Boys and Literacy: Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process

March Dystropia MadnessI’m excited to kick-off the March Dystropian Madness Craft Series!

This month we will enjoy the insight of eight guest authors, each of whom will share an overview of their Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture. Topics range from literary theory, to poetic techniques, creating effective dialog, and finding the perfect boyfriend (well… finding the perfect literary boyfriend that is!). It’s going to be a fun month! 

Starting us off in style — and talking about two of my favorite topics, boys and books — is Peter Langella! Are you ready to engage the male reader? Peter will tell you how!

Boys and Literacy: Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process

by Peter Langella

Let’s begin with a few facts: The average boy doesn’t read as well or as often as his female peers. It’s not even close. 40% of boys stop reading for pleasure regularly after 4th grade. Another 20% stop reading for pleasure regularly after 8th grade. Fifteen-year-old boys’ test scores lag behind same-age girls by one and a half grade levels.

The reasons are varied and many: innate brain differences, physiological changes, gender roles and environments, new technologies and free-time choices, lack of male role models at school… I think you get the picture. The list goes on and on.

But what if it’s simpler than that? What if boys aren’t reading as much as girls because they don’t like that many books? What if they feel forced to read certain unrelatable books at school and that turns them off for a long time? Maybe for good?

Don’t get me wrong. I think all of the reasons boys are lagging behind have crashed together to create an imperfect mess of a storm when it comes to literacy levels, but after researching the topic extensively for my graduate lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I honestly think the number one reason is simple: most boys truly choose not to read. And, because they read less often, they read less well. It’s a snowball effect.

I’d like to tell a quick story. I used to get fined for reading books on the bus to away games by my college hockey teammates. You read that right. They fined me for reading. Real money, too. It wasn’t just for fun. They fined people for all sorts of weird things (many of which aren’t appropriate to discuss here), and we had to put money in a jar in the locker room that went toward a big party at the end of the season. For me, the fine was usually a dollar per hundred pages. So, if I read a 400-page book on the way back to Vermont from northern Maine, it was four dollars.

Pretty twisted, huh? Good thing I was already mature enough to ignore the peer pressure. I may not be writing this or anything else if I wasn’t. So please, trust me, I’m not trying to ignore the research or the test scores or the journal articles. I’ve lived through the rough landscape that faces many boy readers, and, as a high school librarian, I’m still battling this problem right at its root.

Boys need to read more books. There are a lot of great ones out there, but not enough.

As writers, we need to try to reach these boys who aren’t reading. Even though we rarely get to control which book ends up in a reader’s hand, we can control what is in our books, so when a reader does grab them, they’re hooked.

Here are some things I think we should keep in mind if we want to engage boy readers:

Window and/or Mirrors: Boys want to read about characters they can relate to or see themselves becoming. For example, The Hunger Games is read by many boys despite being written from the first person point of view of a female character. Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, and Finnick are just a few examples of characters that boys will latch onto.

In an opinion piece for the NY Times last year, author Matt de la Peña described an interaction he had with a student on a school visit:

I was at a school in Los Angeles last week, and a kid in a hoodie waited until everyone else had left before approaching me. “I read your book ‘We Were Here’ like three times,” he said. His eyes were glassy and he kept fidgeting with his backpack straps. “Yo, that’s my life in that book,” he said. Then he took off.

Physical Challenges: Boys want to see characters do tough things, violent or not. Think sports scenes, traveling/adventuring, and triumphing from an underdog role. I’m not trying to sell violence, either. Whatever your take on it in your story, that’s fine, but it should probably come up because it’s something that many boys will have to form an opinion on at sometime or another.

Emotional Gutter: What I mean is trying to end scenes or chapters without too much description of emotions. Let your reader fill in the emotional details for themselves. At my library, many supposed “guy” books are not that popular with boys because of the overwrought emotional passages, while a book like My Book of Like by Angel by Martine Leavitt is more accessible to older boys because of it’s terrific use of the emotional gutter.

Heavy on Facts: Historical fiction fits here, as do some current events and pop culture references, but also passages that deal with “stuff” like maps, gadgets, sports gear, new or made up technologies, moving parts, schematics; anything that makes them feel like the world of the story is literally at their fingertips.

Non-linear: Today’s boys live in a world of video games and apps and tightly-cut movies. They know how to take in (and make sense out of) a bunch of floating pieces. Give them something to decipher. Challenge them without being too wordy. Jump around a little bit and let them, as the reader, feel like they have a job to do.

Peter LangellaMost boys won’t give a book very long before they decide if they like it or not. If it’s a not, they aren’t afraid to put it down for good. Let’s try to make their decision as hard as possible. For some, just “liking” a single book and picking up another can literally change their life.

I know it happened to me.

Peter Patrick Langella holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and writes in Vermont and thinks elevenses should be recognized by his employer.

Read more from Peter on his blog Smokeless Fire.

10 thoughts on “Boys and Literacy: Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process

  1. I am a grown boy… i.e. a man. While I broke the mold of the typical teenager by reading a lot, there are plenty of books that I put down and never finished for precisely the reasons listed here. I still follow that trend now.

  2. Peter, Awesome post, thank you! Just wanted to relate a Mom story. Older son finally opens book I’ve been suggesting and says,”Well, it got’s a map.” Translation map=good book. Ingrid, I love the Dystropian March Madness idea. Might have to copy a Cheesey Tour on my blog!

  3. Was just googling stuff on blog entries that appeal to male readers as i am trying to change the direction of my blog from being all female to something that appeals to my guy friends (and other new male readers).

    Interesting perspective from a male’s point of view.

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