by Sue Esterman
Jo Hogan recently blogged about her concern about the reading habits (or lack thereof!) of her 15-year-old son. He had been a great reader from an early age, but when she took him to a YALC (YA Lit Con) event he was clearly disenchanted and pointed out that it was all about girls and women.
I am intrigued by this observation – it was no doubt true of that particular event.
But it started me thinking – is it really not about the boys? Not for the boys? My experience as a tertiary, public and school librarian over more than 40 years has given me much to observe.
It’s true that many boys – sweeping generalisation alert!! – on the whole prefer to be actively engaged. However it’s not the corollary that we can’t engage them actively in reading for pleasure. It’s more of a challenge for some than for others. To redress that takes time and effort on the part of trusted and enthusiastic readers/role models/parents/teachers/librarians/sports heroes.
It’s also true that there is a vast body of material written for and about teenage readers. Equally true, that the range of what constitutes YA material is one of those perennial dilemmas – should we designate particular books as “for” a particular age group? This is something which has happened in relatively recent literary history.
When I was a kid, there were children’s books and adult’s books, but there was not anything directed at the teenage market per se. Small wonder then that now kids with access to electronic media 24/7, bombarded by Twitter, active on Reddit, constantly messaging – may find it harder to focus on a sedentary activity which requires full attention.
However I believe that many of our boys do just that. They learn to enjoy reading, to be successful at it, and to broaden their reading base by exploring genres, classics, graphic novels and poetry.
This does not come easily to a lot of boys. They need care and attention – and feeding! – as they cross the boundary between learning to read and becoming fluent readers. They need male role models – I think many of us underestimate just how important that is. Jo Hogan’s son clearly picked up on that at the YALC event. Although he was (and no doubt continues to be) an able and competent reader, he found it was all a bit girly.
I don’t agree that it’s not about the boys
Because I don’t agree that it’s not about the boys, I trawled through some website lists of the best YA novels – Time magazine’s top 100 for 2015 has 56 male authors. NPR’s list had 40 out of 100. The Telegraph (I was trying to get a UK perspective) has 9 out of 17 male authors listed in its top reads for 2016.
So clearly, there are many male writers who are among the most successful and most appealing to young male readers.
In New Zealand, there are some fantastic men working in school libraries, teaching English, blogging about books. It’s probably fair to say there are far fewer men than women, however. I guess this is probably true of most western education systems. But it does not necessarily equate to “it being all about the girls”.
My experience in working with boys is that you do have to work harder to find what is appealing. Quirky novels, things that come out of left field a bit, things which resonate with an individual reader – any of these can make a huge difference to a boy who is finding it hard to find the right book. And often it’s that connection between reader and book, right book at the right time, which can help that transition. And yes, it’s important to promote the really good books to our boys. Peer recommendations are a real help here.
But there’s another point this young man made – he said that “YA is not a genre, it’s a marketing tool”. He is spot on with that observation, in my opinion. What appeals to teenage boys is not necessarily what has been written with them in mind – and of course there are exceptions! But my personal opinion is that the best writing for young people is not necessarily the result of an author “writing YA books” – it comes from writers who tell a good story, with great characters and a good plot. Good writing transcends artificial age boundaries and stereotypes, and draws the reader in.
I think that Jo Hogan should be reassured that the boys are reading, at least in New Zealand. And that her son is also right when he says that his mates don’t read much – in the middle of secondary school years, there is little time for reading for pleasure unless it’s a top priority.
But I know many young men who do read for pleasure, regardless of where they are at in their education. They may not read what parents or teachers think they SHOULD read, but at least they are reading. And that, after all, is what matters.
Sue Esterman was the Director of Library & Information Services at Scots College in Wellington until 2015.