Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tempting boys to read...

Much is often made of writing children's fiction to tempt boy readers. The general consensus is that they lag behind girls in reading volume and therefore reading (and associated) skills. We must write things that will appeal specifically to them in a way that boy readers in particular will enjoy. I'm not sure what that means. Maybe more action and adventure, or toilet humour and slapstick, more horror and science fiction, less girls, less narrative, more dialogue, and no crying, god forbid.

Recently I listened to a terrific speech by a wonderful, successful, well-published author. He writes great books. He said he wrote to tempt the boy reader. He also said he was surprised down the track to find that many (most?) of his readers were girls. And I can't stop thinking about this. Did this mean his efforts to tempt boys didn't succeed? Or that the books appealed equally to girls? Or appealed more to girls than boys despite the authors deliberate intentions otherwise? Or that girls will read widely and don't care what gender the main character is or whether the main themes are considered masculine or feminine or whatever? Or that girls will always read more than boys no matter what?

If girls will read stories centering around boys and 'their interests' in addition to stories focusing on their own gender, then why won't boys read stories centering around girls and their interests? Are we failing boys by not supplying enough of exactly what they want to read, or are we failing boys by providing exactly what they want to read. Have we made it impossible for them to pick up something with a pink cover, with glittery foil? Have we dismissed female protagonists as being beneath them or as not deserving of their attention? Maybe it's not the books. Maybe having a society that seems slightly apologetic about books and dismissive of the arts in general is the issue. As noted by Toby Manhire in the 9 January 2012 issue of The NZ Listener, our then Prime Minister, John Key, (in his contribution to a flyer for Otago's NZ Literary Heritage Trail), 'put the role of New Zealand art and culture in its national context.

"I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us." '

I don't think anything has changed since then. Books can never be as cool as the All Blacks according to the folk who set the tone for our attitudes. Representing your country in sport is cool. Winning an Olympic medal is cool. Books, hmmm, not so much. If only reading could be that cool. 

A few years back, I read or heard someone comment that it was wrong to have your young male character cry during the course of your novel. Because boys didn't cry and this would render the character less credible in the eyes of young male readers. When I first read/heard it I worried about all the young male protagonists I'd written that had cried or become emotional when something terrible or terrifying had happened. Now I know my protagonists should cry when this is the right emotional response, regardless of their gender. But this attitude that crying is wrong is not uncommon when it comes to what is widely considered appropriate content for books for boys. In our attempts to coax more boys into reading more books what are we showing them about the world we live in? Are we writing girls out of their world? Or rendering them as only helpers or assistants rather than heroes in their own right? And if they are heroes they must be 'kick-ass' and physical? Are we making it uncool to cry? Have we sacrificed too much in our efforts to get boys to read more? Have the efforts that have been made to increase their reading even worked? Is it time to try a different approach? Should we forget about 'girl' books and 'boy' books and just make reading so cool that all children feel an irresistible urge to pick up a good book.