Ten amazing people agreed to tangle with the topic of gender in reading and writing. There was no science involved in my asking the folks I asked – they’re all readers and writers I know and admire. I thank them all for generously agreeing to participate in this blog panel “discussion.”
First I wanted to know what kind of readers our panelists were as kids, and asked them to share some favorite childhood titles, if they had any. Five panelists described themselves as “voracious readers,” one “omnivorous,” one “not picky,” and one as a “closet reader.”
Jerene Battisti, Education and Teen Services Coordinator, King County Library System: The books I read over and over were the Little Women series, Nancy Drew and the Black Stallion series. I then jumped to adult books, as teen literature did not exist.
Erin Blakemore, author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf (HarperCollins; 2010): [my] favorites included the newspaper, the cereal box, and pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Childhood favorites included the Little House on the Prairie series, anything by Louisa May Alcott and Paula Danziger, and some shameful dabbling in V.C. Andrews and Sweet Valley High.
Tyler Larson, Associate Producer HBO: I was a voracious reader, but not a big re-reader. Phantom Tollbooth was a big favorite. Hardy Boys books. The Louis Sachar books. Lloyd Alexander.
David Patneaude, author of Thin Wood Walls and the forthcoming, Epitaph Road (Egmont): I remember reading the classic picture books (Mike Mulligan, the early Dr. Seuss, etc.) when I was little; the Dr. Doolittle and Mary Poppins and Hardy Boys (and a sprinkling of Nancy Drews, who was basically Joe Hardy in a jumper) series when I got older; and Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury, the Flicka books, Horatio Hornblower, and The Man in the Iron Mask when I was older still. After that I pretty much started reading what was in my parents' library.
Nancy Pearl, author of the Book Lust series, book reviewer and action figure model: I picked my books out mainly by the titles or the subject, without regard to the author’s or main character’s gender. I remember how much I loved the Robert Heinlein books – like Red Planet or Space Cadet – and there are no girls in those books at all, as there weren’t in The Hobbit, Eleanor Cameron’s books about Mister Bass, and Mr. Pudgins by Ruth Carlson. But I also loved Caddie Woodlawn, The Saturdays, All of a Kind Family (all girls, there), and The Moffats, in which the main characters are girls. I think I liked identifying with a main female character (my reading during my childhood and much of adolescence was totally devoted to escaping being me) but it wasn’t the deciding factor.
Rodman Philbrick, author of Freak the Mighty and The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg: My favorites up until about 4th grade were books where funny or exciting things happened. There were older copies of both the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew in the house and I read them all as well as animal stories, including Tarzan, and a series based on the Uncle Remus folktales, which I absolutely adored. I even read ancient copies of the old Raggedy Ann and Andy series. Along about 5th grade I discovered science fiction, starting with The Mushroom Planet books and progressing to Bradbury and LeGuin. I was also drawn to historical novels, thinking of them as time machines. In particular I loved the He Went With explorer series written by Louise Andrews Kent (today she’d be writing a parallel series of ‘She Went With’ explorer adventures and those would sell better) and then began to read the much more adult Kenneth Roberts novels.
Jon Scieszka, Children’s Book Ambassador, founder of Guys Read and author of the Time Warp Trio, among other titles: I was a good reader, though we didn't read much in school that interested me. School was Dick and Jane and textbook readers. Dreadful. At home I loved Dr. Seuss, GO, DOG. GO!, Golden Book Encyclopedias with those cool maps and charts and diagrams, MAD magazine, war comics, CONAN THE BARBARIAN. . .
Joni Sensel, author of Farwalker’s Quest and The Humming of Numbers: I started with Dr. Suess books, went through a lengthy obsession with horse and dog books (both fiction and nonfiction), and then read all the books, such as Little Women, Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys, that had belonged to my mother when she was young. From there I moved into adult science fiction and fantasy. An all-time favorite is Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I was least interested in contemporary fiction, unless there was a horse in it.
Terry Trueman, author of Stuck in Neutral and Inside Out: I was very slow to take to reading books. I read comics and sports pages and magazines but never got into fiction in any serious way until I discovered Ian Fleming when I was 16 or 17.
Benjamin James Watson, author of The Boy Who Went Ape, illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson: I was a closet reader. I never told any of my friends but read like an addict, which I was. I loved adventures, funny stories, dog books, spy stuff. Wars and battles? Even better. Some favorites were Tom Sawyer, Jim Kjelgaard books like Big Red, Great Brain books, the Scriveners Classics like The Last of the Mohicans, James Herriot's books, The Wind in the Willows, Narnia, Lloyd Alexander's Taran books, Charlotte's Web, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
I next asked panelists to talk about the notion floating around that boys don’t read.
Jerene Battisti: I do not agree that boys don’t read. Some of my most passionate readers in the public library were boys and having been the Teen Participation Coordinator for YALSA, I spent a lot of time listening to boys talk about why they like or do not like a book, which was an amazing experience.
Nancy Pearl: When I was researching Book Crush (which mainly involved talking to kids I met wherever I was), the boys were reading – maybe not so much as the girls were, but still reading, and happy to talk about what they were reading. The books, though, did tend to be different – less family stories, more adventure, while the girls would describe reading all those family stories and the adventure titles.
Now the writers, ladies first:
Erin Blakemore: I think it's ridiculous to use blanket terms to characterize the reading habits of 50% of children. However, I think the notion arises because our entire society caters to boys in its way, while in my observation books are often a place where girls can explore narratives and genres that are "just for them" in a way that quality toys, cartoons, and movies aren't. However, my brothers were definitely what could be termed "reluctant readers"...until the Harry Potter books came out.
Joni Sensel: I think there are a lot of things competing for boys’ attention that they are biologically and sociologically programmed to prefer because those things are more competitive, more visual, more physical, or all three: sports, video games, and movies among them. That said, the boys to whom I taught martial arts did sometimes talk about what they were reading, and I’ve certainly heard from enthusiastic boys who have read each of my novels (including the one whose main character is a girl). So clearly there are at least a few boys reading a few books.
Tyler Larson: I've always kind of hung out with a literate group, so I don't think my experiences are typical, but I haven't seen more boys that don't read than girls. I don't think kids these days read enough in general... And during my brief time teaching in the NYC public school system (2nd grade and high school), I found boys and girls equally semi-literate.
Dave Patneaude: I don’t think it’s that boys don’t read, but from my experience and what I hear from other people, SOME boys don’t read, and maybe it’s the majority. Some of them maybe never will no matter what. Others are in that “reluctant” category, or maybe a better term is selective. Given the right story, some of these “reluctant” readers can be beyond enthusiastic. But maybe they only like Harry Potter and similar books. Maybe they’re sci-fi or horror fans. Maybe they like vulgar humor. Maybe they like sports stories. Maybe they to go the library or book store, on their own or under pressure, and can’t find anything in the only genre or genres they like. So maybe we have to write books they like and find ways to show them that the books are there for them. Girls tend to read more broadly, I think, but they can also have their definite likes and dislikes.
Rodman Philbrick: I would agree there are more devoted girl readers than boy readers. But then, devoted readers are probably a minority of the population, regardless of gender. My sense is that girls, being more socially adept, sometimes read in groups – a few close friends who share books and enthuse over them, which is great, and reinforces the importance of reading. This is much less common in boys. There seems to be a distinct lack of boys in the school library book clubs, at least those I’ve run across.
Jon Scieszka: It's not that they don't read. Research is showing that boys as a group are having trouble reading, and getting worse at it. And it's more than a notion. It's a terrible trend that is causing repercussions like the 60/40 high school graduation rate for girls/boys here in NY, more boys than girls in special ed classes, boys more likely than girls to commit suicide.
I've found boys in school frustrated that they don't get to read the books and other kinds of reading that interest them. They start to see reading as purely a school assignment, and so turn off to reading as a pleasurable activity.
Terry Trueman: I think a lot of research supports that. I think younger boys read but as they get past puberty and into their teen years, many of them fall away from reading.
Ben Watson: I don't think the competition for boys' attention and time can be ignored here. I think boys' reading has dipped because of video games. I don't think this should be underestimated. I grew up during the video game revolution. It is ADDICTING. Believe me. I can tell you way more about Play Station 2's 2000 NCAA College Football than my college Research Methods class.
Video games are a quick fun high, but they get old quick. I've seen studies charting the brain activity of kids playing video games. When they first are figuring out a game the creative, problem-solving parts of their brains are going nuts, but as they figure it out, that drops down to zombie levels. A book makes us use our creativity in a more long-lasting way, with more active participation. It takes some work but I think you get ultimately greater satisfaction and fun out of an incredible story.
I also asked our panelists about what writers can do to attract and hold boy readers’ interests:
Jon Scieszka: I don't think writers should change to write "for boys" or "for girls". That leads to all sorts of lame sexist storytelling. We need to keep pushing the good changes that have made a broader selection of reading acceptable. Graphic novels, science fiction, non-fiction, and humor should be seen as real reading.
Dave Patneaude: I don’t have a clear cut answer on what to do to attract boy readers. As authors, I guess we have to write books that attract them. What kinds of books are those? More to the point probably, what kind aren’t they? Quiet. Slow. Wordy. “Literary.” More tell than show. More sequel than scene. And probably sad to say, a girl main character on the cover. More on that later.
Tyler Larson: I think that proclivity towards reading is based far more on environment and personal preferences than on gender. However I do think there are societal pressures on boys to play sports and be "outdoorsy", and cultural/peer pressures on them to be good at video games. As much as I hate to say it, I think that licensed material often provides the best entry into broader reading. For example, Halo is the biggest video game franchise in the world, and there are licensed books that are published in the "Halo world." The same was true of high fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons back when I was in high school, and in the interim, the Star Wars universe made a comeback. It's a hard question though.
Ben Watson: You can't tell me that there weren't great books out there while boys' reading rates flagged. Examples: Holes, Golden Compass, Harry Potter! I think reading takes greater investment before you get that enjoyment and fulfillment compared to other entertainment. I do think, if anything, some of the subject matter of video games may be hitting a majority of mainstream boys' subject interests more than mainstream books have. Sports, ninjas, army guys, Grand Theft Auto. Maybe, Kirby, you can get started on a book about mugging old ladies? It's what they want and God knows we should give consumer kids exactly what they want.
I think graphic novels, comic books, and programs like Boys Read are all great ways to bridge the gap. Parents should read to their kids more. Turn off the boob tube, or limit it. As writers, or publishers, I think we can learn from what is working with video games. Make better, splashier book trailers. Funny ones. Maybe publish some more short story collections to reach the shorter-attention trained brains.
Rodman Philbrick: I assume that all readers are reluctant readers and try to give them a reason to turn the page. My credo: a lively story well told. Something to shoot for.
Jerene Battisti: Some boys are reluctant readers, but you can entice them with graphic novels, humor and great non-fiction books with high quality photographs.
Terry Trueman: Write intense stories with deeply sympathetic or at least real interesting characters and plot issues.
Nancy Pearl: I think people are reluctant readers because they haven’t discovered the pleasure that books can give them. I think in a way it has less to do with writers and more to do with the people who work with kids, like teachers and librarians. They/we need to do a better job finding books that have exciting plots and well-drawn characters, of both genders, for boys and girls to read. Obviously, kids (and readers of all ages) want to both find themselves and lose themselves in the pages of the a book, and if the character is somewhat like them, that makes the finding easier, while if the plot is compelling, that makes the losing easier. And there are lots of books like that out there – they just sometimes get lost amidst the dross that’s also out there. But I think that the majority of kids, like the majority of adults, regardless of gender, prefer books with lots happening in them. Sadly, “quiet” books no longer seem to make the cut, no matter the age group.
Joni Sensel: I think the story itself should dictate how it is told (and perhaps to whom). But to tell a good story that will engage as many readers (of either gender) as possible, in general I try to remember to:
• Keep the pace moving
• Write as visually as possible
• Include plenty of exterior action, with competition or survival issues as an element of the plot when feasible
Erin Blakemore: Good story still trumps all.
Tune in next time for discussion about, if there are such things, what boys' books look like and what girls' books look like.