Why John Still Won’t Read

I was reading a very insightful Washington Post article, “Why Johnny Won’t Read,” and it got me to thinking. Now, if you know me, you’re already saying, “That can’t be good.” And it’s not.

Still, according to the authors, “… boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy. Moreover, when given choices, boys do not choose stories that feature girls, while girls frequently select stories that appeal to boys.”

So, here’s my dilemma: my series, The Stream, features adventure, war, historical nonfiction, personal relationships, mythology, and fantasy. I realize that it sounds, on the surface, like it wouldn’t work, but the books take place in a dreamworld, and much of it is episodic, as is the Narnia series. As a result, the books aren’t trying to be all things at once. In addition, when you spread the theme over 3 (to 9) books, it’s easier to make widely different themes flow seamlessly together.

However, not having seen this until now, I’m uncertain as to whether I should be excited, or afraid. My main characters in Book 1 – Discovery, are an almost-12 year-old boy, and a 12 year-old girl. Personally, I don’t believe there’s a significant difference in what boys like and what men like. We define our interests early on, and stick with them.

Is it really true that men won’t be interested in stories that feature personal relationships? I realize I’m different. I like exactly all the things the WP lists for men, but I also love books about personal relationships. That could be, however, the fault of my eight-grade English teacher, whom forced me to read Little Women as punishment. The actual punishment turned out to be that I liked it, and had to admit to as much in class. (It’s only that I’m a big guy that kept me from being bullied for life.)

So how to do appeal to a male audience? Do you trick them into your work, sliding in the “female” themes, and hope they are too hooked to notice? Harry Potter, for instance, certainly featured character interrelationships, and strong female characters, but they were clearly secondary to the main Good vs. Evil plot line.

The WP article adds: “At the middle school level, the kind of quality literature that might appeal to boys has been replaced by Young Adult Literature, that is, easy-to-read, short novels about teenagers and problems … ” There is certainly nothing wrong with this, as millions of readers will attest. For those of us who don’t write short, easy-to-read books, what to do? As the Wall Street Journal aptly cites, you can’t raise an entire generation of boys on Captain Underpants. Well, you can, and have, but isn’t there more?

My success, or utter failure, in writing will be based on my childhood. I’m old enough that a “kid’s book” was Silas Marner, David Copperfield, Tom Sawyer, (coughLittle Women (cough). These authors wrote stories, and assumed their public’s ability to read would improve as quality literature was available. So, I think the way to make boys readers, is to give them interesting, challenging stories – that they will actually want to read. Why learn to read, to love books, if Big Pub tries to meet you where you sit? To use a sports analogy, how is the kid ever going to score a touchdown if you keep throwing him short passes in the backfield?

So, not having spent even one second trying to discern if the language in my books is 8th grade, or 4th grade, or 32nd grade, I sat on them, for a year. Then another. And yes, I tinkered, and edited. Wrote and re-wrote. But the true issue was, “Who is going to read a book starring a boy and a girl,” neither of whom farts (in the book), and who actually sound like smart kids? Is it just adults? Will an adult read a (non-Harry Potter) book about kids?

I’ve published the book because I have to believe the answer is “yes.” I choose to believe that our kids are tired of Big Pub’s dumbing down for them. I’ve chosen to believe that my ex’s 9-year-old daughter, who wanted to read Twilight, was not an anomaly. Kids are as smart as we allow them to be. Boys will learn to love what we allow them to love.

And true, no boy will want to read a story that is only about who loves whom. But that does not translate into “boys don’t like books with relationships.” Boys want to read books they won’t get beat up for reading.

As the WSJ says, “Aristotle thought we should be raised ‘so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; this is the right education’ … This kind of training goes against the grain, and who has time for that? How much easier to meet children where they are.” I, for one, agree. I enjoin my fellow Indie Publishers to join the fray, and change the course.

Why won’t Johnny read? Because, we’ve been giving him crap. And, while he will delight in reading books about crapping, Johnny doesn’t want to read a crap book. We can be more. We must be better. The next classic should be our aspiration as writers. If it is not, then of what value is our gift?

If we do not, when the years have passed, and Johnny is grown, with children of his own, he will still not read. Nor will he understand the value of a book. And we, as a culture, are doomed. I for one, am determined to die having tried to get Johnny to read, if only the one book.

To read: