Boys and books

I loved reading as a boy. I would devour book after book. Apparently, I was typical – reading peaks for boys between 12 and 14 years of age and some boys will devour 200-300 books in a year. But then the storm of adolescence thundered through and I almost completely stopped reading books. Again, this is very typical – right through school, boys tend to lag behind girls in their reading ability but, at adolescence, the gulf widens. Many boys stop reading almost entirely. I spoke with some librarians recently – “Teenage boys will come into the library, and they will read, but only while they are waiting for a computer to become available.”

Why do teenagers read less? One simple reason is that adolescents get very busy. Sports, jobs, youth groups, and more and more homework eat up the free time they could have been reading. The greatest consumer of their time though is ‘screen time’ – computers, cellphones and watching TV. Surveys of how teens spend their time show that kids spend far more time watching TV and videos, surfing the net, listening to music and playing games than they do engaging with books. One big difference between the genders is that boys play more computer games.

The good news, according to Hope Cummings, writing in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is that boys who played more video games “didn’t spend less time interacting with their parents or their friends, nor did they spend less time in sports or active leisure activities”. But the bad news? “Gamers did spend less time reading and doing homework.” An obvious way to increase reading in your boys is simply to limit the total amount of screen time they have – to set a time when they have to be out of the lounge and off the computer, but allow them to continue reading.

A tragic blow to reading is the ‘it’s cool to be a fool’ boy culture. To pull out a book at lunchtime at school and sit in a corner reading is to doom yourself to wearing the ‘nerd’ label. To go against the flow and to not care what people think about you requires great poise and maturity (or the acceptance that you really are a nerd!). Everything we do that gives our children self-esteem and the ability to resist peer pressure will have incredible benefits and, maybe, it might make them relaxed about reading – even if their friends don’t. Tragically, I believe the main reason boys cease to read is that school teaches them to hate books by making them read books that bore them. I am sure any English teachers reading this are howling in protest (while correcting my spelling and punctuation), but at least one English teacher agrees with me. In fact, he is the past president of the American Council of Teachers of English. “Part of the downward slide [in reading]comes about because schools thrust overly-mature literature on senior high students and succeed only in building antagonism toward all books.” G. Robert Carlsen, Books and the Teenage Reader. The books tend to be long, old and particularly unappealing to boys. I have an almost physical revulsion to Jane Austen, after being forced to read Pride and Prejudice at school. (It didn’t help that I was suffering through a dose of food poisoning at the same time I was forcing myself to complete it). My wife loves Pride and Prejudice, but that’s the thing – it’s a girls’ book!I believe one of the biggest reason boys switch off reading books is that they no longer enjoy it – mainly because they find it harder to find books that suit their maturity, masculinity and reading ability. Adolescents no longer want to read kids’ books. Libraries are packed with a great range of children’s books – usually interesting, short, and easy to read. But for adolescents, the range is reduced, and often tailored for the larger female market. There are some books specifically for teenagers, but teens normally have to pick their titles from the adult shelves, and they are longer and more complex to read. Many kids find that reading is too much of a struggle to be pleasurable. Girls, with their edge in reading ability, are less impacted by this. Well, who does know what boys like to read? Maybe the boys themselves. posted a very insightful letter by 13-year-old Max Leone entitled, Read This b4 You Publish. “The reason we read so little in our free time is partially because of the literary choices available to teenagers these days. The selection of teen literature is even more barren now that the two great dynasties, Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, have released their final instalments. Those two massive successes blended great characters, humour and action in a way that few other books manage. When they went for laughs, they were genuinely funny, and their dramatic scenes were still heart-poundingly tense, even after I’d read them dozens of times.” If Max writes that well at 13, I think we are going to be reading his books before long. His main comments about books aimed at his demographic are:

  • Archaic language – “Seriously. It is the kiss of death for teenage boy literature.”
  • ‘Messages’ – “What urge compels writers to clumsily smash morals about fairness or honour or other cornball rubbish onto otherwise fine stories?”
  • Vampires are cool – “Vampires, simply put, are awesome. However, today’s vampire stories are 100 pages of florid descriptions of romance and 100 pages of various people being emo.”
  • Patronising – Authors too often underestimate their audience. “They actually know a lot about what’s going on in politics. They will get most of the jokes you expect them not to. They have a much higher tolerance for horror and action than most adults.”

Finally, young Max recommends “books with video game-style plots involving zombie attacks, alien attacks, robot attacks or any excuse to shoot something”. If only Jane Austen had had his advice.


Who else might know what boys like to read?

How about a magazine that has a very high readership by boys? The good old Readers’ Digest – still the best-selling consumer magazine with 38 million readers. They surveyed boys, and here are the reasons they like it:

  • Humorous stories, jokes, and cartoons
  • Short articles
  • Tons of non-fiction
  • Competitions
  • Visual
  • Compact and portable
  • Games and puzzles
  • Useful stuff

This lines up with the research by Jeff Wilhelm of Boise State University. “Boys like to read what’s toolish, not schoolish. They like how-to books, science, non-fiction, articles about crafts, hobbies, and sport, and fun stuff.” And while I’m quoting people, “Any boy can and will get excited about reading, if you make it useful, fun, and funny.” John Scieszka, author and founder of So there’s a huge problem – libraries and bookshops just don’t carry many titles that will interest boys, but websites such as and can help with recommendations. If you find something on these sites that appeals, libraries will go out of their way to track down your request through their inter-loan service.

Here is another problem

What do you do if your son is 15 but has a reading age of 11? Books written for pre-teens will just bore them, and more mature books will be too much of a challenge. Don’t limit your thinking to just books – there’s lots of ‘sub-literature’ like comics and magazines that will whet their appetite for reading. Educators agree (well, the few I read up on agreed, anyway) that almost any reading will help grow their literary muscles. I find it hard not to look down my adult nose at comics, but when I think back to my own adolescence, Superman comics and Mad Magazine were my staple diet for a while. Comics may not be Dostoyevsky but they bridged the gap. There’s a growing range of manga (Japanese-style cartoons) and graphic novels with sophisticated plots that boys love, and also ‘formula’ novels, magazines, and books derived from video games and TV series. They all help put the pleasure back in to the ink-and-paper experience. Audio books are another way to hook boys into books. Personally I love them, and knock off a book a week just on the tedious drive to and from work. Reading ability doesn’t matter, and so audio books let readers explore stories they might not otherwise try to read. At times I have read and listened to a book at the same time, and could imagine this tandem experience would really help a struggling reader build their skills. Libraries usually have a fair range in CD format on their shelves with far more available from their catalogue. Libraries also have pre-loaded MP3 players and some audio books available for download from their computers. Electronic reading media such as Kindles and iPads, and eBooks that you read on your computer or phone, are growing in significance. I’ve read a few eBooks and prefer paper and ink, but boys spend so much time with computers and gadgets anyway that they may really take to reading off a screen.

What else do boys read?

I consulted my daughter – “Give them a Dolly or Girlfriend. Boys always want to read girls’ magazines. Ew!” Of course! Boys have a huge curiosity about girls. But they also have a curiosity about themselves and what they are becoming. One thing that girls magazines do (sometimes poorly, sometimes well) is instruct adolescents on social skills, dating and sex. They may be written for girls, but in the absence of anything equivalent for boys, they are keen to sneak a look (especially if there are pretty pictures!). That same curiosity can lead them to more tasteless and lewd material and you do them a great service if you let them know that you have standards around what they can read. “Sorry, that’s too trashy!” Despite their protests, your attitudes count and your displeasure will be powerfully felt. The best strategy is to displace their tacky choices with something better – something that will actually serve to instruct them in a worthwhile way. Boys will avidly read books that teach them how to become men. Their favourite heroes are characters just a few years older than them. This is one of the huge benefits teenage readers have – as well as learning about sex, they gain vicarious experience on how to separate well from their parents, how to prepare for and gain occupations, how to be masculine, and how to handle friendships and conflict as an adult with other adults. Teenagers spend nearly all their time with same-age peers, and their TV and video programming is usually set within youth culture as well – books are one of the few places they can be exposed to the inner mind of adults. Stories shape us. Don’t discount our young men’s capacity to be inspired by good role models.

Let your kids see you reading

Encourage your children to read in bed – but I would encourage you to read in the lounge. I imagine most of us retreat from the din to read in the quiet privacy of our bedrooms, but it would be good to model relaxing with a book. I always remember my father sitting in his armchair, smoking and reading, and I eventually picked up both habits! Example is a powerful thing! (So is nicotine – 25 years since my last smoke and I’m still craving!) Share your reading experiences with your children. Finally, make your home ‘book-friendly’. Subscribe to magazines and newspapers, and have book shelves filled with books. My most literate friends (with very literate children) even have lots of reading matter in the lavatory. None of them have died from dysentery (yet) but I would be inclined to bin those books after a while. Have a regular trip to the library. Even if your teens no longer come with you, get a few books and magazines for them ‘on spec’. Once in a while you might strike one they like. Adult men rate reading as one of their top leisure activities (just behind television and sport) and so your teenage boys will probably start reading again, eventually. But reading is such a wonderful thing, it would be great to rekindle that love of books as soon as you can.


About Author

John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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