Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Boys Books and Bandits

Who remembers BIGGLES?

Now there were books, unashamedly action books. There's a fan page on Facebook. And a Biggles entry on Wikipedia.

Continuing the theme of male readers that Dave brought up ...

Apparently struggling male readers (4th grade) respond better to female teachers, according to Science Daily.

"Although boys and girls enter kindergarten with similar performance in reading, by the spring of third grade, boys have lower reading scores, which makes this an opportune time for reading intervention."

Now that is a worry. Boys are disengaging from reading as early as the first few years of primary school. See the article here.

And here we have scholarly article on Understanding the Reluctant Male Reader.

"The O'Doherty report (1995) identified various ways boys were significantly over-represented in special language and reading classes. For example, three times more boys than girls were receiving special assistance in New South Wales' schools for reading. Some researchers account for this discrepancy by identifying and defining behaviours associated with learning difficulties. "

Although they did discover that when boys read they read just as well as girls.

"Boys' performance seems to have been facilitated by the high interest material, while girls comprehended nearly as much of the low interest material as the high. Two possible explanations for this phenomenon present themselves: if reading is seen as sex appropriate for girls and sex inappropriate for boys, boys may require the additional incentive of high interest material. An alternate explanation is that girls may have a greater familiarity with vocabulary. This study seems to indicate that some achievement tests may not provide the type of material that encourages boys to demonstrate their abilities. "

And here is a Huffington Post article Dudes Don't Read: The Book Biz's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
He asked if publishers have given up trying to publish and market books that males want to read. He asks:

"Where are the badass young male writers of today? Would Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Vonnegut or Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney or Alex Garland or Chuck Palahniuk even get book deals if their debut novels were written today? How can we make reading novels -- and writing them -- cool again for guys under thirty?"

Having just spent weeks marking movie treatments by young males aged between 17 and 25, here are my observations.

7 out of 10 young males want to read/see movies about young men who have to battle evil men/monsters, with a band of like minded young men. The higher the kill count the better.

The other 3 out of 10 young men are incurable romantics and write about falling in love.

I guess there would have to be some romantic males out there, or the human race would never have survived. And, conversely, we need the other 7 out of 10 males to fight off the saber tooth tigers.

Maybe what writers need to give the young male reader is the same wish fulfilment that a romance gives a female, a high kill count, the respect of his fellow men and a machine gun that never needs reloading.

Luckily I'm married to one of the romantics. So, do you think my estimate is accurate?


Anonymous said...

Yipes! I hadn't thought about it starting so early. Both my boys underperformed in reading, early on, but I think it was a mismatch between the reading program and their learning styles. Once I stopped making sure they were getting real science and solid math and _noticed_ they picked up reading quickly enough.

And what worked to get them reading on their own was not easy books, but good ones suited to their personalities. LMB's _Warrior's Apprentice_ for the older one, Dave's _Rats, Bats and Vats_ for the younger.

It sounds like my boys may have been a bit more typical than I'd thought. My personal experience echoes those reports, but I don't have any daughters for comparison.

Dave Freer said...

I owned most of Capt WE Johns' books and still have a few :-). They were fun, and remarkably idealistic. That's out of fashon with adults but I don't think it ever is with kids.

Rowena, I think the two are actually sides of the same coin sometimes. The same idealism that that sends men (and women, but we're talking about men here) off to take on dragons (and thank goodness for it, because that idealism, even when misguided is a rather noble thing) is an aspect of romantic idealism. There are also aspects of subordinate (junior) male ape troop behaviour here. Men have a lot of genetic heritage that says females prefer men who survive derring-do... so they are selected for being that way, I guess. Of course it could just be that men have a lot of frustrated hunter genes too - ergo a need for a high prey kill rate. I wonder if having 'hunted' crayfish since I was pre-pubescent (and yes, catch rate is IMPORTANT) explains why I find first person shooters boring and really enjoy strategy games.

I'd love to see a return of Biggles-ish boys books, if that'd get more boys reading. I also think young boys are a lot more into slavish aping role models (dunno, never been a girl. I could be wrong, thinking about fashions etc.) and reading is often portrayed as uncool, and worse used as punishment.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, I can't compare my boys, because they were reading off the chart in primary school.

But I do agree. Finding the right book is the key to getting them reading. So, if they like science, why not read New Scientist? If they like War Hammer, why not buy the codexes?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, you are right, there is an element of romantic idealism.

But there is also an element of just plain ornery, wanting to kill things. My darling brother (also called Dave) is a very kind bloke. Yet he found a chicken while driving home. Took it home with him and let it loose in the yard to see what his dog would do.

The dog killed the chicken. We were horrified. Why?

Because of the male blood lust. I am probably going to get jumped on for saying that.

OK, there was also an element of him not thinking it through. But what did he think the dog was going to do?

Dave Freer said...

well, I dunno if it was male bloodlust or just plain nasty. I hope you all gave him hell. I saw two female 'bogans' trying to get their pet thug into a fight with a haitian refugee on our first night in Australia (Melbourne Airport). They wanted to see a fight(besides being nasty little racists), to see a helpless black guy beaten to pulp, and they were doing their abusive level best to see it happened. I can't say I believe all Australian women, or all women are like that. But there are some, I guess. The ones who become boxing / wrestling groupies? Sigh. My old man would have whaled the tar out of me for anything he saw as deliberate cruelty... if I was lucky and my mother didn't get to me first. And yet they both had had to kill chickens and livestock. I honestly don't know how my mother did it.

Oddly I think reading is a major factor with helping us develope empathy, and avoid cruelty. But that's just my weird ideas again.

John Lambshead said...

Remember Biggles. I still have my copy of The Camels Are Coming. That's why I play air wargames.

Captain Johns was a pacifist. He wrote a series of SF books for boys promoting Pacifism.


C Kelsey said...


I think you're very clsoe to spot on inregards to what motivates most boys to read. I was one of the boys who was reading almost four to five grades above my level by the time I reached the second grade, but that was because my parents are both great readers. Growing, reading was just the normal thing to do. And there wasn't a high premium placed on "you should read this, instead of that".

Then, my dad did me the disfavor of buying a copy of Heinlein's Starship Troopers for me. From there on out, body count was suddenly a major driver.

As for young men and some women actively trying to cause something violent to happen, I'm convinced that there is a control issue here. When you're young, your parents have all the control. Perhaps the two women Dave saw felt out of control of their lives. Anyhow, I'm not a psychiatrist (thank goodness), but I'm guessing immediate, consequential control over something is a large factor behind such behavior.

Synova said...

A friend of mine who homeschooled her boys ended up apologizing (in a general sort of way) for thinking that her first son reading at high school levels at the age of 5 was due to her great teaching when her second son got to that third grade age without reading much at all. She realized that individuals are different and she couldn't take credit for the fabulous performance of her first son. My opinion, having also homeschooled and not pushed the reading issue, is that vocabulary and reading comprehension are entirely separate from decoding and that kids who reach that magic third grade mark who aren't made to feel stupid (and don't have an actual disability) will learn to read up to their verbal level almost overnight.

But no one is asking me. ;-)

I also think that not everyone wants to read novels but would rather read short stories or non-fiction articles or biographies. Some kids/people are funny about what is real and what isn't. I would be wary of sending the message to young readers, particularly boys, that what they prefer isn't the right sort of thing.

heteromeles said...

I'm really hesitant about evolutionary explanations, because society has changed enormously in the last 100 years, and we haven't physically evolved in that time.

That said, we do need to look at society and schools. For example, when I was a kid, I routinely carried a pocket knife. Now, I have to leave my pocket knife in the car whenever I visit a campus, so that I can walk through the metal detector. In some schools, it feels like I'm entering a prison. When I taught undergrads, I can understand why they get into wild partying. College campuses are far less confining. In this way, we're more like Japan and Korea than we used to be, and I don't think that's good.

Also, reportedly (NPR) the military trainers these days have had to drastically revamp their training, because the recruits these days are in worse physical shape, have never been in a fight, but conversely they are smarter and more aware of complexity and ambiguity than any previous generation of recruits. Right now, I'm listening to an NPR story about how college-age children (both sexes) are more trusting of larger institutions and their parents than my generation was.

Oh yes, and they grew up on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

How do we write for them?

Anonymous said...

My daughter was a hesitant reader. She had nothing against reading, but wasn't particularly compelled to do it. I read to her from infancy to expose her to books, and then when she hit 8 or 9, we started listening to audio books. I was thrilled to find that the first book she chose to read by herself as the text of an audio book was sf...Neal Shusterman's The Dark Side of Nowhere. She has since read many of his books among others. As a side note, she had the pleasure of meeting him at a reading a couple of years ago. It was sort of a loop of completion for her.

And that may be a way to interest children in reading...having the author speak and meet the kids. It's a great marketing tool for the author but also a human thing to do. I think it makes the books more real for the kids.

Erica's boyfriend, David, 19, is also an avid reader which is interesting. He's a guy's guy kind of guy, but he does read a lot of epic and urban fantasy. His education was horribly handled as a youngster, so it's not as easy for him as many, but he still reads a lot. I think he's proof that you can get any guy to read if it's interesting to him.

And that's the ticket. What interests guys? It's personal, but I would imagine that there are underlying similarities that could define a market. Steve likes the action and adventure but with a philosophical bent. David likes the hero books, the ones with the hero being a hero (I think he would secretly like being a hero). My father likes westerns, also where men are men. My brother reads espionage and thrillers, also heavily action.

And as I looked above just now, it hit me that westerns are like romance, heavily read by only one gender. Maybe someone could expand blend that genre with others to hit the male readership. Just a thought.


Synova said...

Linda, I read a whole lot of Louis L'Amour when I was in high school. As far as I'm concerned Westerns and Romance are the same genre. ;-)

Westerns seem sort of out of fashion these days. I picked up one recently (don't remember the author) and found the writing mechanics somewhat jarring. L'Amour was really good at delivering a satisfying comeuppance to the villain at the end and the hero pretty much always got the girl (or other appropriate reward).

I'm thinking now about the various Historical Romance settings and I think they'd lend themselves well to a shift that makes the adventure primary and the romance secondary. War between clans, viking raids, exploration in exotic locations. There's lots of opportunities for daring-do, battles, and portraying strong protectors.

For what it's worth, what my teenagers seem to like besides shooter video games are things like Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs, Myth Busters, and Good Eats.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova and Linda,

I used to have a secondhand bookstore. And there were guys who would come in and buy 15 westerns (L'Amour was very popular). They were the equivalent of the women who would come in and buy 15 M&B.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I was astounded when I learned about my brother and the chicken. I thought it was totally out of character, but it made me realise that even people we know and love, will do things we'd never expect of them.

Yes, Mum and I gave him hell.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I almost added Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' to the post because I think they fit into the same niche. Clean, honest fun.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I used to read tot he kids when they were little. Imagine 6 kids sprawled across a double bed like puppies, while I read Tom Sawyer (they loved the bit where he gave the cat the medicine and it went crazy), The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings (Expurgated - I skipped the description and just read the good bits), just to name a few.

I had so much fun sharing books with my kids.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I agree. People will read if they find something that interests them. You can get them started on the weirdest things and they don't even realise they are reading.

For instance, if they like cooking, let them loose on recipe books. Let them actually go shopping with you and choose the ingredients.

Or let them plan a road trip. There's map reading, and research to make the itinerary.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Australian schools aren't as security conscious. Although in the last ten years they have become more so. Out local primary school sprouted a 6 foot fence, which is locked once school starts, then unlocked at 3pm. There is only one entrance now during school hours.

Thinking of metal detectors in schools, it can't be good for teachers and students to live with that level of tension. It has to detract from learning.

I find it really interesting that the current generation are more trusting of large institutions.

I teach kids who are 17 - 25 and the younger ones don't get my Buffy jokes. So sad to think what they've missed!

Anonymous said...

Is it Eric Flint that's always said that Westerns were Romance for Men?

I think there's a subtle difference in the approach. Romance - the woman is rescued by the hero, even if he seemed to be a Bad Guy at some point. Westerns - The hero saves something of significance, may also rescue the maiden personally, and sweeps her off her feet. If he was once a Bad Guy, he is more likely to "Ride off into the Sunset" so she won't do something foolish, like marry him.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Your summing up of the romance and the western made me realise that the guys who read westerns see themselves as heroes who would fit right into the romance books that the women read.

Perhaps they should get together?

Stephen Simmons said...

I think social factors/role models play a major role. In the diminishing number of "traditional" families, the children see the mother read things, even if it's just magazines. They never see the father read anything but email and/or the newspaper. So the perceived message is: girls "should" read, boys don't need to.

In the ever-increasing number of single-parent or two-income homes, there are no role models. I can't explain how this translates to those.

Chris McMahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris McMahon said...

And why can't you be a romantic who likes to battle tigers?

Mike said...

Looks a bit like my (now gone) collection of Tom Swift, Jr. books -- which I bought out of my allowance at the GEM store. $1 each? Something like that. Bob, his teenage sidekick, the cowboy cook, and his latest invention...those were great books to grow up on. Now how does ... Percy and the Olympians? compare?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I do think there is a place for romantics who go off to battle the saber tooth tiger.

A lot of heroic romantics volunteered and went off to the first and second world wars.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


My husband has still got his comic collection from when he was in his early teens.

He wouldn't part with them!

Mike said...

Well, once upon a time, we were moving from Japan to America, and my wife looked at the box of Tom Swift, Jr. books that I had hauled from America to Japan, then from Tokyo to Nishinomiya, and asked, "Are you really going to read them?" I looked through the box and found a college library that said they would give them a good home... and I made myself do it. Just can't hold onto that stuff sometimes.