It’s a strange admission for a children’s writer, but I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. Reading requires a certain facility for sitting still, and like many boys, I lacked it. I wasn’t alone in this. Across the OECD, 73 per cent of girls read for enjoyment compared to just 52 per cent of boys.
In Ireland, according to the same study, the gap is narrower – 53 per cent against 63 per cent– but it’s still there. Moreover, recent research from the University of Dundee found that even when boys do read, they tend to scan things and skip pages.
This is a problem.
Alice Sullivan is professor of sociology at the UCL Institute of Education at University College London. She has conducted extensive research into reading for pleasure.
“I think it’s well known that those who read for pleasure do better in tests,” she says, “not just in vocabulary but in maths as well.”
Boys and girls seem to be roughly equal in their interest in books until they get to a certain age: seven or eightish
That’s not as surprising as you would think, she points out. Reading for pleasure stimulates linguistic skills that can be applied across the curriculum. It also boosts concentration and engenders a capacity for independent learning. Think about how focused you can be when reading a novel.
So why do boys read less? Is it all down to the fact that reading is too sedentary?
Theresa Kelly, Wexford County Librarian for Children and Young People, says that the can’t-sit-still issue is real. “Boys and girls seem to be roughly equal in their interest in books until they get to a certain age: seven or eightish. Attention spans tend to be less – which may help explain why boys tend to skim read, and why they tend to be less inclined to sit and read for prolonged periods.”
She points out too that sensory processing issues are more prevalent among boys, and says that even relatively minor ones can affect reading. She rejects the idea that boys are poorly served by publishers.
“I think that there has never been a better time for young readers. The range and the quality are exceptional.”
There’s little doubt that the range has improved. Before Ger Siggins began writing his highly successful Rugby Spirit series, there hadn’t been a rugby book aimed at children published anywhere in the world for nearly a decade.
Siggins says that the book began as an episodic bedtime story told to his 10-year-old son each evening. He knew he was onto something when he’d come home from work at teatime and find his son waiting on the stairs in his PJs, eager for the next instalment. Ultimately, Siggins wrote nine books in that series and is working on the third of another sport-themed series, Atlantis Academy.
“I get a lot of feedback from parents saying, ‘Your books are fantastic. They got my son into reading when he’d stopped’. One parent told me recently that his sports-mad son just couldn’t find anything that spoke to him, but he loved these books.”
While there are lots of books for younger boys, the supply dries up once they reach the late childhood/early teenage years
Books don’t have to be gendered of course, and the most successful (from the likes of Dahl, Rowling, Riordan and Morpugo) are not. When I was writing The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud, I wanted to create boy and girl characters that were driven, independent and stereotype-free. There are plenty of women villains out there, but girl villains? Not so much. Mine would be smart. Dastardly. Outrageous. And the boy at the centre of it would be no alpha, bristling with superpowers. The book latches onto the eternal rivalry between brothers and sisters. When I ask, during school visits, who has an evil sibling, almost every hand shoots up.
Sports books are an obvious gateway for some boys, no question, but they’re not going to appeal to everyone. Matthew Parkinson-Bennett of children’s publisher Little Island, says the complaint he often hears from teachers, parents and booksellers is that while there are lots of books for younger boys, the supply dries up once they reach the late childhood/early teenage years. At this point, he says, you’ll meet the first of two vicious circles.
“The perception is that boys don’t read as much, so publishers publish less stuff for boys, which means there’s less out there to appeal to them, and so they read less.”
He identifies a particular problem with young adult (YA) fiction. A majority of books in this category tend to be directed at girls.
“There’s no reason why boys shouldn’t read about girls and vice versa,” says Parkinson-Bennett, “but they just don’t tend to”.
In our house – we’ve got two boys and two girls – everyone reads. But I’ve seen fallow periods during those in-between years, when most of the books are clearly targeting a female readership. It’s not easy to get a 13-year-old boy to read a book with a girl on the cover.
But even if there were more books which targeted a traditional male YA readership, there’s a deeper issue at play here.
Here’s that second vicious circle. The Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study shows that girls are much more likely to participate in arts and culture than boys. “Among more advantaged families,” the report states, “girls are more likely to be read to frequently than boys.”
The question then becomes this: if we just assume that boys don’t read, does that mean we stop encouraging them to?
The other point to make here is that treating boys as one homogenous group, somehow programmed to read less, is a gross oversimplification.
That’s the view of Elaina Ryan, chief executive of Children’s Books Ireland. She points out that all of the research and reporting on this subject tends to divide young readers straight down the middle.
“There’s no consideration for non-binary or gender non-conforming children and young people,” she says.
Children’s Books Ireland has a novel approach to matching books with readers. They run an event called The Book Clinic. An expert in children’s books – a book doctor – talks to the child one on one and “prescribes” books based on what they’ve enjoyed before. If they’re not a reader, the doctor will take their cue from the activities they enjoy.
“When we’re asked what kind of books boys like to read, we don’t make assumptions that one size fits all. If we stock libraries in boys’ schools with nonfiction and comics, assuming that’s what they like, we aren’t serving those who would prefer fiction.”
“All books are for all children,” she continues. “If we think of or describe books as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ we risk putting off a reader who doesn’t conform to stereotypes that are mostly imposed by adults, and that children absorb and start to believe at a frighteningly early age.”
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that there’s no need to “wean” any child off illustrated books, graphic novels or nonfiction, which is what the research tells us that boys enjoy.
Let your child see you reading. It doesn't matter what: the paper, fiction, nonfiction
“If all he wants to read is Timmy Failure (a hit illustrated series), let him read Timmy Failure,” says Parkinson-Bennett. “You can’t really give one-size-fits-all advice. It does depend on the child. If you’ve a child who’s not eating and they only want to eat ice cream, they’re better off eating ice cream then starving.”
Kelly says, “way too often we forget to ask them, and if we don’t ask and don’t listen carefully to the answers, then we don’t know how to help them find the books that they’ll love.”
Getting boys reading: Top tips
Let your child see you reading. It doesn’t matter what: the paper, fiction, nonfiction.
Don’t make value judgments about reading material. Nurture a positive attitude to reading and make it a part of their day that they can enjoy.
Talk to them about what they’re reading. What was the book about? What were the best bits? What didn’t you like? Get them to recommend their favourites to their class or their friends.
If they want to give up on a book that they can’t get interested in, let them. Reading is a subjective experience. Everyone hates ploughing through a book that just doesn’t grab them.
Let them know they can read whatever they want, and help them find something that suits their abilities and interests. The Children’s Books Ireland website is packed with reviews, reading lists and guides.
The local library is an incredible free resource with books, ebooks and audiobooks for all ages – not to mention motivated professionals who can help match a reluctant reader with a brilliant book.
Separate reading for fun and reading for school. Don’t make it a chore, or a punishment.
Read aloud to them, if they want it, no matter how old they are.
The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud, by John Hearne, is out now