Why Don’t More Teen Guys Read YA?

The #YAlitchat on Twitter tonight was about men who write YA, but it quickly evolved into a discussion of why more male teens don’t read young adult. It’s almost impossible to have a nuanced discussion in 140 character snippets, so here’s my take:

1) Boys and girls develop differently. Duh, you say, but did you know that the areas of the brain involved in language mature in girls SIX YEARS earlier than in boys on average? Yes, really. So when we feed boys and girls the same books and teach them the same way, what do you think is going to happen? That’s right, boys get frustrated and turned off to reading. To be motivating, tasks must be both difficult and achievable. Reading that motivates the average girl to read more will cause the average boy to give up on reading, possibly forever.

2) Because girls’ language skills mature faster, and they become more voracious readers (on average), the YA publishing industry caters to them. Don’t believe me? Maybe literary agent Mary Kole’s opinion will carry more weight. The key bit? “When I’ve gone on submission with boy YA and boy main characters in YA, I have literally heard from editors, ‘Oh, we’ve already filled our slot.’ That’s right. A single slot. Some houses usually do one or two boy-centric YA books per season and that’s it.” I’m not saying this bias is wrong–it makes sense from a business standpoint. Heck, if I were working in a big six publishing house (or is it big five now, I can’t keep up), I’d look for YA books geared to girls, too. I’ve got three cats to feed here, dontchaknow. But it is a vicious cycle. Teen guys don’t read, so we don’t publish books geared toward them, so there’s even less for them to read . . . you get the idea.

3) What happens when the average teen guy doesn’t like reading? The strongest force in the universe kicks in–the need to conform. I can’t demonstrate the effect that has on guys any better than Shaun David Hutchinson already did. Here’s his conclusion: “I was careful not to read anything that could get me ridiculed. It’s possible that if I hadn’t already loved reading as much as I did, that I would have given it up completely. I know guys who did.”

4) Schools are contributing to the problem. (I’m generalizing here. No need to drive up from Floyd’s Knob to yell at me, Mr. Hankins. I know not all classrooms are the same.) Many elementary classrooms have been doing student-selected reading for years, first in the guise of whole language, now via readers’ workshop. This allows girls and boys to read books that fit their current interests and abilities, books they can feel successful reading, which in turn inspires them to read more. In my wife’s 4th grade classroom this year, for example, there were kids reading Nate the Great and one reading Eragon. (While the 24 kids in her classroom fit the general rule that girls develop language faster than boys, they also showed that exceptions exist. The kid reading Eragon? A boy.)

In high school, most classrooms do teacher-selected reading. So what happens when the kid who read Nate the Great in 4th suddenly hits The Brothers Karamazov in 9th? I don’t have to spell this out, do I? Saundra Mitchell pointed out this problem in the top tweet of the discussion tonight, “Girls already read tons of books written by men from men’s POVs. It’s called ‘every English literature class ever.’” Girls are more likely to be ready for the classics than guys, regardless of who wrote them. Thus girls usually don’t give up reading when forced to read stuff that might turn anyone off to it. Guys don’t fare as well, despite the fact that most “classics” are written by and about men.

So, boys get turned off to reading. How do we solve the problem? I think publishing houses such as Tanglewood Press that are explicitly looking to publish great boy-centric books are part of the solution. As are high school teachers such as Mr. Hankins who are introducing more student-chosen reading into their curriculum. What do you think will help? Let me know in the comments, please.

22 thoughts on “Why Don’t More Teen Guys Read YA?

  1. I think getting a stronger selection of reading materials for YA males is a good start. All of this Twilight stuff is good for getting girls to read, but boys need action, adventure, the sort of things that would really get them into reading, if it was offered. I’m not saying girls don’t need action and adventure genres because they do, but the offerings for teen males leaves
    them with not much for reading.

  2. Good take on the chat this evening. I am still pondering the guys’ reading deal. One person tweeted that he thought boys potentially read as much as girls, but boys just don’t talk about the books they read. Maybe…boys are less verbal and all that. Could simply getting guys to talk about reading help solve the problem? It’s an interesting thought. I can’t remember the last time a group of male teachers sat around and talked books, but my female colleagues and I do it almost daily. Maybe boys need to see men reading and talking about books more often.

  3. My 14 year old boy has read a handful of YA (Will Grayson, Struts & Frets) but now mostly reads rock star autobiographies (Life, Ozzy, Stephen Tyler) and Stephen King. I don’t interfere, I’m just glad he’s reading.

    The book I’m working on now is first person, 17 year old boy about race and identity. Some boys might read it, but it’s still a girl book. I don’t know how to fix this chicken and the egg issue. Do boys not read because there are no books for them, or are there no books for them because they don’t read?

  4. @Misha — That’s okay, we need great books aimed at girls, too. And many books transcend gender stereotypes; the whole boy vs. girl book is a generalization.

    @Jeffrey — I completely agree. Publishing more guy-centric books is a good start. But there also has to be a market for them.

    @Amy — Yes, guys are socialized not to want to discuss reading. I think that’s because the average guy struggles with reading (relative to girls), and so it become unpopular and that attitude persists into adulthood.

    @CJ Absolutely–lots of the best teen readers skip to mostly adult works like your son. I think part of the solution lies in our schools. We need more student centered curriculum in high schools, so that teen guys can read at a level that’s motivating and material that’s interesting to them. Which is more important, force feeding a diet of classics or creating lifelong readers?

  5. @ Amy – You speculate that guys are reading, but aren’t talking about what they’re reading. This is an interesting thought, and I appreciate your sense that they guys actually ARE reading. I’m thinking about the whole ‘talking’ thing, though. We know that girls/women talk through problems, talk about feelings, etc., but that guys often don’t. Perhaps one of the problems with school reading is that we (teachers) force/encourage long drawn out discussions. On the flip side, I know there are reasons for this: assessment, talking encourages deeper thinking, etc., but the talking we do about plot, characters, and motivations may exacerbate the problem.

  6. I have two thoughts, both related to reading materials. First, are we over-privileging books? I know that I have a tendency to do this, since I’m a book reader myself; also, many involved in this discussion are involved in the publishing industry – as writers. Do we count the internet or magazine materials that guys are reading? Is there a way to ‘count’ more of this material in our schools & libraries?

    On a related note, some of the research that I had to do for grad classes talked about the types of book-reading that men in a working class community were doing. In general, they were reading how-to books, like repair manuals, or biography & history – things solidly grounded in the ‘real world.’ In a previous comment, Jeffrey said that guys want “action and adventure.” I whole-heartedly agree – when my male 4th graders are reading fiction, the vast majority of them want action/adventure or sports themes. However, I have to wonder if some of my most resistant readers would warm up if I offered more ‘real world’ non-fiction. Hmmm, something to think about as I wander about used book venues this summer.

  7. Great post, Mike! My 8 year old son is a voracious reader, and my concern is how to continue to nurture this in him throughout his school years.
    I agree it is a vicious circle, though I understand the business aspect of it from the publishing houses too, but I think the danger is that it’s reinforced a universal perception of teen boy readers which is not necessarily accurate.
    I think the key is to keep boys reading whether that be music mags, sports mags or graphic novels. We don’t have to be ‘snobby’ about what they read, the important thing is that they are comfortable and engaged while reading, that it becomes a habit of a lifetime.

  8. Hi there – I’m new, to this forum, topic, and Twitter for that matter, so first, thank you for offering up some fascinating information for me to ponder. I’m considering writing fiction in the MG genre aimed at boys, so I’ll be doing a bunch of reading here, and in associated links. (I currently write non-fiction, and co-author fiction with my wife).

    Just one quick observation: I’m a biologist by training, and I have to say that I think people are giving far more credence to studies based on brain scans than are warranted by our current understanding of the brain.

    This is a constant problem in science, that a new ability to measure something can lead to innumerable wild goose chases.

    So, a new test that lets us detect, say, skin cancer at a level we could never detect it before can lead to what appears to be a sudden upturn in skin cancer rates, simply because we can now measure something we didn’t know about before. The same is true with all the new brain scans. Trying to boil brain development down to size, regional activity, etc., makes an awful lot of assumptions about how the brain works.

    Best, and again, my thanks for all the information on writing/publishing YA/MG.

  9. @Jo – I agree completely. It’s far more important, in my view, to create passionate and lifelong readers than to get kids interested in any particular form of reading.

    @Ken – thank you for lending your expertise to the discussion. It’s fascinating how little we know about how the brain actually works, isn’t it.

  10. I found this great post via twitter : )

    I come at my response below as a former middle school language arts teacher (10 years) and a current mother of two boys – one 14. In both roles I focused on making my boys readers. A tall but absolutely reachable goal.

    For boys to read a few things must happen:
    1. CHOICE is crucial. And not a crappy choice – choice filled with amazing books in all types of genres.

    2. They must be constantly reminded, by an adult they trust/admire, that they ARE a reader and they just haven’t found a book to snare them yet. There is a “snare” book out there for every human being – regardless of gender.

    3. This same trusted adult needs to have pointed conversations and find out what the boy likes to do with his free time. And find a book about it.

    4. Encourage graphic novels (the Bone series, Hugo Cabret, Diary of Wimpy Kid) because graphic novels ARE reading and serve as a tremendous gateway into print books – especially for my non-reading-boys.

  11. Excellent post. Man, I wish I’d been at the chat. I have a son who is, thank goodness, a big reader. At 15, though, he is pretty much out of YA, unless I bring home something that happens to catch him. He’s reading Terry Pratchett and “adult” sci-fi, on the whole. And, on the whole, I’m happy about that, but also NOT happy about the fact that I know there could be as great YA with male characters as there currently is with female characters, if only…and it’s that if only that’s the biggie. Like you, I can’t blame the publishing companies for going with what sells, but it’s not helping, that’s for sure.

    And, yes, what about those kids who go from Nate the Great (brilliant books, btw) to Dostoyevsky, as you say? I know a boy who, for his summer-reading for 6th grade, was assigned The Girl with the Pearl Earring. We don’t need to get into a debate about that book in and of itself, to just ask: What the heck does it have for a 12-year-old boy?!

  12. I don’t think it’s that guys are reading less, it’s that they are reading things other than YA. When I was in middle/high school I read all the time. I just didn’t read YA. Of course, YA wasn’t nearly as popular back then, but I chose to read things aimed at adult audience.

    For example, I was an avid fantasy reader. The GUNSLINGER and A GAME OF THRONES appealed to me a lot more than HARRY POTTER.

  13. @K.M. Great points! I wish I’d thought to mention graphic novels in my post. And non-fiction. I think stocking every classroom with a wide selection of great books, a teacher who loves to read, and promoting choice reading over whole-class reading would go a long way to helping solve this problem. It’d be good for girl readers, too.

    @Becky — I’m starting to wonder if most reading lists don’t do more harm than good. Why not simply ask kids to do at least 20 minutes of reading a night and keep a simple reading log? If they’d prefer graphic novels, comic books, blog posts, whatever, fine, especially in the summer, when we’re all usually reading lighter fare anyway.

    @L. Vendrell Yeah, I skipped to adult works about the time I turned 12, too. They had more heroism, realism, and sex than the YA available to me at that time. I think YA still suffers from a gatekeeper problem–what teenage boys want isn’t always the same as what parents, teachers, and librarians are comfortable giving them. (I’m generalizing here–some gatekeepers are more like gate demolition experts, which is great!)

  14. My own publishers (Angry Robot) started life as an imprint aimed specifically at post-YA young men – hence the name! They’re broadening their scope now (because of the large female audience that their more macho books don’t appeal to), but are still well-known for their gritty edge. Some of their horror is probably a bit too strong for a teen audience, but the SF&F is well suited to a generation of videogamers! As has been said, one shouldn’t be too “snobby” about boys’ reading tastes – getting them to read anything has to be a good thing.

  15. Hi Mike,

    Checked out that article linked by the NASSAPE. From the article itself:

    ‘Differences in brain size between males and females should not be
    interpreted as implying any sort of functional advantage or disadvantage. ‘

    All that study was able to show was that, on average, the gray matter volumes peak approximately 1 to 2 years earlier in females than males – and they think that puberty has something to do with it.

    Leonard Sax, one of the main NASSPE folk, has been called out a few different times for convincingly misinterpreting studies to further same-sex schooling. Here’s a link to one of these calling outs:


    I agree that schools and some of our socialization contribute to boys not being into reading. But to attribute these sorts of behaviours to biological underpinnings is beyond what science is able to justify right now.

  16. @Annelyle — Angry Robot sounds like my kind of publisher!

    @R.M. Lupo — Interesting article, thanks for linking it! I wasn’t aware of the sex differences in hearing acuity. I agree I made too simplistic an argument in the blog post above. Socialization and schools undoubtedly are major contributors to boys’ struggles with reading. But I think we would also err on the side of oversimplification if we assumed that biology had no connection to this problem.

  17. MIke,

    I just finished writing the 100 best children’s books of all time for Babble.com and saw more clearly than ever that so many of my selections had female protagonists. It concerns me – and I’m also irritated that folks still consider graphic novels to be less than narrative novels. I’ve just written a blog post which I’ll publish soon citing the thinking and strategies which readers use for graphic novels on Imagination Soup.net.

    As in most situations, if we want change we have to voice our concern — to the publishers, to the book sellers. Without our voices in unison, showing that we want more books with male protagonists, that interest boy readers, nothing will change.

    GREAT post. I loved all the comments so far, too.

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