Appealing to the Reluctant Boy Reader
I can count the number of books I read for pleasure between middle school and high school on one hand. I’m a slow reader and easily distracted. I bring this up partly as a confession, but also to bring up a topic close to me as a reader. How can a writer appeal to the reluctant boy reader?
I’ve read well-meaning articles about what attracts this cadre of readers. Though they are accurate on a few ideas, I believe they miss on some important ones that I have found attracted me as a reader.
I want to note up front that as a group we don’t like to read. Yes, that’s obvious in the title, but I believe it’s crucial in finding ways and techniques to reach these readers. Why do I say this? As writers, we should consider our competition and for reluctant readers, particularly boys, it isn’t other books that we are competing against. It’s video and online gaming, ESPN and sports, girls, cars, and everything else that appeals to boys from ages ten to eighteen. With this in mind, below is my list of things to consider if you want to attract the reluctant boy reader.
Pacing– I believe pacing is the most important factor that keeps me reading. Books are entertainment and in today’s fast-paced entertainment and social media, a slow book couldn’t hold a two-year-old’s attention, let alone a reluctant reader. The story has to move, and move quickly. Otherwise, I will close the book before finishing the first chapter and head to the computer to gank some noob in a warfront. An example of one of the best fast paced books I’ve read is Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games. It’s only one of two books I finished within a 24 hour period. Don’t be confused that Hunger Games has a girl protagonist. The main character’s gender doesn’t matter to boys as long as the story is moving forward at high speed.
Draw me quickly into scenes– Popular books on the reluctant reader lists are the HiLo books, high interest material with low reading level. For me, the word difficulty never stopped me from reading. Not all reluctant readers need easier reading levels. What I think is more crucial is cutting out the fluff and get the reader into the scene. If a writer takes two pages to describe a setting, or better yet, several paragraphs to reveal a character’s inner emotion, then you’ve lost my interest. I’ll put the book down and check my twitter feed. Complex, metaphorical writing isn’t the problem. I loved The Night Circus, which is a lyrical book. Why? Erin Morgenstern pulls the reader into her story and scenes fast, and the reader is constantly moving. Get me into the story and I will forget about all the distractions calling to me.
Boys and action– Boys like action. Boys also like reading about boys. I know I said the main character doesn’t have to be a boy. And while I believe that’s true, I realize that girls and boys think differently. Yes, boys are less emotion and more about action. Why do you think we gush all over sports? There’s something addicting about watching a great game. Maybe it’s millions of years of genetics that tell us to down the wooly mammoth. Or simply, boys haven’t evolved from our Neanderthal ways while girl’s reached the 21st century full of emotion and sociality long ago. Maze Runner is a great example of boys and action where boys run around in a maze like lab rats trying to figure out why they are there and how to get out (sounds like a great Neanderthal fire story). I do think action leads to a fast pace story. Action scenes are quicker, with less fluff. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to throw in something boys like to do, like sports.
Humor– Boys love to laugh. I spent every day reading Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, and the various other comics in our newspaper. I believe humor is crucial for maintaining sanity in a crazy world. I also believe that humor writing is the hardest thing a writer can learn. Why? Because, humor is subjective. Even the best comedians, the people who do funny professionally can bomb. That said, there are a few writers that have it and those books appeal to boys. Certainly smart, witty, and snarky humor appeals to boys like that found in Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians. Also, dorky stuff is good, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Pictures– I’m visually stimulated like 99% of the male population. I know what you’re thinking, pictures aren’t for mature readers. Look, we are talking boys here, since when were we ever mature? Heck, take a look at those 30 or 40-something dudes who buy comic books. Guys like visual stuff, maybe it’s our Neanderthal brains again wanting to go back to the cave drawings. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a great example for a middle grade book with pictures, and I’d suggest the Leviathan series for young adult.
Non-fiction- I know from experience that many of the reluctant readers I encounter started with non-fiction books. And I’m not talking about those sex books that appear on reluctant reader lists. Think about it! What 15 year-old boy is going to enter a library and check out a book on sex written for kids their age? No boy wants to face the mockery that would come if any of their friends or parents found out. The non-fiction I’m talking about are books on stuff boys are interested in like aircraft, space, military, science, sports, etc. Give me pictures and I’m turning the pages reading the descriptions.
World building and fantasy– Great world building is an excellent way to appeal to the reluctant boy reader. Books like the Harry Potter series use an enormous, complex make-believe world that swallows up any reader. The Harry Potter of my day was Lord of the Rings. Not great writing, but one of the best built worlds of all time. I spent hours reading The Silmarillion to discover Tolkien’s rich world. So, give us reluctant readers good fantastic world building and we will lose ourselves.
Finally, reluctant readers don’t read for a reason. If given the choice they’d select any number of high stimulating activities available to the average kid. What does that mean to a writer trying to reach this market? The book he or she is writing better be as stimulating as a video game, sporting event, or an action movie if the writer hopes to reach these boys. The best part is that there are a lot of examples that do this.
Do you have any books to add to this list?