How to Write for Boys

Yesterday Nicholas Kristof — who blogged from Liberia last year — took on another interest of mine, boys as readers. The basic message: boys are more likely to fail in school, especially when it comes to reading and writing.

The part that struck me is this aside:

Some educators say that one remedy may be to encourage lowbrow, adventure or even gross-out books that disproportionately appeal to boys.

I acknowledge the problem, but am wary of this “solution” and the constant insertion of this pragmatism into the discussion. It basically says to me that boys are dumb and need to be tricked into reading with the dumb stuff that boys like. Mind you, I have nothing against an adventure story or even an occasional silly novel. It’s the idea that these are the only ways to get boys to read, and should be emphasized. To me this has a certain contempt for boys and their books. The flip side would be saying that girls must be given more books about ponies and being pretty. Few would stand for that kind of trivialization of girls and their books.

Inspired by the essay I shared last week, here’s a few tips on “How to Write for Boys.”

  • Include “adventures” in the title, otherwise boys will assume it’s boring. It’s advisable to also include words like “extreme,” “extraordinary,” or “ridiculous.” How else will boys know what a romp your book is?
  • There are basically two genres of chapter books for boys: breathless non-stop action and zany humor. Nothing else is interesting to boys.
  • Don’t mix the two genres. Boys are confused and upset by any narrative that is slightly unconventional.
  • There is one genre of picture book for boys: stories about machines and motor vehicles. Boys hate people. Try writing about trucks.
  • Feature at least one monster or explosion per chapter, if writing action, or a half-dozen booger jokes, if you are writing humor. Boys have the attention spans of cats. They need the shiny light to be waved in front of them constantly or they’ll wander off.
  • Since you can’t waste any time at all on character development, it helps to give characters defining names like Professor Badguy so boys understand.
  • Secondary characters can be created with the simple formula: give one physical trait, plus one character trait. For example: he is tall and tells jokes. He is fat and good with computers. To boys, this is robust character development.
  • Boys can’t understand moral ambiguity, so be sure that decisions faced by the hero have a clear moral distinction, such as: Save the world, or go and be wicked with the bad guys?
  • If you have a measure of success, go to writers conferences and teach aspiring authors to avoid descriptions, feelings, elaborate plots, nuanced character development, prologues, adverbs, extensive dialogue or back story because boys won’t get it. They’ll just be bored, and go play video games.
  • Also talk about what a shame it is that boys don’t find books important, despite everyone’s best efforts to create books that are trivial and simplistic enough for boys to read.

18 thoughts on “How to Write for Boys

  1. It’s sad that boys are being relegated to the back of the class when it comes to books. While I don’t reject the idea that boys will be drawn more to books that accurately reflect the things they’re interested in, I do reject the idea that they are simple.

    Gross-out humor, guns, girls, games, and sports are things that many boys, time and time again, prove that they are interested in. I say, let them have what they want. But it doesn’t need to be dumbed down. Boys aren’t idiots, they just want good books that entertain them.

    Love the list, by the way, especially the one about writing books about trucks. I think Michael Bay took your advice and applied it to his movies.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Shaun. Readers, meet Shaun Hutchinson, author of The Deathday Letters. I mentioned him a while back when he had his “give a boy a book” brainstorm, which I am still hoping will catch fire.

      Anyway, I agree that we should write about things boys are interested in, but I feel like whenever we write about boogers or trucks or monsters (or baseball or snakes, to be honest), we aren’t just giving boys what they are interested in, we are telling boys what they are interested in. The sign that says BOY BOOKS at the library tells very young boys what boy books are, and thus what boys are. It is the same as princess books for girls. The books we write for kids communicates our expectations for them.

      Most books prove to be more than their covers, and the truck story (like the princess story) will have a wonderful lesson about friendship, but I find that de-emphasized in the talk about getting boys to read. I just find the assumptions about boys condescending… and I’ve known boys who felt the same way. For example, I knew a kid who was reluctant to read “Wimpy Kid” because he knew it was for “reluctant readers.” Ah, the irony! (Of course he would have loved it if he’d given it a chance….)

      • Thanks for having me 😉 I’m trying like mad to build the website so we can get busy giving books to boys. I’ll keep you updated.

        Ahhhh, I see what you’re saying. Do boys like certain topics because they like them or because we tell them they like them? I think books like Harry Potter proved that boys do want to read and that they will if they’re given a great book with adventure that is also not condescending.

        It’s a tough balance. Where’s the line between giving boys books that they want and telling them what they want?

        There’s a lot to think about here. Awesome stuff!

  2. Given how many boys are in my life, I have often found a very similar attitude around people in their lives. Some of my many brothers read, and some don’t, but none of them fall into the category of stupid. Honestly, one of the non-readers probably would if books came with soundtracks – seriously. It never occured to me that I should be attempting to find them different books to read because they were boys! How stupid of me! I gave them books that I liked – of course they didn’t like all of them but how silly of me to believe that is personal preference.


    Thanks for showing the light of the absurd out there Kurtis. Boys should read but if the quality that they absorb from print is no better than the cartoons, what’s the difference?

  3. I’m currently teaching an online course for writers called Understanding Men. 78 students. I’m going to post a link to your blog because it fits with the material.

    I was an avid reader from a very young age. My younger brother wasn’t. My mom got him interested in reading by subscribing to National Enquirer, which he read every week. (Me, too.) Perfect adolescent fodder. Now as a successful adult, he reads a lot. Mostly nonfiction, though.

  4. Ah, I blogged about that previously. There is a rise of relationship books for guys (Nick Hornby being the paragon), so maybe it’s just a matter of time before there is a line of tween romances geared to boys… but I wonder which publishing company would dare be the first to launch such a line.

  5. I’m so happy you’re addressing this issue, Kurtis, as I think your books and the books of so many in the YA community “aimed at boys” are fantastic examples of how thoughtful “boy books” can be.

    When I’m not writing “girl books,” I’m thinking a whole lot about education and reluctant readers…and I think many of us never consider the heart of this boy statistic–the idea that there are legions of boys, many of them low-income, who have never been exposed to texts that they find relevant to their lives. You only have to look at the average middle school or high school syllabus to see that a boy who is not already invested in school or who does not already see the meaning of school to his life is *never* going to connect with the text that most of those classes are assigning.

    Teachers will tell you that it’s hard to find authentic texts that really speak to struggling boys. And one only look at the YA section in the local bookstore to see that they’re right. So it’s on us to make sure that the boys in our life get those relevant texts. It’s on us to write them.

    Well, it’s on you, really. I write about kissing.

  6. You go, Kurtis. Exactly right. I’ve often cautioned about “books for boys” because the tendency is to reduce “what boys like” to the lowest common denominator, and only the most popular stuff, and in so doing we tend to fall into an extremely cliched stereotype of what boys ARE and what boys can BECOME.

    Yes, the obvious choices do work and are popular for good reason: Captain Underpants, Percy Jackson, Wimpy Kid, etc. But it’s not the sum total of what boys like, and it’s not for all boys.

    More than lists, I’ve come to the conclusion that what boys really, really need is to see their fathers reading.

    Excuse me, I’m going off to reread “William’s Doll.”

    • I agree, Jim — and if it’s not their fathers reading, at least to see some men in their life reading. That’s really the point of Guys Read. Not to create lists of books about ultimate fighting, but to get men to read with boys and talk about reading with boys. In my experience with those groups, many boys were more enthusiastic about historical and “real” books than the adventure or humor books they were supposed to like. Maybe it was a self selecting group, but Gary Paulsen and Christopher Paul Curtis seemed to be the ones the most boys liked. They said they liked those books because they were about real people and real events.

  7. This is timely. I’ve been trying to organize a reading group, the members of which are all older teenage boys. We’ve been reading EFL readers and so far the one they seem the most intrigued by is ‘The Secret Garden’. I used to babysit for a boy who loved reading Nancy Drew mysteries, he just didn’t dare read them around his boy mates.

  8. “More than lists, I’ve come to the conclusion that what boys really, really need is to see their fathers reading.”

    As I understand it, research backs you up.

  9. Its a shame that choices for boys are limited or predetermined.
    I’ve helped a lot of mother’s find books for their sons who don’t like fantasy or sports.

    This year there seem to be less MG and YA books out featuring male protagonist. ( not inculding series)

    And Sarah mentioned school syllabus, that got me thinking about summer reading list. I’ve seen many summer reading lists and they are almost always geared towards girls.

  10. “…Boys have the attention spans of cats. They need the shiny light to be waved in front of them constantly or they’ll wander off.”

    Ahem. You must not hang out much with cats, Kurtis. They have a terrific attention span IF you know how to engage their interest. Just ask the chipmunks in our yard!

  11. It’s interesting that before this surge in girl books, most fiction was written for boys. Then Louisa May Alcott began her works just for girls, and the publishing field hasn’t looked back since. (I learned this from the PBS special about Alcott.)

    When I was in junior high school during the ’60s, I couldn’t check out science fiction books from the school library because the librarian had categorized them as “Boys’ fiction.” I remember convincing the librarian to let me take out one at a time.

  12. Interesting point, Kathy. In both cases, we’re seeing that in order to be helpful, sometimes well-intentioned folks put boys (and girls) in convenient little boxes.

    Hey, I think that’s true everywhere in life. People are forever trying to stick a label on you, shove you into a box. When they define you, they take away a world of possibilities. At least that’s the way I’ve always seen it.

    I remember in college, I had a friend who used to introduce me, “This is Jimmy, he’s really funny.” And I’d be like, oh crap no. I aspired to be more than just the clown.

    I was like Fredo Corleone: “I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!”

  13. It’s so important to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it, especially boys. In fact, I’ve recently completed a feature magazine article on this subject that came out in October, “Help for Struggling, Reluctant Readers.”

    I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

    My blog, Books for Boys is dedicated to drawing attention to the importance of reading. And my new book, Lost Island Smugglers – first in the Sam Cooper Adventure Series – is coming out in July-August. Contracts are also signed for Captain Jack’s Treasure and River Rampage.

    Max Elliot Anderson
    PS. My first 7 books are going to be republished by Comfort Publishing later in 2010

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