Boys Go for Reading Emotional Stuff, Too

By Karen Diegmueller — June 30, 2009 2 min read
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Boys like to read about trucks, boys being bad, sports, and war. They like humor. They like action. I’m picking all of this up from well-acclaimed children’s authors who are presenting at a conference I’m attending here at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., on how to get boys hooked on reading.

But here’s a thought from the conference that may not exactly be intuitive: Boys also like to read books that grab them emotionally, according to Jack Gantos, the author of the Rotten Ralph series and Joey Pigza books, which are about boys who are bad. Gantos said that when he writes a book, half the material is about what happens on the outside of a character, which includes a lot of action, but half the content is also about what’s going on inside the character. The message of his books about kids who are bad, he says, is that the children are loved unconditionally despite the fact that they mess up a lot, which children can identify with. His books are popular among boys.

Boys, Gantos contends, “like the emotional stuff as much as the physical stuff.” He says that when kids read about characters with feelings, it helps them to recognize the feelings they have themselves.

To give an example of how his books contain both action and a “human foundation,” Gantos read from his book, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. In the story, Joey, the narrator tells how after lunch at school, his medicine has worn off and he is “wired.” He annoys his teacher until she puts him out in the hallway. He then spins in the hallway in imitation of a Tasmanian devil. The teacher tells him to stop and stay in one place in the hallway. Joey seems to be unable to keep from being extremely annoying, and he knows he is extremely annoying. His actions are funny, but the reader also begins to wonder where all this is going to end up on an emotional level.

I draw attention to Gantos’ point here because I was inclined to think that the more that a book focuses on a character’s feelings, the less a boy would want to read it.

Donna Wasserbach, a teacher at Baltimore’s RICA school, which is for students with special needs, mentioned to me in a lunch conversation an experience that confirmed for her the importance of not putting boys in a box in predicting what kinds of books will engage them. She said that she had an 8th grade male who read the Anne of Green Gables series, which is about a girl who is adopted out of an orphanage by a man and his sister who run a farm together. The series is generally well-loved by girls, but not by boys.

“He was in foster care and knew what it was like not to be wanted,” she said. “He could identify with Anne of Green Gables.” She said the boy, who was usually a reluctant reader, read the series several times because Anne’s feelings matched many of his own.

Wasserbach concluded, “You can’t think that just because they’re a boy, they’re going to want to read action-packed novels.”

written by Mary Ann Zehr

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.