Writing books that boys want to read can sometimes feel as challenging as landing Mars robots. But recently America did just that, christening its two rovers with the very qualities that best define this discriminating readership- Spirit and Opportunity.
As an 8th grade English instructor, and a YA writer, I’ve observed the reading habits of readers who are more comfortable swinging a bat than turning a page. I’ve often wondered what drives them to put down their X-Box controllers, stow their skateboards, hang up their cleats, and stop surfing YouTube to select the wonderful pieces of literature they read in my classroom every day. It’s easy to say, “The teacher made them do it,” but those aren’t readers… those are skimmers. I’m talking about boys who will rhapsodize (if three sentences strung together counts- which it does!!!) about Ellen Hopkins, John Green, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, Darren Shan, Sherman Alexie, Anthony Horowitz, and Rick Riordan to name a few.
So what does it take to capture the male imagination? I spoke with Stafford Middle School librarian, Russell Puschak, who surprised me by observing that boys tended to gravitate towards topical non-fiction works as often as they did fiction. They are information driven readers when the subject interests them, such as cars, wars, technology, sports, science…. the topics are as unique and as varied as the individuals who read them. Good news in the wake of new Common Core Standards that emphasize the need for more non-fiction reading.
Gross out books, human interest stories, and sports pieces are perennial favorites for boys in instructor Jeanne Damone’s fifth grade classroom in Canajoharie, New York. The books are highly sought after and to the victor goes a prized spot on her orange “reading spot” couch where the other boys huddle, laugh, and discuss.
DiCamillo’s BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE, these gals command attention with their vibrant spirit and opportunities for adventure- key qualities in engaging all audiences, particular the male half.
Joshua Balan, a home-schooled seventh-grader, couldn’t agree more. He’s an avid reader who frequently purchases audio books so that he can, “play my video games and follow a (favorite) book series at the same time.” After getting over my initial
confusion, his statement suddenly made perfect sense in the context of his multitasking generation. Why wouldn’t he listen to a novel while IM chatting with internet videogame teammates, tweeting, Skyping, and checking his iPhone for texts?
Focusing on producing quality versions of audio books may be more profitable than we YA authors have imagined thus far… particularly for our male readership. Josh is an eclectic reader who is as likely to read a kick-butt action, fantasy series, such as ARTEMIS FOWL, as he is to enjoy the paranormal romance found in TWILIGHT novels. Josh looks for books that, “immerse you in the story… qualities that make you feel as if you are in the book.” In a sense, preferred reading is a virtual
reality experience for readers like Josh. And he’s not
Cody Fulmer, a high school junior and aspiring YA novelist, says, “I’m really in love with an engaging story that isn’t afraid to throw cliffhangers at me at the end of every chapter. I live for cliffhangers. As for the characters, I’d like them to be a bit…mature. I like when we can hear everything that runs through the character’s mind –whether they are thinking appropriately or not. It adds a sense of humor to the book. Censorship in a piece, to me, doesn’t make it
realistic. I think the YA author would really have to get into the mind of a modern day teenager to have that accurate description. If you can’t get directly into the mind of a teenage boy– you probably won’t sell well to that demographic. In short- it’s all about suspense and a relatable character.”
student, gives a book about five to ten pages before deciding to continue. If
he’s not drawn in by a relatable character, a compelling idea, or fast-paced action, he moves on, one of the reasons he prefers reading series to single titles. For Gavin, a series provides a level of reassurance that if he likes the initial book, he’ll have sequels he can count on enjoying in the future.
Boys are loyal readers and once fans of an author, tend to remain loyal. Take Ellen Hopkins, for example. Her lyrical verse novels would, initially, seem an unlikely choice for members of football and
soccer teams. Yet they, perhaps more than most, appreciate the high stakes her characters face. I’ve experienced the phenomenon in my own classroom and often find keeping her books on my shelves difficult given the demand.
John Green recently took the plunge in using a female narrator in his latest novel THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. When boys clamored for the new John Green novel, they couldn’t care less that it was a love story narrated by a cancer-ridden girl. What they cared about was John Green and the faith they’d developed in him as a master story-teller. One tried and true commonality of male readers is their willingness to stick with a particular writer once they’ve “discovered” him or her. Whether their tastes
tend to run to steam punk, science fiction, suspense thrillers, paranormal, fantasy, humor, military, or sports stories, all boys want the same thing: the
opportunity to find a writer who speaks to them.
Now it's time to get those fingers tapping; you’ve got a conversation to start!