Recently, I spent the morning in a job interview. One of the questions asked was ‘what book would you recommend to a 14-year-old boy?’ It threw me and was definitely one of the questions I could have answered better. It also got me thinking – why that particular demographic?
An Essay on Readership: What book would you recommend a 14-year-old boy?
It’s a long established fact that girls read more than boys (Tepper, 2000; OECD Observer, 2002, pp.53; McEwan, 2005). There are a number of hypotheses for this with the most prevalent pointing to the differences between males and females. One such explanation highlights the impact of the difference in male and female socialisation. Whilst boys are encouraged to go outside and play, their female peers are more likely to be invited to enter into quieter pursuits such as reading (Van Ours, 2008, pp. 314). A second explanation again points to perceived differences between boys and girls, this time focusing on nature. These arguments posit that girls read more, and gain greater enjoyment from reading because they develop the cognitive ability sooner. Therefore they become more proficient readers and keep that head-start for the remainder of their lives (ibid). Although there is an acknowledgement of this argument many conclude that,in relation to others, it holds little weight.
The gender gap in readership is the subject of many an article from The Guardian to The Huffington Post and many others, but as a field of formal research and inquiry, for example within Sociology, it has mostly gone ignored. It could be perceived as a phenomenon with little consequence, after all for many, reading is simply a leisure pursuit. Furthermore, while the divide between physical and e-book sales is decreasing, this has been a far more pressing matter for those in the ‘reader’ industries such as Publishers and Booksellers. That being acknowledged, there is growing cry for diversity within books (Bellware, 2014; Eyre, 2016; Johnson, 2016, We Need Diverse books, no date). Many of these cries originate from writers and consumers; individuals who wish to see more books and reading material with characters and situations they can relate to. It’s a call from readers and, as those in the industry are beginning to respond it would not be amiss to assume that understanding the demographics of readership, such as gender disparities, and the influences behind them would be a sensible place for increased inquiry. Furthermore, while Ian McEwan’s statement that ‘when women stop reading, the novel will be dead’ (McEwan, 2005) might be hyperbolic in its delivery, it does contain some truth. A study (cited by many but seemingly impossible to find) consistently highlights the gender gap particularly within the readership of fiction (Weiner, 2007; Jamieson, 2009; Thorpe, 2009). In the USA and Canada, men account for only 20% of this market (Weiner, 2007) leaving the market relying heavily on their female readers.
In childhood and adolescence, the gender gap is also prominent. With the exception of Korea, in all OECD countries, including the United Kingdom, the USA, France, and Germany girls are more likely to not only read for pleasure, but they are also more liable to understand the content of what they are reading (OECD observer, 2002, pp. 53). Again, not only does this raise questions about why but it also warrants concerns surrounding future achievement and ability of boys. As previously explored, the cognitive difference that some would argue are evident between males and females have been voiced as an explanation, and while there are others who respond by claiming that the evidence is too slight, it appears that reading can and does have an effect on future cognitive development. According to a study by UCL, reading for pleasure has a greater impact on the future cognitive development of children than other factors such as parental education levels or socio-economic background (Sullivan and Brown, 2013, pp. 2). There is also evidence that reading for pleasure has a positive correlation with higher test results in, not only vocabulary and spelling which may be expected but also in maths (IOE, 2014).
There is also a difference in the reasons boys and girls have for reading. Both girls and boys are reported as believing that a good reading ability was important for future endeavours and career prospects. However, this is a greater determining factor for male readers with more citing that they read to improve future chances than girls in the same age group. Girls, instead, read more for pleasure and entertainment; reading because they want to rather than for progress. Possibly in line with this, girls were also more likely to discuss books and reading with their peers and family, seeing that also as a fun and engaging activity (Clark and Foster, 2005, pp.3). This trend could, more recently, be argued as also visible among parents and the way they encourage reading. Until a study by Baker and Milligan in 2013, there had been a minimal indication that there were gender biases in the time spent by parents reading and encouraging reading from, and with, their children (Reese, 2013). However, in this 2013 study, a different picture was discovered. Baker and Milligan posit that parents are more likely to spend time reading with their daughters than with their sons (Baker and Milligan, 2013, pp. 341). This links closely with the argument that socialisation practices and biases play a significant role in the reading habits of children and that such conclusions go some way to explaining the gender gap.
From evidence such as this, it would not be presumptuous to conclude that encouraging reading and the enjoyment of it from boys (and men – children are more likely to read if their parents do so ) is necessary. But it may also be difficult. As has already been established, girls are more likely to read for fun than their male peers, and this trend spans all age groups. However, it has also been discovered that, as children grow older, they are less likely to read recreationally if at all. For example, Scholastic, in 2016, conducted a survey and discovered, upon asking the question ‘how many days a week do you read?’, that 47% of children aged 6-8 years read between 5 and 7 days of the week, whereas only 17% of 15-17-year-olds read that much. Furthermore, the report also found that children’s reading enjoyment remains relatively stable until it falls dramatically during the 12-14 age group (Scholastic, 2016).
Understanding that this fall in the amount that children read is significant and worrying is critical. However, as illustrated, the statistics regarding boy’s reading habits are even more shocking. Any internet search of ‘why don’t children read?’, or something similar returns a list of items, people, and practices which are to be blamed – anything from the invention of the smartphone to parents and teachers. These results, even without a rigorous methodology or apparent academic or professional qualification are a clear and undeniable illustration that to encourage reading there would need to be a multifaceted approach. However, it also seems clear that one of the most popular methods should be praise and enthusiasm, teaching boys, from an early age and continuing throughout their childhood and adolescence, that reading is a respected and legitimate entertainment choice. Finding texts that engage them and allowing them to express themselves and their interest is crucial.
Michael Morpurgo, acclaimed children’s writer, similarly revealed that ‘we are failing too many boys in the enjoyment of reading’ (Morpurgo, 2012) and argues that they are multiple approaches that could be taken. As a former teacher, the majority of these suggestions are focused on the teaching profession and the ways teachers can encourage a love of reading. However, the idea that ‘ Teacher training should always include modules dedicated to developing the teachers’ own appreciation of literature, so that when they come to read to the children or to recommend a book, it is meant, and the children know it’ (ibid) suggests many of the prevailing themes of many of the arguments. Furthermore, it supports the idea that early ideas, socialisation and interactions with the interests of authority figures, such as teachers and parents can have a lasting impact.
Reading is an activity for everyone, the ability to read is a valuable skill, and it is one which should be preserved and encouraged among all genders and all age groups. Increasing the amount of male readership is crucial, not only for the industry but also
for male readers. As Dr Seuss once rhymed ‘the more you read, the more you know’ (Seuss, 1978). Of course, reading is not for everyone, but for some children to feel as though they should not read or as though they are not good enough at reading to enjoy a book are sorely missing out. Therefore, acknowledgement of this issue and understanding that it stems from multiple causes all of which need addressing. The most prevalent of these being biases, most likely unconsciously, being displayed in the amount of encouragement and time that boys receive in relation to reading.
Baker, M., Milligan, K., 2016. ‘Boy-Girl Differences in Parental Time Investments: Evidence from Three Countries’. Journal of Human Capital 10(4), 399–441.
Bellware, K., 2014. 12 Irrefutable, Amazing Reasons We Need More Diversity In Books. Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/02/we-need-diverse-books_n_5253934.html (Accessed 19th September 2017)
Clark, C., Foster, A., 2005. Children’s and Young People’s Reading Habits and Preferences: The who, what, why, where and when? National Literacy Trust.
Dr. Seuss, 1978. ‘I Can Read With My Eyes Shut’. New York City: Beginner Books
Eyre, C., 2016. Booksellers call for more diverse kids books. The Bookseller. Available at: https://www.thebookseller.com/news/booksellers-call-more-diverse-kids-books-335556 (Accessed 21st September 2017)
IOE, 2014. Reading for pleasure, and attainment in maths, vocabulary and spelling (Research Briefing No. 106). Institution of Education, London. Available at: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/18836/1/RB106_Reading_for_Pleasure_Sullivan.pdf (Accessed: 20th September 2017)
Jamieson, A., 2009. Women more avid readers of books than men, survey says. The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/5033672/Women-more-avid-readers-of-books-than-men-survey-says.html (Accessed: 24th September 2017)
Johnson, C., 2016. The books world is a massive diversity fail – here’s how we change it. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/jun/17/childrens-books-diversity-change-inclusive-minds (Accessed: 21st September 2017)
McEwan, I., 2005. Ian McEwan: Hello, would you like a free book? The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/sep/20/fiction.features11 (Accessed: 22nd September 2017)
Morpurgo, M., 2012. Michael Morpurgo: We are failing too many boys in the enjoyment of reading. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/jul/02/michael-morpurgo-boys-reading (Accessed: 30th September 2017)
OECD Observer, 2002. Girls read more than boys. Available at: http://oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/653/Girls_read_more_than_boys.html (Accessed 22nd September 2017).
Reese, E., 2013. The Gender Gap in Reading. Psychology Today. Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tell-me-story/201308/the-gender-gap-in-reading (Accessed 28th September 2017).
Scholastic, 2016. Kids and Family Reading report. Available at: http://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/what-parents-and-kids-want.htm
Sullivan, A., Brown, M., 2013. Social inequalities in cognitive scores at 16: The role of reading (working paper). Institution of Education, centre for longitudinal studies, London. Available at: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1473708/1/Sullivan_CLS%20WP%202013%20%2810%29%20Social%20inequalities%20in%20cognitive%20scores%20at%20age%2016%20The%20role%20of%20reading%20-%20Alice%20Sullivan%20and%20Matt%20Brown%20Sept%202013.pdf (Accessed: 23rd September 2017)
Tepper, S., 2000. ‘Fiction reading in America: Explaining the gender gap’. Poetics 27(4), 255–275.
Thorpe, V., 2009. Why women read more than men. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/22/women-reading-books-study (Accessed: 24th September 2017)
van Ours, J.C., 2008. ‘When do children read books?’ Education Economics 16(4), 313–328. doi:10.1080/09645290801976902
We Need Diverse Books, undated. We Need Diverse Books, Official site of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign. Available at: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ (Accessed 22nd September 2017).
Weiner, E., 2007. Why Women Read More Than Men. NPR. Available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14175229 (Accessed 23rd September 2017).