“So, are all of your protagonists male?” a middle-aged woman asked archly at a recent book signing of mine.
I paused, defensive. “They are all male," I had to admit, "but that’s because I have two sons and can hear those young voices more clearly in my head when I write for children.” This is true – I do often listen to the boys and their friends as they prattle on in the kitchen, and try to capture their cadences and humor in my fictional characters – but it’s not the whole story.
I wished later that I’d confessed my underlying worry, which is that boys read less than girls do these days, and that they're slipping away in droves from reading altogether in favor of online gaming, video consumption, and smartphone distractions. My hope is that boys can be drawn (back) into reading by exciting, well-written, and relatable boy-hero action and adventure stories, and that’s what I try to write. But these are my perceptions based on my own observations and anecdotes from other parents, so I went looking for some facts.
Are boys reading less than girls?
There is a persistent literacy gap in children (aged 9 to 17) in which girls score between 5% and 8% better on reading assessments than boys, according to a 2015 report by the Brookings Institution. This gap indicates that boys read less well than girls, but are they actually reading less often? Common Sense Media, in a 2014 report gathering research on children’s reading habits, concludes that boys say they enjoy reading less and spend less time at it than girls do, though the split widens with age. The percentage of young people who do at least some reading 5 to 7 days a week is nearly even in younger children (about half of both boys and girls aged 6-8), but by the teen years there is a pronounced difference as girls almost double boys in taking time to read daily (30% to 18%). So what kinds of forces might keep boys reading in the early years, but then fall away as they get older?
Exposure to a dedicated librarian may be one key factor. “It’s so tough to keep up with them!” laughs Andrea Atkinson, school librarian at Meriwether Lewis Elementary. But keep up she does, taking book requests from the students, subscribing to the Junior Library Guild for high quality recommendations, and stocking lots of nonfiction for the boys. In her library, the unboxing of the latest book order is accompanied by rock-paper-scissors wars for who gets to read the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid first. She hosts library book clubs and finds texts to attract the guys, even when there’s a high gross-out factor. At a recent read-aloud of a Joey Pigza novel, “those boys were laughing hysterically,” she says. “They couldn’t wait for the next meeting.”
A specific ‘library period’ for students is less common in middle school, however, and disappears entirely by high school, and with it goes the librarian—a child’s reliable guide to interesting reading. Amid the increasing demands of sports practices and intense class workloads, boys may simply stop seeking out books as entertainment. Brad Heilman, father of four including three boys, says he’s observed a tremendous drop-off in reading between his 4th and 7th grade boys and his 11th-grader, who used to be a voracious reader. He points to the lack of leisure time as a culprit. “Between the extra work at school, sports, and the attraction of the cell phone,” he says, “there’s not much time left for reading.”
Undoubtedly these factors contribute to less time available for reading, but workload and extracurriculars should affect boys and girls alike, so what about what’s inside the books?
Heroes and heroines
A recent Huffington Post headline fumed, “What does it mean that most children’s books are still about white boys?” referring to the large-scale Florida State University study most often cited on the topic. Researchers there reported in 2011 that U.S. children’s books feature central characters (the ‘heroes’ of the story) who are more often male than female by a 2 to 1 margin, which the study’s authors describe as a “symbolic annihilation of women” in children’s fiction.
A close read of this study, however, reveals a different picture. The sample was limited to only picture books and easy readers released from the years 1900 to 2000. The 2 to 1 ratio refers to male/female references in the titles of books, whereas the ratio of male to female child main characters over the period was actually only 1.3 to 1, even during this long period of massive change for the roles of women in society. After 1970, smaller studies have noted a steep incline toward gender parity in main characters, reaching roughly equal representation by the early 2000’s.
The Florida State study hasn’t been updated for hero genders in 21st century picture books, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the pendulum has swung the other way for older readers. This year, for example, a weekly tally of the list of the top 15 New Releases in Children’s Middle Grade books (ages 7-12) on the popular website Goodreads typically includes between 10 and 12 books with female main characters. Another one or two books might have anthropomorphic main characters (often identified as male) and the remaining two or three feature human male leads. The balance is even more lopsided in the Goodreads list of Young Adult (ages 13-17) New Releases with an average of 13 female heroes out of every 15 books, week in and week out.
Why does this matter? A 2008 British study of the reading preferences of over 4,000 children aged between 4 and 16 found that the majority of girls like to read about other girls and the majority of boys like to read about other boys, an unsurprising result. However, while 22% of girls would be content with a boy main character in their books, only 5% of boys would choose a book with a girl main character. In an intriguing finding, boys were just as interested in having a robot or a monster main character as a another boy, perhaps indicating that their reluctance is not with girls per se, but with the types of stories more often written for girl leads (for example, stories about best friend relationships or boy crushes).
Setting aside whether or not this preference should exist in western culture, it’s a social phenomenon that parents and teachers do observe in their boys, especially regarding books that feature romance or “girly” covers. In the end, it’s all about being able to relate. If, as the Huffington Post article suggests with respect to girls, “[m]edia that distorts reality in these ways, and creates imbalanced pictures and ideas, hurts everyone,” then this logic should hold for boys as well, as it surely does for children of diverse ethnicities, abilities, and cultures. A balance between boy and girl main characters, particularly in books aimed at teen readers, could help stave off the slide away from reading that we observe in older boys.
A wider definition of ‘acceptable’
The international best-selling children’s author John Scieszka says another part of the problem is how boys experience books in middle and high school. He suggests that boys are asked to read books that don’t appeal to them (such as dry historical fiction or sad, slow dramas), and to delve deeply into their feelings about the books, which does not come naturally to them, and so they become turned off to reading. His website, GuysRead.com, is intended to “motivate boys to read by connecting them with materials they will want to read, in ways they like to read,” and has organized over one hundred “field offices” (Guys Read book clubs) in the U.S. and around the world. He calls on parents and teachers to expand the definition of acceptable reading materials to include boy-friendly nonfiction, humor, comics, graphic novels, action-adventure, and magazines, and to let boys choose texts they will enjoy.
Tim Carrier, Young Adult Services Manager for the public library system in Charlottesville, agrees. He says his job is to figure out what really interests young people in their lives, and to match that with a book they’d enjoy, be it mystery, adventure, fantasy, or nonfiction. He and his team spend lots of time organizing book groups and giving book talks at local schools, and they listen closely to what teen readers tell them. “It can be more challenging to find material to engage male readers,” he says, “and one question is whether we are able to see the validity in a wider range of reading materials, whether it’s a work of classic literature or a book on coding.”
Mr. Carrier’s open-armed theme of “validity” could be a useful lens through which all sides view the issue of boys and reading, and simple changes might make a big difference. Boys could take the time to look around and let their instincts lead them to material that captures their interest. Writers could achieve more of a balance in the audience to whom they are appealing. Teachers and parents can be more accepting of a range of valid sources. And a good librarian can open just the right door.
Chemaly, Soraya. "What Does It Mean That Most Children's Books Are Still About White Boys?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
"Children, Teens, and Reading | Common Sense Media." Common Sense Media. 12 May 2014. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. <https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-reading#>.
Loveless, Tom. "Girls, Boys, and Reading." Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. <https://www.brookings.edu/research/girls-boys-and-reading/>.
Maynard, Sally. Young People's Reading in 2005: The Second Study of Young People's Reading Habits. London: Roehampton University, 2007. Print.
Mccabe, J., E. Fairchild, L. Grauerholz, B. A. Pescosolido, and D. Tope. "Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters." Gender & Society 25.2 (2011): 197-226. Print.
Scieszca, John. "Welcome to Guys Read." GUYS READ. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. <http://www.guysread.com/>.