The problem with 'boys don't read': The dismissal of divergent reading

Published on: 14 March 2023

Every example used in the following article is based on genuine exchanges with students, librarians and others. It is written by a librarian, Amy Lloyd, and her best friend Marcel Ebanks – a boy who doesn't read.

An illustration of a boy propped up against a pillow reading with a cup of tea beside him

Pic: Emily Rowland

As a librarian, the thing people say to me most often is, 'Isn't it a shame boys don't read?'

I decided to do some research.

My dad was a headteacher and had the same problem. 'My whole career I struggled to find books that boys enjoy,' he'd say. I think about him continuing to volunteer in schools after retirement as I take his copy of Bill Naughton's The Goalkeeper's Revenge out of his briefcase. 'Yes, Dad, they just don't read,' I think.

Every day in my library more boys come in, asking for Amulet, Dog Man and Ultimate Football Heroes, so I decide to make a video about why boys don't read, but they're too busy laying copies of Beast Quest on the floor, discussing which ones have the scariest covers. They don't hear me because they're too engaged in their books.

At school a Year 7 student lingers after their literacy intervention. He gets in trouble any time he's asked to read out loud. He finds it difficult and hates books. He shows me a website about FIFA and insists on reading all the updates to me. I try to find an appropriate book to encourage him with – I'll get back to figuring out why boys don't read later.

I ask my best friend, who is working his way through every Marvel comic. 'What a waste of time – he could be reading!' I think. I theorise to him: 'Some boys choose horror, but that's just rebellion. Boys as young as Year 7 are constantly asking for Stephen King just to test my boundaries!' He seems annoyed and mutters something like, 'Why can't she see we just like the stories?' So no answers here.

An illustration of a boy reading a scary story as a shadowy figure creeps up behind them

Pic: Emily Rowland

I talk to secondary school librarians. 'Boys don't read,' they say. 'The quiet boys are reading all the time, but that's just them. It frustrates me that boys don't challenge themselves – they just like Wimpy Kid, which I would never issue to them. I couldn't anyway because I've thrown them out. If anything gets too popular I take all copies off the shelves.'

'Interesting,' I think – it's a practice I see increasingly. I wonder why some librarians do this, but their posts on Facebook always get a lot of likes and reassuring comments, so it can't be that damaging, can it?

Could Maurice Sendak's publishers have been right when they said, 'Those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child [should] be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses'? That would mean even professional librarians like me would have to constantly question their judgement!

Teenagers don't know why boys don't read. They just dissect the complex post-modern intertextual narratives of the MCU, and I have no idea what that is. 'Is it because they have no stamina?' I ask, but they're too deep into their nine-hour binge of subtitled Japanese anime to give me an answer.

An illustration of comic books

Pic: Emily Rowland

I go to training but every meeting is pretty much all white, middle-aged women, with no boys to ask. Still, what use could a male perspective possibly be in this context?

I watch Jason Reynolds and Alex Wheatle in conversation. Jason says something about feeling libraries weren't for him when he was a kid. 'Perhaps because they were all full of well-meaning white ladies and he didn't see himself reflected,' I think, glad things have come such a long way.

He looks sheepish because he's in a room full of librarians, but we laugh appreciatively, just like we laugh when he tells us that the one time he and his friends took shelter in a library in the rain they were chased out, how he only found a voice when he went to spoken word events and started taking part, laugh when he tells us that over lockdown the only thing he read was the entire Captain Underpants series. He tells us that as a kid he read liner notes for his favourite albums, treating them like books of poetry. Just another boy who doesn't read.

I know a student who reads avidly, but he's just an outlier who's currently deep-diving medieval and Arthurian legends – the exception that proves the rule. He flits between historical fiction and fantasy, weaving in some of the Star Wars novels too – drawing parallels between empires. I think of my friend Anthony, another outlier. He says, 'Books meant everything to me growing up, they were my world, the world I wanted to live in.' All very interesting, but I need to know why boys don't read.

An illustration of a boy reading a book marked 'new' with a pile of books in front of him

Pic: Emily Rowland

I take part in a group on Underachievement in White Working Class Students, and boys and reading comes up. 'I'm not a reader. I've always felt inadequate because I don't read long complex novels,' the principal tells me. 'I just read historical biographies, and write notes of all the vocabulary that's new to me.' Just another boy who doesn't read.

My colleague challenges him, 'Do you think there's any chance your own feelings about reading mean you judge your students more harshly for their reading choices?' He thinks for a moment and agrees, so together we set up a shelf of his favourite non-fiction books, to try and encourage all the boys like him who don't read.

Even writing this, my best friend didn't make time to read it until close to the deadline. I mean, he read it all, made big changes and has been instrumental in these conversations, and I suppose he does use picture books as a therapeutic tool with the boys he works with. But he's not picked up the novels I've bought him because he prefers to listen to audiobooks while he plays video games, so I'm not sure he's got much to add.

I wanted to find answers. I've failed and I'm sorry. Boys don't read – it's just the way it is. I mean honestly I think reading generally is dying (but if I had a pound for every time I've been told that, I'd almost match Waterstones's record profits this year).

'Wouldn't it be great to imagine a world in which record profits for bookstores were partly driven by young people on social media platforms like TikTok?' I think. But I'm being ridiculous. A cynic might say this isn't new – when people look at teenagers they see the society they want to see reflected back to them, but here I am trying to find evidence boys read, and there's just no one to talk to...

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