Ask Alice: Are boys reading?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
Here at Ask Alice I’ve already tackled the question of whether or not young Australians are actually reading Australian YA.
But now, another mystery about teenagers and their reading habits has landed on my desk.
To be fair, there are a LOT of mysteries when it comes to teenagers, but this month I’m just tackling the one, and it’s specifically in relation to boys.
See, the thing is, we know quite a bit about female readers —including female teen readers. But male readers of most ages are a black hole when it comes to knowing what they’re reading and at what age. So here at Ask Alice, I reached out to some of the people who actually interact with the most elusive of all creatures — the teenage male reader — and asked what their expertise and day-to-day work might reveal on the question of whether teen boys are reading, and if so, what.
First of all, there appears to be a clear overall trend — as they get older, teenage boys do read less than teenage girls.
Cathy, who works in a school library, observed: “We find that there is lots of engagement with reading in years 5 and 6, and then the drop off begins from the end of year 6 onwards,”
This is supported by the hard data from our friends at the Deakin Teen Reading Project who have been hard at work collecting responses from over 2,400 (and counting!) NSW secondary school students. Preliminary analysis of the current results reveals that reading rates start to decline from 13 years old, but at similar rates for boys and girls across each of the categories.
A gender gap starts to emerge at age 14, however. Twenty-nine per cent of 14 year old boys say they don’t read at all, compared to 24 per cent of girls. But skip forward to the 16 year old bracket, and the percentage of boys who don’t read at all has grown to 43 per cent compared with 25 per cent of girls.
When young people read is also relevant. By and large, teenage girls are much more likely than boys to say that they read more during the school holidays than they do in the school term.
This is similarly supported by the experiences of the lovely Holly from Western Australian bookstore Paper Bird, in her experience with the store’s YA Book Club.
”Our YA Book Club is made up of mostly teenage girls, while our Middle Fiction and Junior Fiction Book Clubs tend to have more of an even spread between boys and girls,” Holly says.
Now, here you may be thinking: what if the teenagers are reading less and less because they’re getting set more and more texts for their English classes? Well, even if that is the case, logic would suggest that the genders’ reading patterns would react similarly to the addition of English texts. But the data suggests they don’t.
So we know that teenage boys read less than girls as they get older, but why might this be the case?
Interestingly, there seems to be something to do with the fact that girls take reading as a more social activity.
Paper Bird’s contact with teenage readers sees a trend whereby teenage girls tend towards reading or sharing in groups perhaps more so than teenage boys.
However, as Holly explains: “Teenage boys are often still avid readers […] but are less likely to have peer groups that they read or share books with.”
It’s something she observes in the store itself, where younger people “are less likely to come into the store to browse for themselves without a peer group.”
This observation is supported by findings from the Teen Reading project, which extends this investigation into teen book-procuring to the digital realm.
“Teenage boys are much less likely than teenage girls to use social media such as BookTok for book recommendations.”
“Only 19% of teenage boys report browsing book social media such as BookTok, Bookstagram and BookTube to find books to read, as compared to 74% of teenage girls.”
It’s worth noting this particular differentiation isn’t limited to teenagers. My own research (into the relationship between the books we read, and our identity) which investigates reader communities on social media has a similar preliminary finding: that is, that women overwhelmingly dominate the membership of any online reader group. The male membership on Bookstagram, my home turf, is very small. But across all platforms, women dominate in reader communities, suggesting that for women, reading is a far more socialised act.
However, we don’t have a lot of information on what’s driving this behaviour.
I joked as I was reviewing the responses for this column that I should have done my PhD on answering the question of why reading is a far less social activity for (young) men than women — given I’m coming up to my Confirmation of Candidature and am reviewing my 15,000 word literature review, it feels like the perfect time to pivot topics. But that would make for a pretty lengthy Ask Alice post, so to save us all such torment, let’s at least start to answer this by considering the insights of those in the know.
Holly from Paper Bird pointed out that book marketing is often gendered, with customers searching for a book as a gift likely to flag, first up, whether they’re looking for a book for a boy or a girl.
For the Teen Reading Project team, there’s also a clear differentiation between genders in terms of reading material.
“Teenage boys are more likely to read articles, blog posts, Wikipedia, magazines, comics or newspapers than teenage girls,” The Teen Reading Project’s preliminary findings demonstrate.
“They are also more likely to read non-fiction. Teenage girls are more likely to prefer reading books [… and] express a reasonably strong preference for reading fiction.”
There is however, a point of similarity that many might overlook: Cathy noted “our older, stronger [male] readers seem to favour Fantasy and Dystopian fiction, whereas casual readers seem to prefer the Action/Thriller genre. Our Contemporary genre is probably the least popular with our boys.” By contrast, girls seem to prefer ‘sadder’ books, as well as “books that have been made into Netflix television/movie shows such as Heartstopper, Maze Runner.” For both genders, though, “our graphic novels and manga are incredibly popular with all age groups, both in our borrowing stats and for casual reading in the library during breaks,” to the point that “we can’t keep up with the demand.”
Despite this shared appreciation for graphic novels, there are differences in preference of genre for books. The Teen Reading Project survey data indicates that the top three fiction genres for each gender have some differentiation, and some crossover. For teenage boys the top three are Fantasy, Dystopian and Humour. For girls, they are: Mystery and crime, Romance, Fantasy (and you can bet my fantasy-writing self did a backflip of glee when she saw that Fantasy was a top genre for both boys and girls, albeit in different rankings).
Clearly, there are differences in reading patterns, but it’s worth bearing in mind that we don’t have qualitative insight into what exactly is driving these differences.
So we can safely say that teenage boys do read. However, they empirically read less than girls, and they approach reading in a very different way. But there are similarities we shouldn’t overlook. Both genders read fantasy, both love graphic novels.
There are still many mysteries about the elusive teenage boy, including some of the reasons as to why they may view reading as so much less of a social act than their female counterparts.
However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t reading at all, and that warms my little heart.
Enormous thanks to the Deakin Teen Reading Project, Paper Bird, and Cathy for their generous insights for this column.