Christmas is fast approaching. If you’re like me, you tried to get a lot of shopping done early, but there’s still one or two people you are having trouble finding presents for.
Maybe you are having trouble finding gifts for a son, nephew, or other young male relative or friend. Maybe, like me, you hope to not only get them something they will enjoy, but also something that will enhance their lives in some way.
I certainly can’t claim to know the individual nature of the boy or young man you may be shopping for. But if he is not already someone who reads fairly regularly on his own, I would like to suggest giving him the gift of engaging and fun reading material.
In this article I’ll tell you why it is critical to help boys develop strong reading skills. I’ll also make several recommendations to help you find boy-friendly books.
Why we need to help boys develop strong reading and writing skills
As a former instructor of English and an advocate for men and boys in education, I need to inform you not only that boys tend to be lagging significantly behind girls in terms of educational attainment, but that the area where boys are struggling most are literacy skills – reading, and especially writing.
In 2001 the Educational Testing Service measured that the gap favoring girls in writing concepts was six times greater than the gap favoring boys in math concepts . Former Newsweek education columnist Peg Tyre, in her 2008 book The Trouble with Boys, analysed high school test scores across the United States and discovered that boys, on average, score an average of 14 points below girls on writing skills on standardized tests .
Reading and writing skills are the primary academic currency of higher education, where male students are now falling behind their female counterparts in staggering rates. See here:
You are simply not going to graduate without writing several passable papers, regardless as to whether you are majoring in English or science. And given that strong reading skills are a prerequisite to strong writing skills, by helping boys develop a passion for reading you are starting them down a path that helps them develop the skills they need for success.
I think it is also important to point out the benefits of strong literacy skills that extend beyond the academic sphere. Reading is not just academic in nature. It is a discipline that, for many people, develops character by its mere practice. By teaching and encouraging readers to experience the slow buildup of character and plot development, reading teaches the value of delayed gratification, a necessary mindset for adult life.
Contrast this with video games, another hobby boys love, where you can log in and immediately go blow something up. Not that I don’t enjoy my video games. I’ve suggested in the past that educators should start looking at games as resources for learning, rather than competitors with/barriers to learning. They can even be used as resources for reading, as you’ll see later in this article.
Reading and writing also empower boys with methods of expressing themselves in ways that are critical to their psychological well-being. When boys are unable to express themselves, they tend to externalize their frustration by inflicting it upon the world around them, and sometimes turn it upon themselves in destructive ways.
When it comes to psychological pain, I have noticed that there tend to be two types of people. The first type is the person who is in pain, but is readily acknowledging and talking about it. The second type of person, and the person most at risk, is the one who never says anything until it is too late.
This is especially relevant to boys since they are often discouraged from acknowledging and talking through their pain in order to be “masculine.” It is also a contributing factor as to why male students commit 80% of suicides overall. High school/college men ages 15-24 commit suicide at six times the rate of women.
Strong reading and writing skills help boys chart and navigate their psychological pathway through life. It allows them methods and opportunities of introspection. It helps them find methods of articulating what they think and feel. If they can acknowledge and articulate it to themselves, they stand a greater chance of being able to articulate it to others.
Ok, I get it. This is important. What kinds of reading material could I get?
My philosophy is that you have to “go to where boys are at.” We have to acknowledge who boys are and connect with them based on that.
For this reason I advocate what I would call alternative and non-traditional reading. I label them in this fashion because such reading material is not mainstream in our education system. I will recommend several specific titles of books/etc for boys to read here, but I think it’s more important that we understand the concepts behind these suggestions, and translate those concepts into the general practice of finding boy-friendly reading material.
For young boys ages 6 to 10, I suggest the Captain Underpants series. Boys tend to enjoy subversive humor, and this series is all about that. Here are some of the titles in this series:
- The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997)
- Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (1999)
- Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds) (1999)
- Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (2000)
- Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman (2001)
- Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets (2003)
- Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (2003)
- Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People (2006)
- Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Re-Turn of Tippy Tinkletrousers (2012)
- Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers
I was doing nothing more than simply reading these titles to my nephew, and he started cracking up and wanted to read them. Also, much of this series takes place in a school, placing it in a setting which directly connects with boys’ experiences.
Is the boy you are shopping for a video game fan? It’s critical to look at video games not as an adult would, but as a boy. We have to put ourselves in their shoes. For boys, video games are the folk stories of boyhood, and video game heroes are their folk heroes. Boys may not like what they read at school, but they may will be much more likely to enjoy reading about their favorite video game heroes.
Many game companies now publish books along with games. Find out what games he likes, and then see if you can find relevant reading material.
Perhaps, like me, he is a fan of Zelda games. If so, there is an excellent book out called The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia. While this book has many pictures in it (especially early on), it also tells the story of the history of the game and its characters (page ~70 onward).
Is he a World of Warcraft fan? This online game with millions of subscribers (and known for being highly addictive) also has an excellent and extensive book series. You might not be able to pull him away with mainstream books, but give these a try.
Is he a sports or outdoors fan? Get him a subscription to a sports magazine, or a book about one of his favorite players or teams. Take a look at books about the outdoors life. I admittedly don’t know much about sports, but I do know that there is a wealth of books available on these subjects.
Ok, this is a good start. What are some other good resources?
Websites like Guys Read were founded to help educate the public on boy-friendly books. Scroll down to the bottom of the site for a quick reference of the many types of books boys love. Boys tend to like books that employ subversive humor, that talk about their favorite heroes (whether sports, video game, or historical heroes), science fiction, and books that feature battles. You’ll find plenty of such books referenced on this site.
You might also consider the blog Books for My Boy and Yours. It is run by a librarian who makes it her mission to find books boys like and read them with her son.
If you are interested in educating yourself further on the current state of boys’ reading skills in the context of modern education, I strongly suggest Misreading Masculinity by Dr. Thomas Newkirk. Here is a small section of the book in .pdf format if you would like a preview of it.
Merry Christmas, folks.