This time we finish up the HEAVES…
It’s taken a while to get to the letter S, but that’s what makes this next point ironic.
S is for short.
And that’s all I need to say.
Last fall Roger Sutton, editor of Horn Book magazine, noted on his blog that young adult novels seemed to be increasing in page counts by as much as 200%. He later admitted this was a flawed method of measure as font size and page layout have a lot to do with the size of a book, and that word count would be a better rule of measure. The fact remains clear even to the casual observer, books have gotten larger and their word count has definitely increased.
There are readers, many of them boys, who will pick up that book and judge it by its girth, by its font size, by the amount of white on the page. As a former bookseller, if I had a dollar for every boy I ever witnessed fan a book’s pages as a method for deciding whether or not to read it, I’d have enough money today to buy a small publishing house.
Thomas Newkirk in Misreading Masculinity notes that, for many boy readers, “unless you are reading fluently in late elementary school, getting an assignment to read a two-hundred page book will just defeat you.”
Mind you, that’s not two-hundred manuscript pages, that’s two hundred final printed pages. With middle grade boys that means hewing closer to the 20,000 word range as opposed to the 30,000 or 40,000 words that has been typical for middle grade books.
Another reason for keeping things short: boys like to reread. Smith and Wilhelm in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys found that boys read the first time for plot and pleasure, and subsequent times to understand the mechanics of what is going on. This fits in with that whole phenomenon you may have observed of boys tearing things apart and putting them back together. For boys, a narrative is a puzzle that rewards their repeated efforts.
This is tricky because rereading is rarely done or encouraged in schools, where boys get a lot of their exposure to books. And parents will often discourage boys from rereading the same book over and over out of a fear that, somehow, rereading is bad for them (while at the same time complaining about the cost of purchasing a book that “will only be read once”). There is little authors can do about this problem beyond writing books so irresistible – and short – that boy readers will want to reread them no matter what anyone else tells them.
Consider finally that reading is a silent, immobile, passive activity. If you were to pick three traits to describe boys, silent, immobile and passive would not spring to the top of the list, and in fact are the polar opposite of boys. Many boys have even come to equate reading as a form of punishment, so they shouldn’t be tortured any more than necessary.
Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, short books.
Short is punchy and inviting.
Short is good.
Humor, Emotion, Actions, Violence, Exportability, Shortness. Ladies and gentleman, the HEAVES of books that are more boy-friendly.
This was where my original lecture concluded due to time limitations, but I had four more elements that spoke to what boys were attracted to in reading. As a group I called them The Nons because I was able to force the elements into starting with “non” but they are probably better called “Three Nons and an Un.” Despite the negative connotation of the prefixes, these four elements are, I think, perhaps the most unique ideas about what boys are drawn toward.
I’ll be slowing down with these final four sections of Building Better Boy Books, posting them here on the next four Thursdays. And as always, past installments are collected under the “@ boy books” tab at the top.