Sunday, May 6, 2012

It's not JUST about gender

If you offer an aliterate reader a "good boy book" based solely on the gender of the protagonist you may very well be offering him one he thinks is "boring."  Here's why...AND THIS IS KEY!

In an article by Thomas Newkirk entitled "Misreading Masculinity: Speculations On The Great Gender Gap In Writing", he cites research that analyzes the reading and writing differences between boys and girls.

In one study, second-graders were asked to write a story.  Girls chose to keep their main character in "primary territory" (home, school, parents, friends) while boys chose to send their protagonist out into "secondary territory" (wars, space, professions).

Girls wrote about joint action and protagonists who struggled to remain connected to the community while boys wrote stories which focused on contests in which the protagonists acted alone.

In a study of first-year college students, women wrote autobiographical essays that included crisis in a relationship while the men tended to write about times when they acted individually, often in physical challenges that built confidence.

Here's the take-home message.  When selecting a book for an aliterate boy reader, (one who CAN read but chooses not to because he has deduced that books are boring), do NOT consider the gender of the protagonist ONLY.  Choose books where the protagonist 1) acts alone, 2) embarks into secondary territories, and 3) must overcome physical challenges.

K.A. Nuzum in "A Small White Scar" has her main character, a BOY, stay at home to overcome a relationship challenge.  Don't misunderstand me, I love this book about Will, who wants to become a professional rodeo cowboy, and brother Denny who has Down's Syndrome.  The writing is stellar and the message is touching, but a hard-core aliterate reader, more than likely, will think it boring.  Show him later, once he's discovered that books are amazing.

"On My Honor," by Marion Dane Bauer drives home the message of honesty and integrity.  Again, the writing is outstanding (it won a Newbery Honor, for crying out loud) and the protagonist is a BOY.  The story deals with the tragic death of Joel's friend and that may be intriguing enough to capture the interest of an aliterate reader, but maybe not.  Although Joel must act alone, the story takes place in a primary territory and deals with relationships.  I know Marion personally and though she may disagree with me, this book may not be a good recommendation for an aliterate boy reader. Spring it on him once he's hooked on reading...he will love it.

If the protagonist (boy or girl)
1) acts alone
2) heads "out there" (secondary territory)
3) and overcomes physical challenges
you have a better chance of capturing the interest of an aliterate reader.


  1. I'm glad I found your blog! My upcoming YA/NA novel, The Charge, is boy-focused (although gals will like it too I hope). And it's always felt risky because so many avid readers in the upper-YA range are girls. Any ideas for marketing to young male readers?

    1. Sharon,
      The advise I give to every writer is simply write YOUR story, the one that comes from your soul. Otherwise, it will not feel authentic to your readers. If boys like it, great.
      Marketing? Hmm, once published get a blurb or two from well established boy book authors. If they sing your praises, boy readers will likely give you a shot, too.

  2. Hi Andy,
    I love your blog, with its excellent advice. Our 15-year-old son, Logan, devoured The Hunger Games and didn't blink an eye about its female protagonist, who acts alone yet shows compassion when it counts. I just wish she didn't end up becoming a political assassin. Too much reality there.

  3. Andy, I respect your views and think there's truth to them. But I have a different take on the criteria you discussed.

    Before I go on, I should first say I didn't grow up dyslexic, or other similar learning disabilities, and in no way do my views devalue that. It did take me a long time to find books I love to read, as opposed to what I had to read for school, but I can tell you they weren't all in line with the qualities you mentioned.

    But as a reader/writer myself, MALE at that, I do think you have to also consider personal preference.

    I also don't have issues reading books with female leads, or where the cast is mostly girls or women, if it's a great read for I don't mind, the only pet peeve I have some books with strong females is that they view the men and boys in the lives, be they family or romantic interests in the very stereotypes they avoid with their female characters at all costs, and that book has to be stellar in every other way to get me to overlook it enough to enjoy the book overall.

    But I don't agree that list of criteria would be true in my case, even when I was boy or in my teens.

    You said above the qualities in books boys may be more receptive to-

    1) acts alone,
    Yes, the story's lead needs to solve his own problems, but sometimes I think the loner mindset can get too extreme IMHO.

    Since I grew up in a family of "Loners", which is opposite my personality, I yearned to for books and movies where friends and family worked together, despite polarizing differences and quirks and were better people both as a family and individually for it.

    Since most readers come to a novel or story looking for entertainment and escaping their real life happenstance and sorrows, it makes sense I'd be attracted to books where friendship and family bonds win the day, and I don't mean that in a super sappy way, but since I didn't get that growing up, it's a special for me to read about, and if I ever form bonds like that one day, I'll appreciate it far more than those who, often unmeaning, take it for granted until it's gone.
    2) Embarks into secondary territories
    I agree with this since much what I read is to escape the anger and pain of my own life, and I have a soft spot for stories where the kids get to travel on their own, with no overbearing helicopter parents watching my every move like their my personal secret service agent.

    3) Must overcome physical challenges
    I'm not sure this is necessarily a requirement, if by physical challenge you mean fighting in a war (YA) or something less dramatic like a school sporting event or surviving the elements in a man vs. nature like many of Gary Paulsen's books.

    That's my two cents on the subject. Good things to think about.