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Reluctant Readers? Boys and Books

Comics need to be recognised as valid reading material

Boys don’t like to read. It is, apparently, a fact. One of those extra facty facts that doesn’t require citation; it just is. It’s so true, so universally acknowledged, that to cite a source would be to undermine its factiness. Everybody knows it. It is because it is.

The significantly less facty fact, but the one that has actual science in it, is that boys read only slightly less than girls (Topping 2010). They tend towards less challenging literature, it’s true, but ultimately the reading habits of girls and boys are remarkably similar.

Yet we believe beyond doubt that boys are usually reluctant readers who don’t read outside of the classroom and only read inside it with some hesitation.

The genesis of this myth is likely the type of reading boys indulge in. They are more likely, in their leisure time, to read graphic novels and comics, magazines (the number one choice of reading materials for both boys and girls) and websites. Each of these media has a value – graphic novels may be picture heavy, but they use similar narrative techniques to other fiction, magazines are as likely to be informative as they are to be vapid and being able to surf the internet effectively is a valuable skill. If your children are clicking on Perez Hilton as often as Wikipedia, they’re still practicing functional literacy. If we started to view time spent online or with a comic book to be legitimate reading, the perceived gap between girls’ and boys’ readerly habits would look much smaller.

Boys too drink up narratives in digital media – television, film* and video games each deliver fiction to those whom we swear are not exposed to it. Charles London:

Boys today are consuming more text than at any time in human history. Adults simply are not valuing the reading that boys are doing. Teachers, librarians, writers like me, and even boys themselves, have privileged the literary novel above all other forms of literacy.

Children learn lessons all the time from these activities; they fulfil the dual aims of kidlit, to instruct and delight, but there are other gains to be made too. Video games offer a choose your own adventure style narrative, as well as sharpening reflexes and decision-making skills; film and television viewing can be appreciated from an aesthetic as well as a literary point of view. Books are wonderful things, but they are no longer the only gateway to knowledge.

Books have not always been viewed by all with the reverence we afford them today. Rousseau called them the “instruments of [children’s] greatest misery” and “the plague of childhood” (Emile, p. 116). The current generation of pre-teens will, arguably, be the first that doesn’t eye the e-reader with a modicum of suspicion. Perhaps a time will come when the book is no longer revered as an art form, and digital media will take its place.

Read! Read the book!

As Prof. Topping suggests, it’s necessary to value all the reading boys indulge in, be it ink on a page or pixels on a screen, to value fact or fiction delivered across the board. Our boys like stories, they like information, they just don’t necessarily like it to be delivered to them in the traditional way. And who can blame them? Our society actively tells boys that they don’t like books. We show surprise when we come across a male bookworm. We perpetuate the myth that reading is a feminine pleasure, and that it is not okay for boys to display feminine traits. Then, when we measure boys’ reading, we ignore the materials that they are most likely to enjoy and chastise them over the entirely unsurprising results.

Some commentators suggest that the way to get boys to read more books is to give them no choice. Take away video games and the kind of gross out humour books generally aimed at boys and provide only wholesome literature. I’m not convinced: making any item contraband merely increases its desirability.

Two things need to change. One, I’ve mentioned above: we need to recognise the legitimacy of reading materials not bound between embossed covers. The other is harder. We need to allow our boys to take pleasure in literature on their own terms. We need to stop gendering historical fiction, true life stories, classics and a great many other genre as female, and make them more appealing to male readers.

By recognising the value in the literature boys do consume, we take the pressure off. By de-gendering available literature we make it more attractive. Maybe then we will see some closure of the gap between the book reading habits of girls and boys.

Related reading.

Boys read as much as girls, but prefer the simpler books, Independent March 2010.

Warning over reading standards as children shun tough books, Telegraph March 2011.

Gender and reading habits, part one: Let’s hear it for the boys, comiXology, March 2008.

*Incidental questions. When does a script, and undeniably literary form, become a TV show? What makes a play literature but a movie not?


Rousseau. JJ ([1762] 1979),  Emile or On Education, trans. Alan Bloom. New York: Basic

Topping, K. J. (2010). Assessment in school – Literacy: reading. In McGaw, B., Peterson, P. L., & Baker, E. (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education, 3rd edition (Section on Educational Assessment). Oxford & St Louis, MO: Elsevier.

3 responses »

  1. nathaniel mathews

    I wonder what relationship the myths of what boys read today has to the birth of the novel in the 19th century, where this serialised fiction was initially viewed as a feminine interest only

    • That’s a really interesting question, and one to which I don’t immediately know the answer. What follows is entirely conjecture.

      More expensive serialised fiction was possibly seen as a feminine interest because it was middle- and upper-class women who actually had the time to read – a lot of them are morally improving or discuss the inequities of society, which doesn’t seem to surprising considering the social value placed on womens’ charitable works.

      Cheap serialised fiction like the penny dreadfuls which were marketed toward the working classes, and which were followed by magazines marketed toward boys (like Boys of England) which contained the same kind of gory and high adventure stories. Perhaps it’s to do with the limited time available for reading – stories had to pack a punch because working people couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time on leisure activities. Of course that doesn’t take into account wildly differing literacy levels over the classes.

  2. Pingback: Review: Prankenstein, Andy Seed | TreasuryIslands

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