their spare time (cross-stitch designs of NFL helmets, of course). A coach had convinced them it was good for their dexterity. Amazing and wonderful that he could make a very girlish past-time OK for them, and the boys were confident enough to do it in public.

    Basically, I wish there were more great role models out there for kids. Reading's too valuable to give up under peer pressure.

  3. Thanks for the kind words about the GLW post and also for sharing your story. The covers issue is so frustrating for me because it seems so obvious and so easy to fix. I'd love it if cover designers actually had to beta test their covers with real readers (teens or otherwise). It would be so helpful for them to get feed back before these choices were made.


  4. TLH: Thank you for bringing up that girls experience the same treatment. It's not only boys who are ridiculed for the books they read. And I agree that what we need is a cultural shift, but I worry that while we're trying to change the way the world thinks, the kids in the middle are going to be left behind.

    Oh, and I loved Robert Jordan right up until about book 8. Then I got confused and decided to give up until the series was finished and I could love all the books at once. I was so sad he died. I'm hoping Sanderson can help end the series with the same amazing gusto with which it began.

    Shannon: I'm surprised you're surprised. There seems to be this notion (at least when I was in school there was) that bullying of that kind was part of the norm. As boys, we were expected to stand up for ourselves, learn to be men. All it taught me was how to hide the things that made me different and to use my wit to bring others down. Not the best years of my life.

    I LOVE that coach. And it does prove that if enough "popular" kids do a thing, it erases some of that stigma. So we should focus more than ever on getting boys to read because if enough do it, then the stigma will go away.

    Colleen: No, thank you! The hard work you and all the others do at Guys Lit Wire is fantastic.

    The funny thing about covers is that I pushed for a cover that my 14 y/o self wouldn't have been embarrassed to read, and I got one. It's gender neutral and pretty freaking awesome. The downside is that I often hear from girls that they'd skipped my book because the cover didn't appeal to them. I know it's probably cost prohibitive, but dual covers would serve teens well, I think.

  5. That's too bad, Shaun. I can completely understand however, how you feel.

    For most of my life, I've been what I'd call a "non-guy" guy. I'm not a big sports fan, I don't consider being a Master Griller something that should be entered into the Olympics, I don't believe in the practice of bikini calendars as wallpaper. Even though I have tattoos and ride a motorcycle, I am not really a part of those social groups either. I don't particularly fit in anywhere.

    Except for reading books. It may not have made me very popular to get in trouble in Algebra class for reading a book during lessons, but I did it anyway. At some point I decided I was never going to fit in anywhere and screw em all anyway. Maybe not the best way to handle it, but I was a dorky immature punk. Oh well. Great post Shaun, as always!

  6. You know, I don't have any notable experiences where I was bullied because I was reading (I spent so much time reading as a kid, I was a bit of a male Hermione. It was part of my identity), but I understand what you said about hiding the covers of things you were reading sometimes. I'm glad you still finished the book :P I stopped reading WoT around book 10 when the pace slowed to a crawl but I want to see how it ends.

  7. Wow I realize this post is 2 years old but thought I'd comment anyway. A very similar thing happened to me when I was on a big reading streak around 10-12 years old. I'd probably read 80% of the R.L. Stine books when a male friend commented that "those books are for girls". It's possible he was right in a sense; I had found that many of the books featured tons of female protagonists. But still, it kind of hurt, and just thinking about this I wonder if it had a larger impact than I thought. I only read fiction when it was required by school after that.

    As to that cover issue, that's one reason why I tend to buy hard cover (unless I'm being cheap) - you can always remove the soft jacket. Usually the hard cover underneath has only some embossed or shiny letters and a graphic or two. No artist's concept to ruin my imagination either. Also tends to make the books appear more mature. A good example of this is when you look at the Harry Potter box sets - the one for children has cartoonish drawings of the characters, whereas the one for adults is an all-black set with a photograph of an object on the front of each one.


Keep it clean, keep it classy, and jokes are always appreciated.