Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thinking About Boys

Warning: The following long post was written as a total thinking as I type, stream-of consciousness type of blog. I'm using sweeping generalizations based only on my own students and books I have read. I'm totally open to discussion, and this is really more about speculating on a topic than it is about me thinking that I'm right. I am rarely totally convinced I'm right about anything. 
 
As a high school teacher who loves to read and write, and who loves YA lit in general, I am always trying to encourage reading in my classroom and find books that my students will enjoy. With the avid readers, of course it's easy; they will gobble up anything I put in front of them. With the more reluctant crowd, though, it's more difficult. I really have to know the student and what he or she is into and be familiar with my library to find a book that's a good fit.
 
It's been working, though. I had a really religious kid who said he never liked books before fall in love with reading through C. S. Lewis. I had a girl who swore that reading was torture find enjoyment in Sarah Dessen, Forever by Judy Blume,  and Good Girls by Laura Ruby. It was just about finding the right for for the right kid.
 
I've heard a lot of talk out in the world about guy YA, how teen boys aren't really reading, and when they are, they are skipping right from MG to adult stuff like Stephen King and Dan Brown. Honestly, I see this in my class, too. It's not for any lack of guy YA in my classroom library. Oh no. (I'll admit, Idefinitely don't have as many "guy" books as I do "girl" books, but I am always actively seeking out books with male narrators for the guys in my classes.) On my contemporary bookshelf, I have a shelf and a half dedicated to books with male narrators. The books are there. But right now I can look over to my classroom library and while the adult suspense shelf is picked over and the MG fantasy area is almost empty, that shelf and a half of contemporary guy YA remains pretty much untouched.
 
Over and over again I am finding that the guys bypass these shelves. They look at the books, they flip through them, but in the end they put them aside and try something from the Clive Cussler / Dean Koontz / James Patterson shelf. Or they read Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or Series of Unfortunate Events for the zillionth time.
 
I've been mulling this over in my head for awhile, but something kind of came to me as I was cleaning my classroom bookshelves the other day. I looked at my guy titles: King Dork, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, John Green's books, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl.
 
All great books. (In my opinion, anyway.)
All books that feature weird, nerdy, dorky, or socially awkward guys as the narrator or protagonist.

I feel like a lot of guy YA features narrators or main characters that the average teen would classify as "dorky," or that the average person would consider to have "some major psychological problems."
 
And I feel like a lot of my guy students don't want to be associated with that at this point in their lives.
 
I have some nerdy kids (and I say this with nothing but love, because I adore nerds) in my classes who wear their nerdiness like a badge of honor. But I also have a lot of guys who I'll call "cool guys" in this post, for complete lack of a better term. These "cool guys" haven't really discovered that it's ok to be a little dorky, and they are very concerned about how they appear to others. A lot of the time these are the guys in sports or super involved. Or they're the guys who are called "bros" at my school, guys who party hard and likely dabble in drugs and other risky, after-school special behaviors. I see them pick up a YA guy book, a book I loved with great writing and a ton of voice, and then they cast it aside in favor of something with more action.
 
I'm always excited to get them to read anything, so if they're going to read Harry Potter again, fine by me. I'm not picky. But it dawned on me the other day...I'm wondering if they have a hard time relating to, or don't want to relate to, all of the dorks that seem so prevalant in contemporary YA.
 
Now, being an enormous dork myself, I don't have a problem with this at all. I love dorks of all shapes and sizes. And I look at my guys and I would say about half of them in my classes are of the nerd/dork/socially awkward variety. But the other half are these guys who are super concerned about thier image one way or another, have girls chasing after them all over, are obviously very experienced when it comes to love and life. (As experienced as a sixteen year old can be, anyway.) I hear them in the halls making fun of the nerdier kids or the kids with issues. Are these guys going to be drawn to a book called King Dork?
 
I have one YA book that a lot of the guys fight over. It's called Gym Candy, and it's about a star football player and his issues with taking performance enhancing drugs. The "cool guys" in my class pass this book around like crazy; they can't get enough of it. And even though it's not contemporary, they also really like the Alex Rider series, about a non-dorky teenage spy. (I haven't read Alex Rider, but I have lost SO MANY of these books. I'm constantly replacing them, and they are the ones the "cool guys" in my class always reach for. I asked my class today, as I was turning this post over in my head, if Alex Rider was a character anyone would consider a dork. I was met with a resounding "No!")  In these cases, we have books about a guy who isn't the social outcast, but someone that an average teen guy would want to be or want to hang out with. So it's no surprise that these books are popular with my teen guys.
 
The thing is, most guy YA books I have encountered have a hero who is more of a dork, and the football star, or the guy with the hot girlfriend, or the popular guy who throws the best parties, or the stoner who walks in to class late is the bad guy.
 
Well, if you are the popular guy who throws the best parties and has the hot girlfriend, like a lot of my students are, do you really want to read a book where you are the bad guy? Are you going to enjoy that? Will you relate to the story about the shy, awkward kid in the back of the room?
 
I don't know myself, but I just feel like my guy students don't.
 
I'm trying to think of YA guy books I've read recently where the protagonist or narrator was someone other average teenage guys would consider cool. I can't really think of any. (I think The King of the Screwups had a mc who was "totally pimp" as the kids would say these days, but he was also super in touch with his feminine side, and I'm not sure if that's something they all could relate to. I've had that book on my shelf for a year now, and only one student, a girl, has checked it out. I also think that Dakota in Carolyn Mackler's Tangled was a great "cool" guy character, a jock type with a hot girlfriend who is popular at school, but with two female POVs in that book, I'm not sure if I could convince one of my guys to pick it up.) (And I'm totally open to suggestions if you guys have any for me.)
 
So, what do you guys think? Am I way off base here? Do you think that the prevelence of dorky male narrators in contemporary YA might keep a whole group from relating? (I had whole paragraphs about why I don't see this as a problem with girls, but this was long enough already. Maybe I'll revisit that thought soon.) Like I said, I only know what I see in my own classroom, but when I look at the books that are getting checked out over and over and compare them to the ones that have never even been opened and what the guys are actually reading, this is really something that stands out to me, and I'm curious what other people think.

10 comments:

  1. I think you might be onto something and I totally get your point. Luckily, I have a teen son that embraces his inner dork and loves to read. He even tried Twilight, although he wasn't interested enough to read New Moon.

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  2. These are really good points and I hadn't thought about this before. I think it makes sense... we want to read about people who are like us, especially in high school when we're trying to figure out who we want to be.

    Clearly you need to write the next great boy book!

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  3. This is really a fascinating topic. It didn't seem like rambling at all. Girls seem to be so much more open to reading books featuring about insecure, awkward characters whether they relate to them or not. They can also read about glamorous, exclusive characters and love those books, even though in the former books, those characters would be the "bad" ones.

    Does that mean girls are multi-dimensional and guys aren't? I'm not sure. It makes it that much harder for guys to find books they like to read though. I think that girls can see stories from multiple points of view and still enjoy them, while guys think always from their perspective and want to live out their fantasies to the extreme by reading about a cool, exciting extension of themselves like Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter etc.
    One exception I would say is Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is hugely popular... but then again you could also argue that the main character Greg, is obsessed with being cool and popular and doesn't want to seen as a loser like his best friend, Rowley.

    I know the stories I'm most interested in writing would definitely be geared more towards girls, but I really really want to write a book that guys would want to read too so I've been studying the website, guysread.com, to see what's popular with them. Have you checked it out yet? It might be useful for your male students.

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  4. I've never thought about this before, but I think you make a great point. I think part of the idea is that nerdy boys are seen as the ones who would be reading anyway, and they're also non-threatening for the girls who happen to pick the books up. Sports books (like ones by Mike Lupica) will probably appeal to your "bro" students too, since they can relate to that.

    Do you have a copy of Youth in Revolt in your classroom? Nick is kind of a dork but he talks about sex so much I think your kids might like it. (All my friends did in high school. But I guess all my friends were probably dorky.)

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  5. @Lisa - Yay for embracing the dork! He sounds wise for his age. :-)

    @Liz - Let's do one book at a time, kay? Haha

    @youngandwriterly - Thanks for your comment! There's so much to think about with this topic. And thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

    @Heather - Someone last year (a girl) totally stole my copy of Youth In Revolt. I need to replace it, I just haven't yet.

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  6. I think you're spot-on. Especially at that age, guys want to be looked at as cool and masculine. It seems natural that they would want to gravitate to those more masculine books.

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  7. Thanks for this great post. As a dork who loves to read, it's hard for me to remember that — *gasp* — there are people who aren't like me who like to read, too! I think because so many writers are dorks (and comfortable being dorks), it's easy for us to forget this. And there's a large part of me who wants to encourage the teens who are like me, that it's OKAY to be an outsider. (Sound like a familiar theme? Ha.)

    It's too bad Sarah Dessen hasn't written a boy book. She's not afraid of creating popular, well-rounded characters, and she could nail this!

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  8. This is a very interesting post. And timely for me and my wip. Thanks for the "front line" observations.

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  9. From what I've seen, girls want to read about people LIKE themselves. Boys want to read about people they COULD be.

    So I think your assessment is pretty accurate. Even my "dorky" husband says he doesn't really like to read dorks because he doesn't want to be "reminded" of how much it "sucks" to be one.

    I use quotes because I don't think that way, but that is a common sentiment, I believe.

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  10. I really should send you an article that I was a co-author on about adolescent readers... Most of the boys in our sample weren't interested in fiction chapter books - they were into subject content reading (sports, history), comic books, or reading for information (like reading video game books, cheat codes, etc).

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