Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Best Books for a Boy? : My Weird Struggle with Recommending Books to my Teenage Brother

My younger brother and I have always liked being called the "bookends" of our sibling set: we do cap off on both ends, as the oldest and youngest of the bunch, but we're also arguably the two siblings who happen to read the most.

My brother's love of reading has only ramped up as he's gotten older, most recently soaring through J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series - as well as The Hobbit - in only a matter of months, a feat I was never quite able to accomplish (Way too much epic poetry!). We share the same love of fantasy stories and action-packed reads, and it's been fun to pass on books from my own shelves for his perusal.

However, this new side of his personal hobbies has been getting a little harder to navigate as he's entered his teen years. At 15 years old, he's officially a high schooler, and any book I lend him is sure to be finished by the end of the week. I'm running out of titles I think he would like, not because I don't have plenty of books already stacked on my own shelves... but because there seems to be a distinct difference in the ways boys are catered to by the publishing industry, versus how girls are treated.

My brother and I are such similar people, and have similar tastes... so why is it so difficult to find books in common? 

the start of the struggle: the YA section of the library

Recently, for International Women's Day, my younger sister read an article headline to the family, about how an Ohio bookstore flipped all of the spines for male writers on their fiction room shelves, in order to display the female ones more prominently.

In response, I joked that if it had been done with the whole store, "the YA section would look like business as normal." My Dad laughed, but at the same time, it's a real observation: the Young Adult section in particular seems to have more representation for female storytellers than any other.

(This is also an arguable reason as to why so many people are willing to write it off as insubstantial reading, and why Fantasy and Science Fiction awards have such a struggle reflecting popular YA in their winning categories, but this is also not the point of this post.)

Image result for scott westerfeld peeps
That means that unfortunately, the male authors in YA are both scarce, and well-tread. Like I said, my brother has already gotten through Tolkien; he also ran through the complete Percy Jackson series when he was still in middle school, but hasn't been interested in pursuing any of Rick Riordan's other work. My recommendation for Scott Westerfeld's work seems to be faring well, for now... though I do kind of regret starting him out with the Midnighters series, rather than something like Peeps or So Yesterday.

Besides, when it comes to genres outside of fantasy or paranormal, I feel completely at a loss. For instance, I have no idea if he likes contemporary, because I feel like he's had so little acquaintance with it that he wouldn't have a great idea of it already. Additionally, there's very few male-helmed or male-narrated contemporary stories...I think he'd like Simon Versus the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, and maybe something from Adi Alsaid, but even then, I can't be sure if he even has a tolerance for romance at all. I certainly don't!

Which brings up another point: it also doesn't help that I'm leery to recommend books or series that I myself don't like... which takes up quite a bit of real estate in the YA section. Back in his middle school years, I couldn't help but grimace when I saw him reading James Dashner's The Maze Runner series, because I personally didn't think it was particularly interesting or suspenseful, and wouldn't you know it? He didn't quite like that series either.

factoring in female protagonists

I remember a kid in my freshman year of high school, who caught me reading Tamora Pierce's fantasy novels under my desk in Geometry class. He told me how much he enjoyed them, too... which - Tamora Pierce being a total YA Fantasy legend, notable for her distinctively progressive and almost exclusively female heroines - I thought was a little unexpected. I asked if he'd read any of her newest, but he confessed, he hadn't felt like reading any of her books in a while. "I don't read a lot of books with girls in them." 

Obviously, he's not the only one. In fact, you'd probably be hard-pressed to find a boy in high school willingly pull a YA novel out of their backpack and admit to reading it just for fun... let alone one with a female heroine.

Image result for my side of the mountainWhen it comes to my brother, our mom doesn't like it when he reads books with female protagonists, either, whether she means to express this or not. In her attempts to monitor or judge his reading material - especially when I offer it - she'll frequently remark on whether a book looks "too girly," while also expressing interest in getting him to read more masculine books, like Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain. 

The problem is, the inability or lack of interest in reading female protagonists is a significant contributory reason to why boys might stop reading altogether. 

It's no educational secret that boys' brains develop slower than girls' do, especially in relationship to verbal-linked learning - be it literature, or other languages - and when it comes to reading in particular, it might be jarring to make the jump from books commonly shelved in the Beginning Reader section to Adult fiction, without making some kind of foray in Young Adult (and that's also why Fantasy is such a common bastion for young male readers, too).

But here's the problem: while girls adapt at a young age to empathize with and relate to male characters - because most characters reflected in their media, be it television, movies, video games, and yes, even children's books, are male - boys are specifically discouraged from seeking out media starring girls. YA is a very niche market that overturns that gender imbalance, leaning pretty heavily in the opposite direction.

And the large rate of female protagonists and authors in literature - especially that which is written for YA authors - comes down to a factor of consumerism: Publishing is a profit-driven system, that caters to its greatest consumers. Unfortunately, that means that if boys aren't reading, then books won't get published that were written for boys, which, in turn, means less boys will read those books, as well. Unfortunately, this all marginalizes a significant segment of an educational audience... and does nothing to bridge that gender gap.

So not only does it make it difficult to recommend that many male YA authors or main characters to my younger brother, but it makes it more important that I recommend female authors to him, as well. Even so, I still felt like I had to double check with my other younger sister before recommending Dianne Wynn Jones' Howl's Moving Castle and House of Many Ways, because I just couldn't be sure.

education and empathy

You don't need to give me another reason to talk about the connection between greater literacy and emotional intelligence (I've been talking about it on the blog most recently in discussion with the greater political climate, here and here). Reading gives us the ability to experience viewpoints greater than our own, and people who read regularly, demonstrate greater levels of empathy for others. They have experience putting themselves in others' shoes, because they do it so often in book form. 

Like I mentioned in the earlier section, girls do this rather well, adapting easily to male narrators or main characters in books, far easier than boys do to females. This means that it's not just boys falling behind in reading, it's causing them to fall behind in emotional development, as well. In a culture where social causes for women are constantly framed as "imagine it was your wife/mother/sister..." instead of relating to women as fellow human beings, I can't help but sense that it's more important than ever that boys should stay reading, especially when it comes to reading female authors and relating to female characters. 

Image result for the hunger games bookUnfortunately, the typical reading material marketing towards boys is primarily denoted by the inclusion of action and violence - well, and low-brow humor (think Captain Underpants) - which rarely translate effectively into popular publishing trends, with rare exceptions, like Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games series, deftly maneuvering the gap between male and female readers. That's why many educational experts chalk up video games for the difference: they offer compelling storyline and enrapturing action like books do, but it integrates the user into the experience differently and more directly than, say, a book does.

However, there's already been enough investigation into what values regular video game use promotes in boys, as well. (And besides: girls are just as likely to be playing video games as boys are.) 

So not only are there few selections for teenage boys to transition into easily in YA, and few opportunities for them to easily see themselves depicted in it, but the inability of men to read and empathize with female characters also has a detrimental effect on their emotional ability, too. It's not just that reading is vital for intellectual growth, but compassion, and those needs are not reflected in a critical transition stage of reading material.

I don't want my brother to grow up with such a stifling viewpoint of popular literature, but I also want to make sure that the books I recommend him are ones he'll actually enjoy, and that people won't think it's strange for him to be reading. I want them to stretch his imagination and give him not just a form of enjoyment and escapism, but a directive of new understanding and exploration... but I also don't want him to get made fun of for it.

but there's hope!

It really is a gender issue: a widely remarked-upon 2005 NEA study by Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky described the difference in the reading habits of boys and girls as having grown so distinctive, that it might even be used as "a marker of gender identity." Summed up: if you read, you're a girl. If you don't, you're a boy.

For that reason, convincing a boy to pick up a book is already difficult enough, especially by the time they reach high school. Socialization of anti-reading behavior is tough and peer-regulated, and I hate the idea of anyone getting bullied for trying to read... especially my brother. Thankfully, there are new organizations seeking to overturn this common cultural conception.

Like Jon Scieszka's Guys Read, an online movement to get boys reading again. Jon explores parts of the reasons why guys might stop reading, that educators and publishers overlook, including how encouraging the reading of literature goes against socialized male patterns of suppressing emotional exploration, and how boys are more likely to have fewer positive male role models for education and literacy. 

Unfortunately, the tastes listed on his website run a little younger than my brother, but it's inspiring to see that this is an issue that is getting plenty of attention elsewhere, and can help initiate some conversations about casual reading within our family!

Image result for locke lamora book
Additionally, librarian and blogger Beth over at Fueled by Fiction responded to a request of mine for a list of readalikes to my brother's fantasy favorites, recommending several classic and YA works to choose from to help inspire his genre fixation. Some of the picks on the list are titles I was hoping to grab for myself soon - such as Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora and Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, as well as Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series - which makes it all the better, because I know it's something my baby bro and I can share! 

So, while I'm still treading lightly where he is concerned, he continues to plow through his own bookshelves with high confidence. Reading anything and everything seems to be his current game plan, as it helps him narrow down what he likes and doesn't like. Meanwhile, my younger sister, Delaney, and I continue to carefully push books his direction that might push his own boundaries a little - from Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, to Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows, to Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events - in the hopes that something will really strike his interest.

Clearly this is a topic that warrants a lot more discussion, but for now, I'm just really happy he's still reading.

What kinds of books would you recommend to my brother? Have you had any frustration with this gender difference in publishing? Let me know, in the comments below!


  1. Growing up, I really got into The Dark is Rising series. I read them later and didn't think as much of them, but for young me they were iconic in their way. The protagonist is an 11 year old English boy who discovers he's special (this is pre-Harry Potter) and has to fight the forces of evil. Lots of Arthurian stuff. (I recommend starting with The Dark is Rising, not the prequel Over See Under Stone which is for a slightly younger audience and doesn't feature Will).

    1. Thanks so much for the recommendation! I'll make sure to pass it along. :)

  2. I find recommending books for boys a bit more difficult at the library, too! middle grade is pretty easy--there are tons of male authors and male-centric books. But you're right, YA is another story. I wish boys wouldn't find reading about girls so hard. Interesting post. And thanks for the shout-out ;)

    1. Right?! I'm just trying to get him to open up to the possibilities a little more. And thanks for having given those readalikes in the first place! :)