`Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over the Heir of Redclyffe … on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window. This was Jo’s favourite refuge; and here she loved to retire with half-a-dozen russets and a nice book…’
Had the central character of Little Women been a boy is it possible that he would have taken refuge in fiction in such a way? For most of us today, the answer would be no, but according to a survey of the reading habits of young people conducted by the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature published last year, a century ago this would have been eminently possible. The problem then, the report tells us, was `how to stop boys from reading’ – and in particular from reading novels. A hundred years later, it seems, the situation has been reversed and the question now being asked is, how can we get boys to read more? Deborah Maby investigates.
For the NCRCL study a total of 8,834 young people between the ages of four and 16 were questioned on their reading habits, making it the most comprehensive study yet into this subject. One of its key findings concerns reading and boys. It is now universally accepted, we are told, that as a group, boys read less than girls, indeed as many as twice the number of boys as girls `see themselves as “reluctant readers”, while correspondingly fewer boys than girls see themselves as “enthusiastic” or even “average” readers’.
The NCRCL findings are mirrored in research carried out by Elaine Millard at Sheffield University at roughly the same time. In an occasional paper published by the National Literacy Trust entitled Some Thoughts on Why Boys Don’t Choose to Read in School she reports that while researching reading in general in the middle years of schooling she found such noticeable differences between boys and girls that she decided to make this the focus of a further project. In the data she went on to collect, she found that boys, more than girls, are simply put off the `reading that is required of them throughout the English curriculum’. Even more significantly, she found that far more girls than boys reported reading at home and that when boys did read, it was an activity they associated purely with school. This, concludes Millard, ‘… suggests that the reading of fiction is perceived as a female-preferred leisure activity.’
The problem is undoubtedly one of perception: Millard reports that a staggering three times as many girls as boys saw themselves as readers but that both boys and girls saw their mothers, followed by their sisters, as heavy readers. Fathers were mentioned far less frequently in the reading context and when they were it was often reported that their reading was related to their work. Boys, one must therefore conclude, simply do not value reading as an activity because they do not see the men in their family doing it and it does not therefore confirm their masculine identity for them.
‘Real’ Readers Read Fiction?
It is at this point that it becomes clear that what we are talking about it is not reading per se but the reading of fiction. Boys and their fathers do read but because they are not reading novels they do not consider themselves to be readers. According to Penny Kenway at the Equality Learning Centre, what motivates boys to learn to read is not stories but a desire to know about things. In reception and infant classes, she says, boys are militated against because reading is mainly taught through stories and very little attention is paid to learning to read for information. This is borne out by a recent study into gender differences at the Institute of Education which found that, `Boys arrive in school with an interest in information books and are likely to find reading schemes based largely on stories about people harder to get into.’
Boys Do Read
The children’s poet Michael Rosen, who has researched the subject of boys and reading in the course of his Treasure Islands series on Radio 4, also found that boys do in fact read but that they `tend not to choose to read fiction’. This he believes is because, `Men and women negotiate life in different ways. Women in general want a running commentary on life whereas men just want to get on with it. Women have a blanket stitch approach, one step back, two forward, whereas men prefer the plain stitch process of plodding steadily forward.’ Rosen sees the ‘domesticisation’ of fiction in general, which has filtered down into children’s books, as part of the problem for boys, who simply have no desire to be drawn into the drama of The Relationship in the same way that girls and women do.
Are boys then simply turned off fiction at some point in their lives by the nature of the books that are on offer to them? There is no doubt that in the very early years girls and boys are captivated in equal measure by stories, but that as they mature girls prefer accounts of lives similar to their own, albeit a glamorised version, whereas boys are drawn into a world of science fiction, fantasy and horror. One mother I spoke to, Susan Davenport, told me that her 16-year-old son, William, had always loved `mythology and fighting fantasies and anything highly imaginative’ and `certainly didn’t want to read anything about other people’s lives’. Her daughter, on the other hand, `only really ever wanted to read something if she knew it could be true’.
John Mole, who is head of English at St Albans School, a boys’ secondary, was highly sceptical when I suggested to him that boys read less than girls, claiming to see no evidence of this among the boys he teaches. `It is,’ he said, `simply a question of what they are reading – which is probably very different from girls but they are just as enthusiastic about it. They go for Terry Pratchett, for example, in the same way as younger boys love Roald Dahl. Pratchett, and all those X-Files spin-offs, seem to be an extension of the fantasy games they play on their computers.’ According to Mole, boys also love anything collectable: the Point Horror and Point Crime series are, he said, hugely popular, and this was corroborated by other parents and teachers I spoke to. In fact the wildly successful Goosebumps series seemed to be one of the few examples of books that appealed equally to both boys and girls. `Boys, like men, like to order and number the world,’ agrees Michael Rosen. `Boys want to collect things, and compare them and swap them, which is why Goosebumps and Point Horror have taken off in this way.’
Despite the findings at Sheffield and the NCRCL I found few people prepared to admit that boys read less than girls. Time and time again it was said that they simply read different things and with a different approach. `I think you have to be very careful when you say that boys don’t read,’ cautioned Lesley Agnew, who runs the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill in north London. `Once they get to nine or 10 they seem to stop reading novels but they still read – sports reports, non-fiction, books about how to make things. They love the Horrible Histories and Horrible Science series.’ Agnew sees no evidence in her shop of boys’ apparent difficulty in finding books that appeal to them. `Robert Westall remains very popular and they like Morris Gleitzman because he’s funny even though he deals with serious issues. It’s certainly true to say that they like fantasy: Northern Lights is bought by lots of boys even though its main character is a girl and she’s on the front cover. It’s a long read, too, but they like it.’
Bus Ticket Mentality
`He likes anything humorous – all those funny poets like Brian Patten and Michael Rosen,’ said many of the parents I spoke to. Rosen believes this is further evidence of boys’ rejection of modern fiction. `Poetry operates at the level of language play so it doesn’t have to be about relationships. It’s a place you can go where your emotions don’t have to be on the line. Also, it is incredibly diverse – which means you can be constantly surprised by it, unlike with realist fiction.’ It is interesting, he notes, that over the past 10 or 15 years the most popular writers of poems for children have all been men – Adrian Mitchell, Brian Patten, Benjamin Zephaniah. `It may be just a period thing but then 30 or 40 years ago the main kids’ poets were Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter de la Mare and A A Milne.’ Poetry also appeals to what he calls boys’ `bus ticket mentality’ – the thing that makes them like collecting Goosebumps and football stickers and dipping endlessly in and out of books of facts to emerge triumphant with some snippet of information with which to amuse their friends. `You can take poetry or you can leave it. You can flick read and sample it. You can remember bits of it and repeat it to your friends. I don’t want to sound vain but I know my poems get swapped in the playground in the same way as jokes do.’
Gender Typed Role Models?
Must we simply accept, therefore, that boys require different things from what they read and give them more of what they appear to want? According to Dr Reynolds of NCRCL it is only in the last century that children’s books have become specifically designated for either boys or girls and that this is a strategy that has signally failed. Boys have, she believes, been positively deterred by the role models (action heroes and the like) in the books that are supposedly for them. At the same time, boys find it difficult to cross into what they see as the domain of girls’ books. Girls, it appears, are very happy to read boys’ books but not vice-versa. Indeed, says Dr Reynolds, it is the girls themselves who try to deter boys from reading their books in an effort to preserve the stereotype. There is evidence, she says, that boys in single-sex schools read more widely than in mixed schools and happily take on the monitor roles in libraries and so on that would otherwise be filled by girls.
Fiction As Script
At the end of the day, how much does it actually matter that boys
seem to prefer fantasy to real life, computer games to television sitcoms, sci-fi to Judy Blume? Should we turn the question around and ask whether girls are reading too much fiction, in the same way that boys were thought to be doing a century ago? According to the NCRCL report, girls use the situations they read about in novels (family relationships, drugs, bullying and so on) as a guide to tackling things they are faced with in real life – and as a result negotiate them better than boys do. `You have to admit,’ agrees Rosen, `that reading of all kinds presents you with possibilities of how other people are, and the more you read the more you widen that range of possibilities. Undoubtedly, the more you read, the better you’ll do – at school and later. But if you’re asking whether reading fiction makes you, ultimately, into a better person, then the answer has to be
THE PARKERS – SOUTH EAST LONDON
Susie and Shawn Parker live in a south east London council flat with their children Shawn, 10, Chelsey, 6, Cody, 3, and twins Frankie and Jimmy, 13 months. Susie and her husband read a newspaper but `I only read books when I’m pregnant’, says Susie, ‘Jackie Collins and Susan Kennedy.’
But if the Parker children do not see their parents reading books, the family has a strong tradition of singing nursery rhymes to the little ones, reading bedtime stories, hearing the older children read and making up stories. `I’m the storyteller!’, says Susie who started making up stories about Mr Crow for Shawn when he was `really little’ to try and get him to sleep. As she soon discovered, the stories had the opposite effect as he wanted to hear more. Now Shawn invents Mr Crow stories (Mr Crow at a football match, Mr Crow finding worms for his hungry family) to tell his younger sisters. Even Frankie and Jimmy are getting to know about Mr Crow as well as about Shawn’s passion for football – they get really excited when they see a ball.
Although Shawn also reads stories and picture books to his sisters, he does not see himself as a reader: `I only like listening to stories.’ Shawn listens when Susie reads to Chelsey and he enjoys it when his teacher reads at assembly or at home time. As far as his own reading is concerned, Shawn has enjoyed some of the Jets titles (Harry with Spots On was a big hit) and he was briefly interested in the Goosebumps series following a friend’s recommendation, but for him time after school is time to play football. Reading for pleasure and choice is also football related – programmes bought at the match and football magazines. Susie feels strongly that he should not be pushed to stay in and read when he is not interested.
Chelsey on the other hand loves reading. She reads stories to Cody and makes up stories about the Spice Girls (‘girls’ stories,’ says Shawn nicely). Chelsey’s favourite books are `ones with chapters, ones with pictures and writing, and ones with just writing’. `She is really good at reading,’ says Susie. When Susie is busy in the kitchen, Chelsey will sit at the table and read aloud to her. All the older family members read Cody stories, especially at bedtime and now Frankie and Jimmy are also being introduced to books. `It’s like learning to crawl,’ says Susie, `you show them how it works and they soon pick it up.’
`It’s going to sound freakish, but all three of our boys read voraciously,’ say Antonia and Tom Riviere, parents of twins Joe and Dan, 13, and Simon, 10.
We don’t have a television so it has always been their a’ source of entertain ent. I know it sounds mad, but we still read them all a bedtime story, which is one of the things which we think has kept them going. It’s useful as a way of setting them off on something which they then pursue independently. For example we read them My Family and Other Animals a couple of years ago, which they loved and they went off and read all the other Gerald Durrell books on their own.
None of them has ever wanted to read any fantasy or horror or any of those sorts of things boys are meant to like. They like things that are real but are written in a novelty sort of way. The Kontiki Expedition was a great favourite. At the moment we’re reading them Douglas Adams’s Last Chance to See, which they are really enjoying. Joe reads science fiction, Azimov and so on, whereas Dan is more inclined towards natural history.
The fact that they read so much can’t have been to do with role models because their father doesn’t read a huge amount. But we think that what counts is whether reading is valued as an activity within the family. Their uncle is a novelist and in some way books for them are part of how you’re regarded. At primary school the elder ones had an amazing head teacher who was passionate about children’s books and she was so thrilled to find that they were keen on the whole business she used to dig out all sorts of things for them from her own collection. One of the twins had a violin teacher who did the same.
The elder ones are now at an awkward age where they’re finding it difficult to find books that are right for them. They’re trying out lots of adult fiction and some of it works and some of it doesn’t. One of them tried to read Catch 22 recently but had to give it up. P G Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes have been good for bridging the gap.’
Deborah Maby is a mother of two, a journalist and a children’s book reviewer.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Young People’s Reading at the End of the Century (published 1996) can be obtained from the NCRCL, Downshire House, Roehampton Institute London, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 4HT, at a cost of £30 (cheques to be made payable to Roehampton Institute London).
Some Thoughts on Why Boys Don’t Choose to Read in School by Elaine Millard is an occasional paper published by the National Literacy Trust, Swire House, 59 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AJ (Tel: 0171 828 2435).
BfK will be following up this article with a list of Books with Boy Appeal.