As part of my graduate residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts I needed to give a lecture to the faculty and my peers on some subject concerning children’s literature. After a comment by a classmate to “talk about what you love” I realized that I’d spent the better part of the last two years talking about boys, boy books, and boy literacy. Though I never really thought of myself as a boy advocate, it was clear that the subject hits close to the bone. And thus a lecture was formed.
For the next four weeks or so I’ll be breaking down my lecture into smaller, internet-friendly chunks. It won’t be exactly as delivered – I can’t keep from revising this thing! – but it will be close, at least in the beginning.
Part One: By Way of Introduction
While I’ll be writing here on behalf of boy books, and boy readers, I freely admit that aside from the biological definition of what constitutes a boy, I don’t know that the terms “boy book” and “boy reader” can even be adequately defined. You know a boy reader when you encounter one. You may have seen the species in action in your own homes or classrooms. Some of you might be surprised to discover that you’re married to one.
Despite this lack of concrete definition I still think it’s a vitally important topic of discussion. Boys have this knack for negatively demanding our attentions. They do so by insisting they hate books. They call attention to themselves with lowered test scores and decreased literacy. They behave in ways that almost seem calculated to goad writers and publishers into either dismissing them as an audience, or pandering to them in an attempt to win them over.
But they need us, desperately. They need our help in understanding that reading can and should be a vital and important part of their lives.
To be fair, authors need them just as much. If for no other reason than the fact that they represent potentially fifty percent of their reading audience. I sincerely believe authors write partially to reach the widest possible audience that their books deserve. How finite that audience is unknown, but there’s no reason to arbitrarily limit the possibilities by not taking into account the boy side of the equation.
There is currently a wave of “boyhood studies” that attempt to “correct” the seeming imbalances between raising boys and girls in Western culture. It isn’t my intention to reignite the gender wars here, I mention it simply to point out that these recent studies have given us quite a wealth of observations and data about boys. Out of this emerging research, some interesting information has come from observing the sort of things boys like to write. In research done by Ralph Fletcher in his book Boy Writers, Reclaiming Their Voices, it is noted that when boys write stories:
- Fiction tends to concern freedoms and powers the boy writer doesn’t possess in real life.
- The narrative is quick, but it does include reflection, primarily in how protagonists handle situations but not how the experience has affected them.
- The dialog is snappy, full of slang and pop culture references.
- The writing is cinematic, with the pace of an action movie or a cartoon, and full of sound effects.
- The work celebrates and solidifies friendship groups.
- And stories tend to be exaggerated, extreme, absurd, slapstick and silly.
But let’s be brutally honest for a moment: boys are a pain in the ass.
They’ll say they hate books and reading, and the next thing you know they’re driving books like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series onto the bestsellers list.
They’ll ask for something exactly like what they just finished reading, a beginning reader series like the Time Warp Trio or Geronimo Stilton, and then quickly lose interest because they’ve discovered and become bored with the formula.
They’ll read a page of grade-level text aloud in a halting stammer, then read the sports section of the newspaper as smoothly as professional television announcers.
The conundrum that is a boy reader is enough to drive any adult mad. Fortunately, boys aren’t so mysterious. There is enough information available about their preferences and predilections that we are able to put together a list of elements that boys respond positively toward in fiction that might help us understand them better. Some of these areas overlap, or have common intersections that might seem inseparable, but this sort of organized confusion is what we can expect when discussing boys and reading.
So let’s take a closer look at that wedge of the pie called “boy readers” and see what sort of things entice, engage, and retain this particular demographic. Or to put it another way, let’s take a look at what it takes to build a better, more boy-friendly book.
I’ve broken down my research into ten general areas and, in trying to organize them, discovered they break down into two categories. One category I call the NONS will come later, but first I’d like to discuss the group that is best organized as an acronym that is easy to remember.
I call them The HEAVES.
The letters H–E–A–V–E–S represent six common things boys tend to look for in their reading. No book should (though it isn’t impossible) contain all six of these elements, but any combination of these six areas when worked into a narrative can help draw in and retain boy readers.
So to begin with we have the letter H, which stands for…
Well, that’s probably a good place to break until next week. I think most people can correctly guess what the letter H stands for, but if you’d like to hazard a guess in the comments below you can claim bragging rights when I post Part Two of Building Better Boy Books next Tuesday.