During Children’s Book Week, I visited an elite private school where a deputy principal asked me if I thought I was doing boys a disservice by having such girly covers on my books. I politely but firmly replied that I thought people who told boys they weren’t supposed to read books with girls on the cover were doing everyone a disservice.

According to a recent ABC article, the issue of boys and reading attracts little attention. In my experience this is not the case: go to any conference of English teachers or librarians and you will find sessions, panels, forums and workshops on how to get boys to pick up a book. I have never seen an equivalent presentation on encouraging girls to read.

The article claims that the nation’s educational eye is focused solely on attracting girls to STEM subjects and careers. Firstly, comparing boys reading and girls in STEM is a false equivalency. Women are systemically excluded from careers in science and technology at every level, whereas male authors are disproportionately reviewed and celebrated. But to indulge the comparison for a moment – research has found that the major barrier for girls studying STEM subjects is the perception that girls aren’t good at maths and science. When this perception is actively addressed as false by teachers, girls’ test scores improve significantly, bringing them into line with boys.

Is it possible that boys don’t read as much as girls do because we tell them that’s the case? Girls are told they are good readers and are expected to appreciate a wide range of texts. But in an attempt to entice boys to read, we try to cater to stereotypical ‘boy’ interests – male protagonists, action, adventure, definitely no romance. The patronising assumption that a boy cannot enjoy a book outside this narrow band is infantilising. It breeds disinterest and entitlement. And it reinforces the harmful message that there is only one way to be a boy or a man.

By steering boys away from books by and about women, we are teaching them that women’s stories are not interesting or important, and that women cannot be empathised with. We are currently seeing the effects of this kind of attitude playing out in the news, and it’s awful.

In the aforementioned ABC article, Robyn Cox (an associate professor of literacy education at ACU) mentions a 2003 UK reading campaign featuring David Beckham, concluding with the suggestion that perhaps Richard Flanagan should write some ‘modern Young Adult literature that could be used in schools’. Like many of us who work with and for teen readers, YA editor Kate Whitfield is baffled by this: ‘Like teens are going to go, “Oh, well, if RICHARD FLANAGAN’S writing it, I’m IN!” They probably all have posters of him on their walls.’

There is no shortage of engaging, relevant, beautifully written literature for teenagers in Australia. Our YA is internationally celebrated, but it rarely makes its way onto a secondary school’s English syllabus. Why? Could it possibly be because, like romance, YA is predominantly written by women? Women’s literature is and has always been the target of intellectual snobbery – it’s why when John Green or Graeme Simsion write a novel with romance at its core, they are hailed for inventing a new literary genre, and similar titles by women get labelled ‘a fun beach read’. There is sexism here, but there is homophobia too – many gatekeepers are uncomfortable with a boy wanting to read feminine stories, because of the apparent damage it might do to his masculinity.

I totally agree that there should be national campaigns to encourage male reading role models, but I believe such campaigns should be targeted towards dads reading with their kids, and for heaven’s sake don’t try to entice the dads by making all the books about footy. Men are adults, and they are perfectly capable of reading books about a diverse array of subjects. We can all benefit from reading books about people who are unlike us.

Teacher librarian Sue Osborne works closely with individual students to tailor book recommendations. ‘I try not to talk about male or female characters if I can help it, because boys are definitely conditioned to resist reading books by or about women,’ she says, noting that her emphasis is always on helping young readers find good stories. Similarly, teacher librarian Pam Saunders avoids mentioning gender when it comes to book recommendation. She also encourages students to participate in the selection and ordering of new titles for the library, and facilitates peer-to-peer recommendations – ‘if a student recommends a book to another, it carries so much more weight.’

The secret to getting boys to read is the same as the secret to getting girls to read: empower them to make their own choices. School and public libraries need to rethink the way they acquire books, and involve teens at every stage. Centre for Youth Literature Program Manager Adele Walsh urges libraries to form Teen  Readers Advisory committees. ‘We orphan young readers once they can read independently,’ she says. ‘Readers Advisory can build trust, build the collection, and invest in reading with teens at the centre.’

Our schools must invest in their libraries and their teacher librarians. They must work with teens to provide a rich array of diverse stories in different formats. Let go of the snobbery around the classics and embrace YA fiction, comics and fan fiction in the classroom and on the curriculum. And most importantly, all gatekeepers, including parents, need to work to create a reading environment where boys are not shielded from stories by and about women and girls.

If we want boys to grow up to be thoughtful, empathetic and respectful adults, then it’s time we started treating them that way.


Image: Reading / Paul Bence

Lili Wilkinson

Dr Lili Wilkinson is the author of eleven books for young people. She established the insideadog.com.au website for teen readers and the Inky Awards at the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria. Her latest books are The Boundless Sublime, and That Christmas Feeling.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. As a YA author, English teacher and Head of a year 9 campus for boys, I approach this topic from multiple directions. I cringe at the suggestion of Robyn Cox that we need “literary” YA writers in Australia. As Dr Wilkinson says, we have a plethora of excellent YA in this country that isn’t finding its way onto curriculum. One of the issues is that, particularly in middle school, English is too often confused with Literature. Many of the texts teenagers want to read are not deemed suitable by the gatekeepers because they are exciting, pleasurable reads that often don’t suit being deconstructed for “issues and themes”. In a similar vein, librarians can be (and are) much more subversive in getting attractive books into kids’ hands because parents – who will peruse a booklist to see what their kids are reading in English – are a lot less vigilant in keeping track of what they’re reading from the library. With regard to boys, a major part of their development through adolescence is their struggle to figure out where they fit as a young man in the world. They most often work this out through role modelling – and their role models are overwhelmingly male. Hence, the power of seeing men reading is very potent to them – and I agree with the article’s support for a campaign to get dads reading with their sons. I don’t think anyone is “steering boys away from books by and about women” – boys are making choices based on their desire to see stories and protagonists that reflect their own experiences (including books with dual or multiple protagonists). This doesn’t preclude books by or about women – if boys are encouraged as readers through the developmental stage of adolescence, they will find those books – again, probably under the influence of the people that will enter their lives as they mature.

    1. Overland commenters really are the best, and I’ve found this conversation fascinating.

      Re this observation – “With regard to boys, a major part of their development through adolescence is their struggle to figure out where they fit as a young man in the world. They most often work this out through role modelling – and their role models are overwhelmingly male.”

      – I would like to point out that girls also spend their adolescence struggling to figure out where they fit as young women, and their role models in books are also overwhelmingly male. Which comes back to the author’s original point – boys should be able to find role models in women.

      1. Nat, I think you have misinterpreted what I said. I was referring to men role modeling reading to boys – not boys finding role models in their reading. But I’d also love to see the research that shows girls’ role models in books are overwhelmingly male.

  2. “The patronising assumption that a boy cannot enjoy a book outside this narrow band is infantilizing. It breeds disinterest and entitlement. And it reinforces the harmful message that there is only one way to be a boy or a man.”

    This is all good and well from a theoretical perspective, but from my perspective — that is, as someone who grew up as a boy and young man, and who went through a male adolescence — a boy wouldn’t dare to read outside the box, so to speak, because the enormous social and peer pressure he has to contend with. It’s hard enough to try and fit in without being heckled for being soft (or whatever else), which is usually a euphemism for being gay, but what if you’re soft and not gay? Or not gay and not soft and just like to read?

    The other point you make about steering boys away from books by and about women, and how that teaches them that women’s stories are not interesting or important, and that women cannot be empathised with — this could be thought of differently. Reading books by male authors, by intelligent male authors, could give boys a healthy sense of what it means to be a man, could give boys a healthy sense of what it means to have respect for others, and so on, not by showing all the nice things men do (that would be very bland writing indeed), but by perhaps showing the tragedy of bad behaviour, and the various terrible forms evil can take.

    Also, good male role models count for something. It’s not just a matter understanding women more, I believe, but having a better, fuller, richer and wider idea of what it means to be a man, and male role models may be best for that.

    1. I agree about the need for male role models, Carl. One of the great losses in teaching has been the lack of male teachers. Without them and the power they have to command the respect of the boys they teach, boys have fewer men to model respectful behaviour and how to be respectful men in their lives. Sport stars who say things on TV are no substitute to a strong male presence in a boys life who can show that strength is not the same as aggression. And that respect, academic ability and creativity are all vital parts of that strength. That is what will get boys reading.
      I find as a woman teaching in high schools, when the male teachers brush the disrespectful words and behaviours of male student towards their female peers, under the rug. I as a female teacher then cop greater abuse from the same male students.
      Strong male role models are vital.

  3. I found this a fascinating article although I have reservations about some of the points made. These have been addressed by Mark Smith.
    I did attend a conference once which focussed on boys reading but in my experience this is not a feature of the many conferences I have attended.
    Perhaps I am lucky or doing it right but we have many good young male readers who appear able to read books written by women.
    I found the penultimate sentence hyperbolic – who is doing this in the 21st century. I would argue that all the libraries that I have worked in and seen, strive to provide diversity. I see it echoed every day on the librarian forums and in my professional reading. I am a librarian and as readers adviser read widely.
    My role is to instil a love of reading (not mentioned in the English Curriculum)
    I think not recognising that boys and girls may have different approaches to reading is wrong. However we need to consider whether boys feel they belong in the library? “Walking into the library is an uncomfortable and intimidating experience for many boys. They often feel inadequate, out of place, and even unwelcome”

  4. Encouraging young people to read has always been an issue. Enabling chikdren to see reading as fun needs to be nurtured at home and at school. It is easy to forget that deciphering a car manual or the instructions for computer games are often very challenging reading. When the English curriculum at high school turns reading into hard work, we tend to loose those readers who are “undecided”. The Premier’s reading challenge only partly overcomes thar reluctance. I do not think there is a shortage of titles being written, but a slather of them are”life is real and life is earnest” titles. That may give literary credit but Harry Potter demonstrated that good fun is an excellent draw card.

  5. I agree with the comments above, and would also like to add another about the opening comment. We are doing boys a disservice by making covers girly. Well…that is true. Go to many book cover designers, publishers and marketers and they will tell you: sex sells. Imagery sells.
    When I published my first novel, I was very aware of this bias and did not want a girl on the cover. I wanted a boy to be able to read it with no shame, and that’s been successful. I have now compromised with a hardcover edition in the pretty, girly cover and my paperback remains accessible by all genders.
    Just wanted to comment re the original issue, which was about covers.

  6. As a former teacher-librarian and now working as a Children’s and YA specialist in an independent bookstore I would also have to agree with the statements made by Mark Smith. His comments “I don’t think anyone is “steering boys away from books by and about women” – boys are making choices based on their desire to see stories and protagonists that reflect their own experiences (including books with dual or multiple protagonists).” is spot on. This is why books by male authors such as Will Kostakis, Mark Smith, Scot Gardner, Darren Groth and Barry Jonsberg to name a few, are so important. I work primarily with t-ls and speak at many schools to students and teachers. There are many boys who enjoy reading about, and do read about, relationships and books about women. What, in my experience, and what I have been told over and again by t-ls is that boys will not want to be seen by their peers to pick up a pink or “soft cover”. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to read the content at all. In a perfect world the packaging wouldn’t matter – but let’s face it, adults also do judge a book by its cover. Many times teachers have said to me that if only they could cover all their titles in brown paper the readership of many titles would increase. I have been talking about this for years with publishers and I think we are making some headway. There are some fantastic titles coming in 2018 with great non gender specific covers. Dr Wilkinson mentioned the success of John Green and yes, but look at the covers deliberately chosen for those books – all gender non-specific and many boys come into our bookstore and buy and enjoy those titles. It is a very simple solution in my mind. We don’t dumb down the covers for literary fiction for adults, why should we do it for young adult fiction? On another note to Mark Smith, one of our boys’ schools has just chosen The Road to Winter as their set text for year 9 – a book with strong male and female protagonists. I look at what I see is happening with readership in the boys schools I visit and I am very hopeful for our boys.

    1. Thanks Pauline. The Road To Winter is a case in point. No author writes a book for boys or a book for girls, however the cover design and marketing of that book (which are often out of the author’s hands) can heavily influence who actually picks it up. I didn’t write TRTW as a book for boys, but I knew it would work well for boys with its 16 year old male protagonist – as it would for girls because of the strong female characters. It is essential that books that are attractive to boys have these strong, articulate and capable female characters. The cover design (which I loved) makes the book look more like an adult book and it’s tone and colour suggest the dystopian world that forms its setting.

  7. Do away with the stereotypical inequalities perpetuated through gender dividing social and cultural practices and you might get somewhere on this issue, is my tip.

  8. Every individual has a different taste in reading. While we may offer a wide range of options and encourage a varied diet, and there is no reason from boys not to read and enjoy romance, could it be that many boys of this age just want to establish their male identity by reading whatever girls are rarely choosing, in the same way that they opt not to add ribbons to their clothes or hair? Covers certainly do play a part. But are reading preferences partly genetic? Like many males, my reading has always lent towards non-fiction. 60 years ago, at the age of 9 I primarily wanted to read about Arctic and Antarctic explorers, and in teen years the exploits of David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell’s zoo quests in exotic locations …plus the works of Dylan Thomas. Recently I enjoyed Arnold Zable’s The Fighter – biographic but literary. Non-fiction can still be literary. Given an infinite choice of books, would boys more naturally gravitate towards one that describes the battles leading up to the fall of Singapore in WW2 than girls – the hunter instinct?

    I have a brother in law who skips most dialogue in books to get to the action, and I prefer books with minimal description of setting or appearance, for which I prefer to use my imagination. Do boys and girls innately have different tastes for the balance of which senses are used in descriptions?

    We set off to walk over hills with more enthusiasm when our shoes will be comfortable. I believe many children would be more eager to read if the weight and grain direction of the paper and the binding of the book allowed the pages to remain flat when opened, and the spine does not need to be cracked.

    Maybe we should not imagine that boys or girls always become readers through the love of story, but in many cases by developing a love of books and words and interactions.

    Do we encourage teenagers to paint stories? Do we nurture painting in response to words and writing in response to the rhythms of music? Do teens combine painting and words, possibly in the fashion of William Blake, but hopefully with their own vision? Do we promote entry into the world of modern calligraphy where children experiment with the size, shape, colour and layout of letters as they write in order to reflect their feeling, intonation in speech and the meaning of words? We should embolden them to imaginatively write about water using letters and words that ripple or crash – or about burning, using letters in shades of orange, flame-red and purple paint that flicker from the blaze within.

    Do the children experience the latest designer bookbindings? What kinds of bindings and book structures do teenagers explore? How many books do they smell? Are they encouraged to write, design and bind their own books?

    Today I visited a school as a Role Model for Books in Homes and let the children handle pages of medieval manuscripts from 1280 and 1360, a cuneiform sales docket from 1800BC and a page from the world’s first dictionary printed in the late 15th century – cheaply available on eBay. The children read from a book printed in 1670 that said that New York has ‘above 500 houses’. They played with a circular artist’s book and considered what might be written inside it in the future.

    Let children of all ages truly enter the world of poetry, plays, words, stories, songwriting, the world of language and books of every form and structure until these become a rich, integral and important part of their lives. Sustenance for their creativity and creative thought. Let them be absorbed by this world. Explore its totality. Let us give them experiences to savour and help them to respond with joy in their own way – to the extent that they want to bungee-jump into, read and devour our offerings of all genres …with relish.

  9. I think what some of the comments above miss is the role conditioning has to play on reading preferences. This starts from when children are babies and toddlers being exposed to their first stories.

    Many picture books and early readers favour male protagonists over female for both genders. Take a look the way animals in the picture books are treated – do a count of how many animals are male. I’ve never met a toddler yet of either sex who demonstrates a preference for one over the other. I know that this is a developmentally much different age than when kids get to middle grade and teens but regardless, the conditioning begins here. Boys are taught to expect to see themselves in everything. Girls are taught to expect to see boys in everything.

    What is also missing from above comments is acknowledgement that girls – through being forced to read such overwhelmingly male fiction – are forced from very early to develop empathy muscles that allow them to see themselves in male characters. No such expectation is made of boys. In fact, we make it a shameful thing for boys to empathise with anything female. In this context, we are manufacturing male preference for male stories and then calling it ‘the way of things’.

    I agree largely with this article. I think a lot more work needs to be done to expose kids very early on to a diversity of stories. And yes – more gender neutral covers please publishers so that kids can have freedom of choice around what they read.

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