Boys are, indeed, attracted to stories with action, especially ones in which some goal is accomplished. It fits their competitive makeup. But action is not synonymous with plot. Plot is critical to every story, action-based or not. An excellent way to discover what boys like to read is to look at what boys like to write. In one study I found, second grade boys chose to have their protagonists act alone while the girls’ writing tended to focus on joint action and on protagonists who worked to stay connected to community. Also, the girls had a tendency to choose “primary territories” for their story settings such as home, school, parents, and friends, familiar places with familiar people. The boys, on the other hand, chose “secondary territories” for their settings such as wars, professions, and space, territories that imply discovery and adventure.
This preference did not change with age. In a study of first year college students who were asked to write something about themselves, males tended to write about physical challenges that built confidence and in which they acted individually. Women tended to write about a crisis in a relationship such as with a boyfriend or in a family setting. These studies imply a distinct difference in the problem-solving approach between males and females. Boys tend to want to take charge of their situations and act alone, as implied by their own writing. Girls may also want to take charge of their situations, but do so in the context of relationships and through the expression of feelings. So if the plot of a story fits this individualistic, quest-type storyline, boys will likely find the story interesting.
Are boys latching onto graphic novels, or is that wishful thinking on the part of parents, librarians, and booksellers?
Here is a great opportunity for me to offend some people, but I don’t mean to. There are many who contend that reading is reading, no matter the format. I disagree. I am not knocking graphic novels. They provide a good starting point for reluctant readers, but they don’t offer the richness of the narrative text alone. Well written narrative enables readers’ imaginations to translate printed text into images. With graphic novels, the images are provided. So, are boys latching onto graphic novels? I don’t know, but if they are, I hope they don’t stop there.
How about books of lists, like the Guinness Book of World Records. Does that “count” as a book for boys?
Many studies verify that it is true that boys are attracted to “fact books” to fulfill their inborn drive toward mastery of the external world, whereas girls innately turn to fictional works to understand the complexities of human relationships. But books that list a string of facts outside the framework of the narrative format do not solve the problem of aliteracy. Remember, the goal is not to teach boys to read but to teach boys to read voluntarily on their own. Narrative texts are unique and essential in bringing readers into the world of active literacy.
An excellent example of a narrative work jammed full of interesting facts is Team Moon by Catherine Themmesh. She describes how the efforts of four hundred thousand people put two men on the moon. Using the narrative format, Themmesh lists eight challenges that the team encountered during the flight of Apollo eleven and how those challenges were successfully overcome. Team Moon has a cast of main characters, an overarching goal, hindrances to reaching that goal, and a satisfactory conclusion. In other words, this non-fiction “fact” book has a story arc typically associated with narrative texts.
What are your predictions for the future of boys and books?
For boys to be interested in literature, the literature must interest the boys. For the most part it is women who write children’s books, and women who recommend the books to children; librarians, school teachers, and mothers. They would be wrong to think, “since I like this book then boys should, too.” Even if these adults understand that boys’ interests are different from their own, they may not be sure of the particular elements of literature attract boys. Thankfully there are a number of people like Jon Scieszka, www.guysread.com
, who are doing something about the problem of boys’ aliteracy. Educating adults about the elements of literature that is of interest to boys is going to place more books into the hands of boys that they enjoy. If this trend continues, then the future of boys and books is bright.
Lots of good stuff to mull over here, Andy. I'm not sure I agree completely with all your points. I don't mind graphic novels, or even list books myself, although, like you, I hope boys don't stop there.
Tomorrow I'll focus on nonfiction for boys and speculate on why boys love the facts. And on Friday I'll write a lollapalooza of a post- writers tricks for conveying boys' emotions-- no tears allowed. Since I haven't written it yet there may be some tears shed in Washington between then and now... but then I'm a girl.
By the way, Andy will be lecturing on Boys' Aliteracy in Montpelier at the Vermont College summer residency. I'm really looking forward to it.