Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why Don't More Teen Guys Read YA?

The #YAlitchat on Twitter tonight was about men who write YA, but it quickly evolved into a discussion of why more male teens don't read young adult. It's almost impossible to have a nuanced discussion in 140 character snippets, so here's my take:

1) Boys and girls develop differently. Duh, you say, but did you know that the areas of the brain involved in language mature in girls SIX YEARS earlier than in boys on average? Yes, really. So when we feed boys and girls the same books and teach them the same way, what do you think is going to happen? That's right, boys get frustrated and turned off to reading. To be motivating, tasks must be both difficult and achievable. Reading that motivates the average girl to read more will cause the average boy to give up on reading, possibly forever.

2) Because girls' language skills mature faster, and they become more voracious readers (on average), the YA publishing industry caters to them. Don't believe me? Maybe literary agent Mary Kole's opinion will carry more weight. The key bit? "When I’ve gone on submission with boy YA and boy main characters in YA, I have literally heard from editors, 'Oh, we’ve already filled our slot.' That’s right. A single slot. Some houses usually do one or two boy-centric YA books per season and that’s it." I'm not saying this bias is wrong--it makes sense from a business standpoint. Heck, if I were working in a big six publishing house (or is it big five now, I can't keep up), I'd look for YA books geared to girls, too. I've got three cats to feed here, dontchaknow. But it is a vicious cycle. Teen guys don't read, so we don't publish books geared toward them, so there's even less for them to read . . . you get the idea.

3) What happens when the average teen guy doesn't like reading? The strongest force in the universe kicks in--the need to conform. I can't demonstrate the effect that has on guys any better than Shaun David Hutchinson already did. Here's his conclusion: "I was careful not to read anything that could get me ridiculed. It's possible that if I hadn't already loved reading as much as I did, that I would have given it up completely. I know guys who did."

4) Schools are contributing to the problem. (I'm generalizing here. No need to drive up from Floyd's Knob to yell at me, Mr. Hankins. I know not all classrooms are the same.) Many elementary classrooms have been doing student-selected reading for years, first in the guise of whole language, now via readers' workshop. This allows girls and boys to read books that fit their current interests and abilities, books they can feel successful reading, which in turn inspires them to read more. In my wife's 4th grade classroom this year, for example, there were kids reading Nate the Great and one reading Eragon. (While the 24 kids in her classroom fit the general rule that girls develop language faster than boys, they also showed that exceptions exist. The kid reading Eragon? A boy.)

In high school, most classrooms do teacher-selected reading. So what happens when the kid who read Nate the Great in 4th suddenly hits The Brothers Karamazov in 9th? I don't have to spell this out, do I? Saundra Mitchell pointed out this problem in the top tweet of the discussion tonight, "Girls already read tons of books written by men from men's POVs. It's called 'every English literature class ever.'" Girls are more likely to be ready for the classics than guys, regardless of who wrote them. Thus girls usually don't give up reading when forced to read stuff that might turn anyone off to it. Guys don't fare as well, despite the fact that most "classics" are written by and about men.

So, boys get turned off to reading. How do we solve the problem? I think publishing houses such as Tanglewood Press that are explicitly looking to publish great boy-centric books are part of the solution. As are high school teachers such as Mr. Hankins who are introducing more student-chosen reading into their curriculum. What do you think will help? Let me know in the comments, please.