Boys Reading (updated)

Update with warning: Do not post spam here about your boy-friendly book. I am deleting all such comments.

One of the most gratifying aspects of meeting people who’ve read How To Ditch Your Fairy since it came out last September (in the USA) is the number of boys who’ve turned out to be fans of the book. I will admit that given the title and the cover I was expecting an almost non-existent boy readership. I’ve been told a million times that boys won’t touch a pink book and that HTDYF is irredeemably pink. So I’ve been dead chuffed by the boy fans.

While on tour for the book last year many parents asked me if they thought my book would work for their son. I was able to confidently tell them about other boys who’ve liked it. But really I can’t speak for all boys. (Or for all girls.) It depends on what kind of stories your son likes.

During a panel I did recently (at either TLA this year or NCTE last year)1 we panellists were begged by a school librarian to write books for boys. Specifically funny ones with boy protags that have no sex in them. (How To Ditch Your Fairy manages two out of three.) Now I had several thoughts in response to this request:

    1) I’ve never written a book to someone else’s specifications in my life and I’m not about to start now. I don’t even write them to my own specifications. My novels just go where they go.

    2) There are heaps of books like that already in existence and I don’t just mean the Wimpy Kid books.

    3) Why is there so much panic about boys reading? And such a strong conviction that boys will only read boy books?

I also get the feeling that we worry about “boy books” and “girl books” way too much. I talked with several twelve year old boys, who did not feel that their masculinity had been undermined in any way by reading How To Ditch Your Fairy. And, yes, I talked to several who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole even after I assured them there were explosions in it.

I think there are way more boys reading then get counted as reading. On tour I met many boys who read and not just novels. I met boys who love manga and anime who told me they didn’t read because they thought only novels counted. Boys who read non-fiction by the truckload told me they didn’t read because they thought only novels counted. Boys who read manuals and catalogues ditto.

Why do so many boys have the idea that none of those count as reading?

Does anyone else wonder if the panic about boys reading novels may be one of the contributing factor to boys not reading novels?

I am a passionate reader of novels but I do not thing they are the be all and all of the reading experience. Why do we keep trying to insist that they are?

I have no answers to any of these questions. Do any of you?

Update: I have shut off comments because too many people were attempting to spam comments with advertisements for their books. Don’t do that.

  1. Sorry I has very poor memory. []


  1. Herenya on #

    I wonder if people just assume that boys won’t read certain books, and boys are picking up on those assumptions and taking them on board. And then won’t look at certain books because the books “look” too … I don’t know, girly or something.

    My brother has read (and enjoyed) many, many books which perhaps lean more towards the “girl book” end of the spectrum – books with female protagonists and so on. He doesn’t care, so long as it’s the sort of story he likes. He has friends who are the same. (With some books, at least.) But a lot of them he wouldn’t have looked at if I hadn’t convinced him to. (Particularly ones with more girl-book-ish covers.) I used to have to often read him the beginning to prove that, yes, it was something he was interested in reading.

    So I guess my thought is that perhaps there are boys out there who aren’t disinterested in certain books per se, they’re just not aware of the books that they would be interested in. Because they’re put off by the covers, or the assumption that they won’t like female protags. Or the belief that guys shouldn’t read “girl books”. If no one has proved to them that there are really good books they would be interested in reading out there, how are they to know?
    Maybe books just need to be marketed at boys better? Because not everyone would have a friend/relative with a similar taste in fiction, throwing books at them…

  2. Cassandra Clare on #

    It was TLA! I remember that panel.

  3. Lisa H. on #

    I have three small boys. My 8-year-old was sent home several times this school year with notes about his reading level going up, up, up and how I must be doing a great job encouraging him to read. (And non-fiction, too. OH WHAT JOY) He just loves to read. His friends parents all want to know my great secret way of getting him interested. (The secret? I tell him about books I’m reading, with the idea that once he gets mature enough he, too, can read this fabulousness. Then he tells me what he’s reading, which at this point at home is mainly Star Wars books.)

    My 5-year-old says he can’t read. Or only “in his head.” And not “real books.” He can, and does, read just fine as long as he thinks no one is listening. I haen’t done anything differently with him than the 8-year-old. *shrug*

    My 2-year-old has just started reading, in that stumbly, memorized sort of way. He knows some letters and some words by rote. He’ll spend ages sitting with piles of books, even to the point of refusing to sleep unless one or two are in bed with him.

    These aren’t answers, I guess. But the schools are obsessed with boys reading. My boys do read. So I try to share the wealth a bit: I send kids home from my house with good books. Then I ask about them when they come back. It’s the best I can do.

  4. Tim on #

    As a 19yo guy going into a book store and asking by “How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier (That’s L-a-r-b-a-l-e-s-t-i-e-r!)” I have to admit I did feel a bit awkward, especially when I got the same guy at the counter each time who must have been wondering why I was so intent on getting this darn fairy book.

    I was, however, spurred on by a post you made not too long ago on the topic of “boy” books and “girl” books. In the end, when I finally got it, I also made a point of not being afraid to read it on public transport or when I was out places. I do, however, find this difficult with some books – particularly the very “pink” ones.

    Interestingly, when I was buying Paper Towns after it’s Australian launch, the woman behind the counter at the book shop had a quick chat with me about it. She asked me if I would recommend it to boys and girls – because she works with teens and reading. Having read the book it’s almost a silly question, it in fact seems more like a “boy book” to me than a “girl book” (If I had to pick a single gender), but because the cover features a girl people automatically assume certain things.

  5. Clix on #

    Our culture seems to enjoy dualism, much of it gender-based: Boys are rational. Girls are emotional. Boys are practical. Girls are imaginative. Boys protect. Girls nurture. Boys start fights. Girls start rumors.

    SOME of this can be seen as an extension of biology – for example, males tend to be more attuned to perceiving motion, distance, and direction, while females tend to be more attuned to perceiving shape, color, and texture (see Why Gender Matters for more).

    But dualism also shows up in the “us-versus-them” model. Either you’re part of the group or you’re an outsider. And since according to our culture, reading is ‘girly,’ (1) boys develop or are given ‘stealth techniques’ – they read on the sly, or they claim not to be readers because only novels count as ‘real’ reading, and (2) male reading habits are overlooked and/or ignored.

  6. Kevin on #

    As a boy I read many Nancy Drew books (and many Hardy Boys too). It didn’t matter that it was a girl book, what I enjoyed was that it was a mystery. Likewise, as an adult I’ve read and enjoyed many books by Elizabeth Moon, and I’m pretty sure that all her protagonists are women. What’s important is that the the story is one I’m interested in. And I’ve even read a few “chick-lit” books. So, easy to say but hard to do answer is to encourage boys and girls to find and read something that interests them. It doesn’t matter if its manga or comics, or Harry Potter or Twilight, or history, or literature, or even Romances.

  7. Jennifer on #

    There’s definitely a strong push, at least in my experience, that only reading novels/fiction “counts”. When I did my school visits to promote the library’s summer reading program this year, I made a point of telling the kids they could read “books, books from the library, books from home, books you borrow from a friend, magazines, graphic novels, comics, and audiobooks.” (Say that 30+ times and it turns into a tongue-twister!). I had a huge and positive response, especially for being able to listen to audiobooks, and I anticipate higher registration for our summer reading program!

  8. Steve Buchheit on #

    And now I have Dar Williams’ “When I was a Boy” in my head. Gotta go fire up the iTunes and get it all out.

  9. Patrick on #

    I didn’t even read this blog post. Does that make me seem more manly? I am manly. Manly Man!

  10. Shaun Hutchinson on #

    It sucks that this is an issue, but it is. I think that boys want to read and that the biggest barrier to reading is their own self-consciousness.

    I was a voracious reader in elementary, middle, and high school. I was always known for having books with me. But I clearly remember choosing carefully which books to take based on the covers. If it was a hardback, I’d take off the dust jacket so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed. We have to face facts: boys judge each other. If a 13 y/o boys is reading “How to Ditch Your Fairy” on the baseball field, it’s likely that he’s going to be teased. It’s stupid and it’s wrong and it’s a sad fact of life.

    I think that publishers need to take a more proactive approach toward getting books into boys hands. I think they’ll read anything that’s engaging, funny, smart, and that they can relate to, so long as it’s packaged in a way that’s sensitive to the fact that being an adolescent is tough. I mean, I think that’s why a lot of boys move into reading scifi/fantasy or non-fiction. Because those genres are seen as more masculine.

    I’m all for gender equality, but we can’t act as though there are no differences between boys and girls.

  11. Justine on #

    Shuan: Oh, sure, there’s a lot of that. I’ve had women tell me they were embarrassed to be seen reading How To Ditch Your Fairy so it’s not just boys and men who are embarrassed to be seen with books they perceive as overly “feminine”. You’re right, of course, the boys who won’t pick HTDYF up aren’t getting the message that girls’ books have cooties out of thin air.

    That’s part of why I was so thrilled to have boys show up to my signings and proudly read my books without being embarrassed. Gave me lots and lots of hope for the next generation.

  12. Diana Peterfreund on #

    It sucks that “girly” is a derogatory term, one that even girls like to shy away from. I got lots of emails from women saying they feel guilty for liking my pink-covered girly book.

    I am pleased at the number of boys who have enjoyed Rampant, which has a girl on the cover and has way more girl characters than boy characters. I think we might be taking the whole “boys won’t read girl books” more seriously than actual boys will take it, if given the chance.

    Oh, and those librarians out there looking for a boy book, about boys, that is funny and not about sex, try DULL BOY, by Sarah Cross. It’s fantastic!

  13. Laura on #

    I’m only speaking from what I see in my community, but the boys who use my library stop reading when they hit 12 or 13 – some even younger. We have a few teen boys who read manga or magazines, but it’s an enormous drop-off. And they are still hanging around the library and using the computers, so it’s not just that they’ve out-grown the children’s room or found new places to go. I don’t have answers for you – just wanted to say that from what I see working with urban teens, the gendered reading gap is very evident and very real. I hope that they are reading from other sources, whether it’s video game manuals or online texts or whatever they get their hands on. But I don’t see it happening here.

  14. Kirsten on #

    Whot Shaun and Laura said. This is why I include a fair bit of nonfiction like Toilets of the World and The Boy’s Book of Outdoor Survival and manga (shonen and shojo) with the novels. (And yes, HTDYF on this year’s list)

    Once you’ve gone through the experience of hand-selling a book based on the reader’s own previous books-he-liked, his access-points (Story, setting) and you hand the book to him, he sees the heroine on the book, pulls a face, and asks for something else, you get QUITE conscious of book-covers. And since I judged books by their covers Like Woah as a teen, I’m not going to judge–just adapt.

  15. Heather S. Ingemar on #

    Shaun: You’re not alone! I take the dust covers off all my hardbacks when I read them. I find it easier to read without the dustcover sliding all over, and then, it keeps the cover looking pretty.

    I think the idea that “only novels count as reading” is rather silly. Does that mean short stories don’t count? Poetry? News articles? Blog posts?

    C’mon people. Reading is reading. Words are words, no matter the format.

  16. Jude on #

    I just read a YA “chick” book that had almost nothing to interest me. I didn’t recommend HTDYF to any of my male students because even though I found it fun, I thought they might find it fluffy. Awhile ago, Scott posted a question about whether boys are reading the Uglies series. I bought the books that day and my sons and I loved them. I’ve encouraged lots of guys (and girls) to read them, and they’re extremely popular at my library. For me, as a librarian, part of the trick is knowing as many books as possible and matching the right kid with the right book. Almost no one, male or female, can resist the Percy Jackson series. I can think of 10 girls who would love that “chick” book that I found boring. Males at my high school read as fanatically as females.

  17. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Interesting, Jude. Especially since Uglies series very much has a girl on the covers.

  18. CC on #

    Though I love reading this blog- this is the first time I have commented. Thanks for a great post Justine!

    As the older sister of a ‘boy who reads’ and who English teachers loved at high school, I think that it is a question of matching the right book with the right person. (As the previous commentators have stated).

    My brother read (and still reads) a lot and broadly, including a lot of Manga and non-fiction. I was the one who told him to read Philip Pullman, Markus Zusak, Lian Hearn (he had loved Gillian Rubenstein in upper primary school) as well as Kafka and George Orwell.

    He is now at uni and did a literature class as an elective in his music degree and loved it, while I dropped lit after the first semester of my BA (though my PhD research crosses into the history of the book). He has also completed Ulysses by James Joyce, which I could never get into, and he reads a lot more poetry anthologies than I do.

    I probably read more as a teen and over all genres, but I think my brother might have read more ‘quality’ literature and enjoyed it just as much. That said- between the ages of 12 and 14 it was difficult finding the right book for him.

    My boyfriend, on the other hand, claims that he could not have survived high-school without Dickens, so it definitely depends on the boy.

  19. Amanda Coppedge on #

    I am a teen librarian and yes, it is frustrating how parents perceive reading. They have boys who will read any nonfiction book, juvenile or adult (sometimes far above their reading level) because it’s something they’re interested in, but they won’t read what parents deem “real books,” aka fiction, especially classics. And the parents totally don’t get it. I love it when I send a boy home with a stack of nonfiction (or graphic novels) he’s interested in reading, assuring the parents that yes, this counts as reading too!

    Kind of off-topic but one parent really ticked me off a few weeks ago, he was furious that his son would only read scads and scads of fantasy and sci-fi but he needed to read “real books” about realistic people, places and situations. I have to be professional so I couldn’t tell him what I really thought but I did say, “Wow, I think it’s great that your son enjoys reading so much. So many parents are frustrated because their children refuse to read anything whatsoever.”

  20. Trav on #

    I’m an eighteen year old guy, and I read what I think is interesting to me. On my to-read pile is Suite Scarlett, The Warrior Heir, Rebel Angels, Unwind, and Carpe Corpus. I don’t care what people think about me reading anything. I’m reading for my enjoyment, not theirs.

  21. Justine on #

    Amanda: Is crazy, isn’t so many people wanting to police what really counts as reading. Aargh!

    I’ve had quite a few teens telling me that their teachers told them that manga/fantasy/sf/non-fic weren’t real books and that they should be reading Dickens/Austen/Fitzgerald etc. Which pains me in so many ways. It’s all reading, people! Lighten, up.

  22. stacy on #

    My experience is a lot like what everyone else here has discussed. I can’t count how many boys I knew growing up who would pore over the latest auto magazine or ham radio specs, and nowadays there are a lot of teen boys reading and discussing things online.

    I think part of the problem of not recognizing boys’ reading (the nonfiction, magazine, etc. kind of reading) is that librarianship and publishing are dominated by women–and women *tend* (not always, but tend) to have different tastes than men (and the literati–and, interestingly, adults who don’t actually read themselves, probably because *they* were forced as teens to read boring classics nonstop–tend more toward the classics) and between those factors, we have a lot of people who think what boys are reading isn’t real reading.

    A lot of the reluctant reader programs that a variety of forces have put together in the last few years (I’ve seen many from publishers, libraries, and teachers) have done some good toward showing a larger audience that reading anything is “reading.”

  23. Jenn on #

    I got my best friend to read The Midnighters series, and he really liked them. But I don’t usually talk with boys about books, because most that I read for fun are I guess girly.
    But in response to your last comment, about people policing what counts as reading-this is a fight I have with my sister almost every day. She chastises me for reading books she claims have ‘no literary merit’. But so what if I don’t read only the classics! If you only read classics, you’ll run out of books to read really fast. Plus, there’s no stamp on the outside of a book that says, ‘This Book Has Literary Merit’ or ‘This Book Has No Literary Merit’. So I’ve read Twilight. And I liked it. I know it has a really low reading level, way lower than my reading level, but honestly, there aren’t that many books written at the highest reading level there is. I don’t always want to read books because I want to think really hard and read an extended allegory and then try to figure out every littlest bit of symbolism, down to (stuffy intellectual voice) ‘Why did the author choose to put that comma, there? What was the significance of this? Hmmmm?’ which is something I’ve had to do in my English class! It’s ridiculous. I read to get away, to focus on something else besides my own life, to be completely immersed in something else, which is why I read mostly historical fiction and fantasy. If I’m constantly dragged out of my suspended reality to look up the traditional symbolism of various colors, than for me, the book’s not doing its job correctly. And yes, sometimes I do like reading extended allegories (like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible), but other times I just want to hear a story. And I think it’s made me a better reader, speaker, and writer because of just how much I’ve read. Maybe Twilight doesn’t have ‘literary merit’, but it does have correct grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. So when my sister asks me how to spell something, what a word means, or if something is grammatically correct, she asks me because she knows I know. (We’re twins, constantly compared, and often read the same books for school or write the same papers.) I know because when I read, I pick up on that stuff, in a way that interests me, and isn’t that the best way to learn? To be interested? It’s the same thing in my history class. I know so much about history because I read historical fiction. It’s not always correct, but sometimes it is and I learn important things about culture and events from back then (especially when they talk about clothes!). I don’t see why someone would read as much as they can get their hands on.
    I actually read an essay on this, when I was taking the SAT’s yesterday. The author was talking about how people read to fulfill their needs, to escape and solve problems. He said he doesn’t just buy books from ‘respectable’ book stores, but from drug stores, and train stops, anything he can get his hands on. So what if they’re not ‘real’ books. He reads what he needs too. He also reflected on people reading certain genres, specifically he pointed out older women reading mystery. He reflected that they probably read it because it has so many older heroines, who are respected, and that’s what they would like to read about, because they see themselves in it, and want to be like that. My English teacher pointed out to me that I liked to read and watch TV shows about kick-ass heroines (well, he didn’t use those words exactly, but I would). And it’s true. Which is probably why the books I read are ‘girl’ books, they all have female main characters.

  24. Amber on #

    I can see I am a bit late to this discussion but I just wanted to add that I was told in my Adolescent Literature class last year that most boys will not read girl books, but that girls will read boy books. Now this is what I was told, but I believe teachers are led to believe that is true, whether it is or not. I also have to second the existing comments about schools and teachers regulating which materials count as “real reading”. Reading is done in everyday life, but in many schools it doesn’t count unless it’s a novel or some kind of esteemed literary work. Therefore even newspapers don’t count, at least it wasn’t until middle school at my school where we were taught how to read them. lol It’s really ridiculous.

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