Stalking the Elusive Boy Reader

Supposedly, one of the most-asked questions in children’s publishing divisions is, “Will boys read it?”  Will boys read anything?  Or only books that have “butt” or “fart” in the title?  Or only supposed diaries featuring kids with bad attitudes, illustrated by stick drawings?  Or only comic books (or, in their more literary manifestation, graphic novels)?

From what I hear, the answer is getting to be No, to all the above.  A recent article in the Washington Post on the “gender divide” in children’s literature raised all those points, plus a few that are supposed to be common knowledge, such as: A boy will not read a book with a girl prominently featured on the cover.  A boy will not read a book by a female author.  And so on.  Just as the psyche and physiology of the male is supposed to be more fragile in infancy and toddlerhood, his reading habits are also tenuous and must be shaped with caution.

Boys certainly differ in major ways from girls: more active, more concrete, more visually oriented (as opposed to verbally), more in tune with actions than feelings.  But they also sit, think, relate, talk, write, and feel, and need to expand their world through reading as much as girls do.  Some teachers and parents believe that if their boys read ANYthing, it’s better than nothing.  So Captain Underpants is as desirable as Treasure Island, if the hook of a suit-stripping, crime-fighting elementary school principal is what it takes for Johnny to pick up a book.  But I’m not so sure.

In my capacity as children’s book author I’ve visited lots of schools and signed lots of books.  Just recently I was featured at a Festival of Reading in Indiana, an annual event organized by a dedicated school librarian.  In order to attend an evening of games, prizes, and pizza, students had to read a certain number of books on that year’s Young Hoosier list, pass comprehension tests on the books they read, and maintain a good overall student record.  Over 120 students in the school met these requirements, and they seemed like perfectly normal kids to me–probably better readers than average, but only slightly fewer boys than girls.  I sold several copies of my books afterward, and of the two titles available, one features a girl prominently on the cover and the other gives equal space to a boy and a girl.  Almost as many boys bought these as girls.

I think boys (and girls) will do what we expect of them, as long as our expectations are both realistic and enforced.  Thomas Spence, of Spence Publishing in Dallas, agrees.  He also cites an interesting statistic: that there is no gender reading gap between homeschooled boys and girls.  I don’t know where that stat came from, but it was true in our household, where we never owned a television and kept strict time limits on the video games.

All that said, however, boys are generally less verbally-oriented than girls, and their reading tastes are different.  As time goes on, we at Redeemed Reader are planning to develop lists of recommended books, and one category should be, “Good for Boys.”  Not just classics like G. A. Henty, but contemporary novels that are long on action and short on “feelings,” with good literary merit and a worldview that, while not specifically Christian, isn’t destructive.

One author I can recommend for boys is Roland Smith, whose books include Cryptid Hunters, Tentacles, and Elephant Run.  Roland started his career as a zookeeper, moving on to research biologist, and eventually children’s author with over a dozen titles and millions of copies in print.  Boys love him, not because he specializes in titles like Tales of a Loser or The Day My Butt Went Psycho, but because he takes them on adventures to exotic places.  My favorite of his books so far–not that I’ve read all of them–is this one: 

PEAK, by Roland Smith.  Harcourt: 2007, 246 pages.  Age/interest level: 12-16

When we first meet Peak Morsello, he’s clinging to a sheer surface, making his way slowly up its rock face in the teeth of an arctic wind and a veil of sleet.  Obviously no amateur rock climber, he’s struggling toward a goal he’s set for himself: to “tag” this particular summit with his distinctive blue-mountain signature.  The last thirty feet are torture, especially after one side of his face freezes to the surface.  With an effort of supreme will, he tears it off and makes his mark.  Before he can take any pride in the accomplishment, however, a light beams on him and the rotor blades of an NYPD helicopter nearly blow him off the wall–the wall of the Woolworth building.

Nothing like starting off a story with a bang, and Peak scarcely lets up after that.  Not your standard-issue troubled teen, the fourteen-year-old title character nonetheless has some ambivalent feelings toward his mother and stepfather.  Toward his world-famous rock-climbing father, Joshua Wood, he hardly knows what to feel, since he hasn’t heard from the man since he was six.  But now that he’s in serious trouble, which could amount to three years in juvenile detention, Peak is stunned to see Joshua Wood show up his preliminary hearing.  Not only that, the man offers to take him out of the country in exchange for clearing his record.

Peak thinks he’s going to Thailand.  Where he ends up is Mt. Everest, part of Josh’s plan to “summit” the youngest climber ever and score invaluable publicity for his guide service, Peak Experience.  While recognizing his father’s mixed motives, Peak is not immune to the lure of the ultimate climb.  But complications develop with the Chinese army, an overbearing celebrity journalist, and–wouldn’t you know–a young Tibetan who seems like a friend but turns out to be a rival.

If you’ve ever thought about scaling Everest yourself, this story will give you a sense of what it might be like.  Smith has done his research, and the details shiver with authenticity.  The structure of a typical Everest climb creates some problems for the story, as there’s a lot of moving about between elevation camps in order to become acclimatized, and some of it gets confusing (at least for this reader) when trying to remember why we’re going down instead of up at a given point.  Also the two major Tibetan characters seem to lose their distinctiveness as the story progresses–or perhaps the mountain just mashes nationality and distinction into a freezing pulp.  Those are small quibbles, however; Peak is a great adventure, and certainly not the first by this author.

More books for boys?  Watch this space . . .

When thinking about what boys might like to read, don’t forget non-fiction.  Emily’s interview with Simonetta Carr on Heroes of the Faith might give you some ideas, or take a look at Newbery-Honor winning Heart of a Samurai.   Other titles we’ve reviewed that might be interesting to boys are On the Blue Comet, Lawn Boy, The Year Money Grew on Trees, 90 Miles to Havana, Escaping the Tiger, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

COMMENTS

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12 Responses to Stalking the Elusive Boy Reader

  1. Janie March 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    I love this–thanks, Julie!

  2. Julie Sprague March 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    Any book by Roland Smith is going to be read by boys. I teach 7th grade students ELA. I have all of Roland Smith’s books on my shelves with multiple copies OR I should say I do at the beginning of the year – right now I only have a few copies here and there and they are usually snatched up quickly. For the most part they never get back on my shelves because they are passed from reader to reader – both boys and girls.
    I believe that any book that gets one reader excited and interested can get another excited and interested. I also LOVE John Feinstein’s sport mystery series because there are a boy and a girl main character and the balance between sports and the mystery is perfect.
    When I suggest Little Women to my 7th grade boys, they balk until I add that it will help them understand girls. Then I have many who read the story. Remember in Friends when Joey read Little Women and bawled when Beth died.
    Boys will read just about anything that is written well and shared with enthusiasm. They love the Maximum Ride series and that is from the PoV of a girl.
    I don’t like the adage that we just get them to read with anything when there is everything out there that is quality and they will read.
    ELA teachers need to devour the books that are out there for their students and learn how to make recommendations once they have created relationships with their students. I know what “Joey” or “Jose” will like because I know them AND I have read the books I want them to read.

  3. Emily December 26, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    Thanks so much, Amie! We appreciate your kind words so very much, and we’re so grateful to hear that our work is benefiting your family. Merry Christmas!

  4. Amie McIntosh December 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Obviously I am reading this post years after it was created, but you referenced it elsewhere on the site and I landed here and took your review of Peak to the library and was delighted to find something new to engage my 11 year old son. Even better, HE looked up the author himself yesterday at a pre-Christmas library trip and checked out ALL our library had to offer. This is a HUGE step for a slower reader who is now reading late by flashlight and narrating plot lines and such. THANK YOU Redeemed Reader for excellent content that lasts! I have been very blessed by many reviews for my middle schoolers and am thankful for your thoughtful work. It has made the frenetic life of homeschool mom so much easier, and I am grateful!

  5. Valerie April 30, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Thanks for these suggestions. Looking for to the list! Our 8 year old son is an avid reader…started early and hasn’t stopped. We’re always looking for content appropriate books that will keep him interested.

  6. Marlo April 13, 2011 at 6:53 am #

    My boys love books — and my younger son is even reading Ramona books, which obviously have a girl on the cover (gasp). Interestingly, while we’ve been homeschooling since the beginning of their school careers, this year we put my oldest in public school in the fifth grade. He’s been participating in the Young Hoosier program and is one of only two males in that grade to complete the requirements for the trip. The other boy is his friend and was strongly encouraged by my son, so that he wouldn’t be the only boy on the trip. :) I agree that expectations and a love of reading at an early age goes a long way — as does the lack of opportunity for tv viewing.

    A Redeemed Readers reading list for boys with contemporary novels? That I am really looking forward to! Thanks for being willing to look beyond Henty.

  7. Alane April 12, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    Here’s another wave of encouragement for Aubrey. My husband loved to read when he was a school boy, but says he somehow lost interest as he grew into high school. He is athletic, loves the outdoors, and is mathematically-wired. He actually thinks in numbers, and his pursuits beyond grade school were all toward mathematics and business. I, on the other hand, was a literature major and teacher, and wouldn’t dream of a day without some poetic, historical, literary input. But now, in his late thirties, my husband has a renewed interest in words, and he reads more prolifically than I. He is the chief influence on our children’s love of language and literature. He’s making quite the comeback!

  8. Katie in Ohio April 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    Great article, thanks! Always looking for good reads for my 14yo son!

  9. emily April 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

    Love the cliffhanger approach, George. I’ll have to use that one of these days!

  10. George S. Whitten April 9, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    The solution is simple, and has been laboratory tested. Read good books to your little boy. He

  11. Janie April 8, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    Aubrey,
    Don’t give up! I know plenty of adults (both men and women) who only became readers in their late teens or twenties. But also, we’re all given different personalities and gifts, and some people just don’t seam geared to obtain satisfaction from words on a page. C. S. Lewis, in his book An Experiment in Criticism, claims that true readers (those who will choose reading over any other form of entertainment) are in the minority. Keep reading aloud to your sons and continue to set a good example, and let God do the rest!

  12. Aubrey in South Texas April 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Thank you for this! I am a fairly new reader to this site (via Challies) and am thrilled to see this topic!
    I am a homeschool mama of 6 children, 5 of which are boys. I have been a Read-Aloud fanatic since their infancy and continue to read aloud up to an hour a day. My husband reads aloud at least twice a week also. We read classics, biography, history (we use Tapestry of Grace), myths, LOTR, HP, everything!
    BUT, only 1 of my boys is a READER! My 15yo, 11yo, and 9yo boys read only what is required for school. nothing more. They only are allowed video games on Saturdays but they would rather be outside or playing board games. Only my 13yo son reads on his own.
    I am beginning to wonder if all these myths about boys not being readers is true! And, no Captain Underpants here;)

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