Having covered the HEAVES of boy books it time to turn our attention to the four final points from my original “manifesto” toward making books more boy-friendly. Where the HEAVES were a bit more focused on narrative elements, the NONS are broader in that they address genre, style, structure, and language that often incorporate the previous elements in the HEAVES. So without any further ado…
Non the First: Nonfiction
Boys, in general, come to a point where they begin to prefer nonfiction to fiction. Some eventually return to fiction, some read fiction and nonfiction concurrently, and others never return to fiction. For many years when surveys were done of boys and their reading habits the only reading that was recognized was fiction; newspapers, magazines, and informational texts were not included as “legitimate” reading, and this message was telegraphed to boys who felt their interests were invalidated. But we’ve emerged from those dark days (we have, haven’t we?) and now solidly recognize that all reading is good.
Still, parents, teachers, and many adults seem surprised at how boys gravitate toward nonfiction, never questioning how they might have been driven there by what they find lacking in fiction. Does this mean we should simply give up on trying to sell boys on fiction, or can we look at what boys find appealing in non-fiction and see if it can be applied to fictional narratives?
The research on boys responses to school-based textbook narratives is interesting. Boys don’t seem to have a problem with textbooks but with the presentation of the material they find there. They prefer “storied texts” where information is part of the narrative, as one boy noted in Smith and Wilhelm’s Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys:
“There’s no emotion in textbooks. There has to be emotion if I’m going to care.”
Another boy said he looked for narratives that
“jump-start my brain”
I would think this would be good news for writers of historical fiction because it means they don’t necessarily alienate a boy audience with historical dramas, or with creative approaches to non-fiction, so long as it hits those emotional moments that boys like to feel without being told how to feel them.
It isn’t the content of the text that bothers them but the way it’s presented. Action is still the primary focus that boys look for, but they are more than willing to delve into serious historical stories provided they are given emotion and a solid story. Or as another boy in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys warns: “not enough action, too much description” will kill a story for them.
Of course, there’s more to nonfiction than narratives like biography or historical accounts. What about the information dumps like the Guinness Book of World Records or anything in the Eyewitness series of books organized by subject? While I’ve met some adults who assume these sort of books are appealing because boys don’t have the attention span for traditional fiction the real appeal comes from a hunger for information and a desire to learn something new or “cool.” Now couple this with their desire to see more emotion and their inclination for stories full of action and you get…
A mess? Not necessarily. It is easy to see how biographies and textbook narratives could gain from incorporating action and emotions, but it’s hard for fiction to compete with books that are often in full color and very visual… unless the author were to include colorful scenes with the same sort of visual impact. Oh, and lots of nifty facts, awesome gadgets, crazy machines, all drawn from real life.
Or not. As part of “jump-starting” a boy’s brain, big ideas can include the fantastic. Ray Bradbury was once asked about the interest kids had in his work (and I believe it was college kids back in the early 60s) and he said it was all because science fiction posed the questions that allowed his readers to ponder big ideas. The recent interest in dystopian fiction certainly is full of things that jump-start young minds to consider big subjects in ways they might not have otherwise.
I’ve talked to adults who found Neal Shusterman’s Unwind to be a dark, horrifying vision of the future with characters that could have been better written. The teens I’ve talked to who have read it talk about the issues the book raises: abortion and the right to life, politics, religious fanaticism, terrorism, and the pressure kids feel in trying to please their parents. Shusterman’s book would appear to be the farthest one could get to nonfiction, and yet the themes and issues it raises are squarely the serious topics of nonfiction.
Stories are full of opportunities to include factual details that are either exportable moments to be recounted later, or as part of creating an authentic boy character. I haven’t encountered a boy yet who didn’t like “sharing” bits of factual information or bigger ideas no matter how tangentially connected to the conversation at hand. Granted, boys don’t go actively searching a narrative for factual tidbits, but they are likely to remain more engaged if their desire for information in fictional narratives – albiet without too much description – was incorporated into their reading experience.
But we’re still left with the question: What, exactly, are boys looking for in nonfiction? Is it simply a case of throwing together a bunch of random facts, statistics, and trivia with lots of visuals? That will work, but the question remains: why are they drawn to this material? What do they get from this sort of reading that feeds their hearts and minds? The answers are fairly complicated, and while I might make a hash of it, that’s the subject of my next post.
Next week I’ll get to the topic that opened up the can of worms that eventually became Building Better Boy Books. That’s next Thursday, though I’m sure I’ll have something else to post here sometime between now and then. And as always, previous posts in this series are in the “Previously” section to the right and added to the page titles “@ boy books” at the top.