I teach Pre-AP English and Language Arts for 7th and 8th grade, and thankfully, I have been blessed to have great relationships with the students (girls AND boys) that have come through my classroom. It is from these continued relationships that I began conducting my research about boy readers. And somehow, I received what most girls would give anything to have, if only for a few minutes – a backstage pass into the mind of a boy. And by that, I mean that I wanted to know what guys really think when they’re not “acting.” When there is no audience (usually made up of fellow guys) to perform for, what do they really think and believe about books?
I confess that the teacher (and new author) in me was shocked when I attended a Writer’s Conference this summer and heard a popular literary agent make the statement that “[teenage] boys just don’t read.” This was totally NOT my experience in the classroom and it made me wonder what other myths/misconceptions are out there in the publishing world (or anywhere for that matter) about boys and reading.
So I polled 36 different boys (12–18 years old), presented some common “beliefs” out there about boys and reading, promised confidentiality, and then instructed them to educate me on their thoughts (restricting them to ONLY let me in on subjects pertaining to books – there are other things about a boy’s mind I just DON’T need to know). Before I go further, I do want you to know that these are some of the coolest boys I know… most all of them are goal-driven, intelligent, and typically good readers. I interviewed every type of guy… from the star quarterback to the brooding musician to the socially-awkward genius in the front row. And here is what I discovered… take a deep breath.
Myth #1 – Boys Don’t Like to Read
Every single guy disagreed with this statement – some to the point of being offended. One 8th grade boy remarked, “That’s totally stupid. I know a lot of boys in my grade that love to read.” While each guy felt that the AMOUNT of reading and the TYPE of book chosen varied from guy to guy, they all said that reading was worth their time – even something they enjoyed. “It is true that other media has begun to take the place of literature. I used to read all the time… before I got a high-end PC and gaming console,” another 8th grade boy admitted. One of my 7th graders said, “I like to read when I’m at home because I learn a lot of new things. Reading can make a guy’s personality awesome, and fiction helps our imaginations.” I thought this was interesting… from an 8th grader: “Boys read. However, if books are written with the author thinking that boys don’t, the target audience can only be set for girls. Perhaps that is why some books are read more by girls.” Several others said that even if they didn’t prefer to read all the time, they would if a book was good enough… which brings us to our next myth.
Myth #2 – Boys Only Read Nonfiction or Action/Adventure
“A guy can read more than just nonfiction and action.”
“A good mystery is probably next in line!”
“Guys read love stories, too.”
Wait… what?! We’ll get to the topic of romance in just a sec. Not so shockingly, every boy did agree that they were typically drawn to action and adventure – something that keeps them guessing and keeps the plot moving. But aside from that common factor, their individual tastes ranged just as much as any other reader. One senior in high school gave me this insight: “The kind of books I enjoy are the ones I can (or want to) relate to. Adventure stories are the ones that are going to reach out to guys the most. We have to have some consistent action scattered throughout the book, otherwise we lose interest very quickly.” A junior boy added to that… “If you can imagine climbing up the side of a cliff while someone below is chasing you, that's pretty awesome. (Mainly because you probably wouldn't get a chance to do that in real life and, in a book, you can’t get hurt so you can do whatever you want.) Fiction just gives a guy's imagination a chance to let loose. Anything with action, suspense, and adventure seems like a good book to most guys.” I had very few guys consider themselves “nonfiction” readers.
So what about this topic of romance? Can boys genuinely dig a good love story, too?
Myth #3 – Boys Don’t Like Love Stories
Let me start with this – I had only ONE boy adamantly state that he wants nothing to do with romance in a book (middle schooler). Every other guy polled said that love stories were okay with him. Most of the middle school boys said that the one stipulation to enjoying a love story was that it had to include some kind of action/adventure scenes around the romance. The older guys seemed to be more receptive to romance, as one senior stated, “We're probably neutral with love stories as long as they have a good plot and do not get WAY too mushy.” A few of the boys suggested similarly that there should be a two-page limit on love scenes before including some kind of action-filled plot twist. But here are some of the most interesting quotes… straight from their mouths…
“To tell you the truth, a little romance in a story helps the plot flow and it makes the story more realistic. I just don’t like it being the main genre of the book.” -8th grader
“Romance happens every day in real life and is normal and natural, correct? So, yes. Romance has a place in books.” -8th grader
“Honestly, I believe that the romance factor in books is an important one, even for dudes. We like the idea of the ‘damsel in distress’ and being the knight in shining armor that rescues her, and I think we get to vicariously live through books that have romance mixed in with adventure and action.” –Senior in high school
“I think romance really completes a good book. Love stories help you know how to get the girls, if you know what I mean. Plus it goes well with the hero archetype – and can help the hero make a good decision in the end.” -7th grader (Can you tell we’ve been studying hero archetype in literature and movies in my class?)
“Some romance novels are actually pretty good (and if you pay attention, guys, you can sometimes pick up tips on how to impress your lady.) It doesn't always have to have mystery or adventure or action to keep my attention, although it doesn't hurt to throw in some action here or there. If you think about it though, most romance novels have plenty of 'action' to keep a guy interested… if you get my drift, and sorry if it seems inappropriate, but it's true.” –Junior in high school
“I don’t think it really matters if romance is in a book that I read – if it’s in there, then I will read it and probably enjoy it. But I’m not going to tell every boy in my class unless I want to be made fun of everyday. So, it’s not that boys hate romance – it’s just that their friends hate it when you admit it. You won’t find a lot of guys with confidence to admit it.” – 8th grader
And there you have it. I wonder if boys would stop making fun of each other if they knew that they ALL just admitted to liking romance in a book…? But, no, they have a part to play onstage in front of their audience. So these rare, honest glimpses with the actors backstage become very telling. I want to say thank you to the boys who participated in this research – you know who you are! I am so proud of each of you and consider it an honor to be your teacher. As an author, I thank you for being such a great audience… you inspire me!
Author of Phantom Island: Wind