So That Post-Pubescent Boys Shall Read!

Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I read a lot.  Sure, I played some video games and watched a lot of TV, too (we didn’t have cable, so I stacked a couple of VCRs together and copied several movies that I watched a thousand times) but, I’d get bored, eventually, and I’d read.

At 17, I looked like this and still wanted to read.

By fourteen, I’d read through all the fantasy I could handle.  I’d torn through I am the Cheese and Separate Peace and The Chocolate Wars and dipped into Salinger beyond Catcher in the Rye, although I couldn’t really get it.  Then I plunged into Vonnegut, which was good, but… I slowed down a bit, got less interested — there were almost no contemporary books, starring boys, that spoke to my central, very specific, teenaged concerns, which were largely existential: who am I? What is my place in the world? What am I supposed to do? What the hell’s wrong with me, because I know something is seriously wrong?

In some ways, I was a pretty mainstream kid: I played sports.  I played in the orchestra (bad cellist).  I joined clubs, etc.  I looked good on paper.  But, at the same time, I didn’t feel normal.  I was paranoid.  My feelings were bruised a lot.  I had the sense that I didn’t understand the world.  I showered twice a day, but always felt dirty.  I always felt on the outside of something.  Unpleasant.  These weren’t terrible times, at all, but I often felt terrible.  I could’ve used a good book…

Oh! I was so alone…  Um, wrong, dork.

Having taught 18 and 19-year-olds for the last six years, I’ve come to the understanding that this generalized sense of somehow being unfit is the most generalizable aspect of teendom.  It does not matter what demographic the kid comes from.  What gender.  What clique or sub-group of that clique.  When my students write about high school, most write about themselves as feeling like dorks, being dorks, standing on the outside looking in.

These days, there are lots of titles geared for teen girls that speak to this outsiderness.  There are not many for boys.  Why?

It is commonly understood in the book business that boys stop reading around the age of twelve.  Boys read Harry Potter, but stop after that.  The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is wildly popular among 10-year-olds, but then boys stop reading.  Is this true?

When I was growing up, there wasn’t really a YA market, yet.  The few books that were aimed at me, I read, and I loved, and I read again (Vision Quest, for instance).  I’d have read a thousand of these kinds of titles if they were available.  Now, there is a giant YA market, but there are still relatively few books that intend to speak directly to boys. Why?

Again, the conventional wisdom: boys stop reading at 12.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid directly addresses the dorkiness of growing up boy.  And, even as an adult, I totally get Diary of a Wimpy Kid, enjoy the humor, but that book is not for a sixteen-year-old.  The extensions of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid vibe into the YA market (where more serious conflict can be shown) are few and far between… why?

Boys stop reading at 12?

My son is a smart thirteen-year-old.  He devoured Harry Potter as a middle grade reader.  Around the same time, he devoured any number of MG fantasy series.  Then he went through puberty and his concerns changed.  He stopped reading.  We couldn’t figure out why.  As I’ve started writing YA, I’ve handed him titles I’ve come across I think he might like (I really can only dig up a handful of books — King Dork, Going Bovine, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, anything by John Green, plus a few more — that suit him).  When I give him one of these, he is happily through it in a day or two, loves the thing, has no where else to go, then goes back to not reading much.

He’s older than 12.

My son runs with a crew of kids that play sports, play music, film and edit really goofy, hilarious video, are obviously smart, and don’t read much even though they all read until they were 12.  Is it because they’re biologically/chemically incapable picking up books now that they’ve hit publerty?  I don’t think so.

This is problematic.

You can’t wade through a week of news without seeing something about the importance of reading to academic success in high school and college.  It’s maybe the key factor.  I see it everyday in classes.  I teach creative writing, and many of my female students have grown-up reading YA by the ton-load, and they are generally better at grammar and usage, more capable of critical thinking and representing that critical thought on the page, and better-prepared generally to succeed in school than the males are. The males have mostly only read the books they’ve been assigned in school.

Here’s the thing, though.  If I hand the males a funny short story, they absolutely light up. Eighteen-year-old males can love reading.  They do when the material makes sense to them.

I don’t believe boys hit puberty and become biologically/chemically incapable of reading.  I don’t think we have the books.

So, writing books for boys is my mission now, largely because I would’ve been an even bigger, lonelier, weenier mess as a teen without books.  They made me human.  I’d like other writers I know to give it a serious try, write about teenage boys and their foibles without idealized haircuts or reliance on stereotypes (remember, most teens feel like outsiders).  I’d like high school teachers and librarians to hand good YA titles to boys (as surely many do) instead of pushing them up to adult titles where they can lose momentum (they have the rest of their lives to read adult stuff if they like to read).  And, parents, you should look for good boy titles and get them for your kids.

No, the publishers will not pay for the revolution, because they can fill their lists with books for girls they know will sell.  It’s up to us to make the market.

If all goes well, eventually, a break-out title will come around.  Because we parents and teachers and librarians have supported boy books, there will be plenty more great titles available for the our post-pubescent teens to read (critical mass).  And, like Harry Potter did for MGs and Twilight did for YA girls, the whole market will catch fire and our boys will be as smart and ready for life as they should be!

That’s my hope.  I’ll think some more about it.

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10 Responses to “So That Post-Pubescent Boys Shall Read!”


  1. 1 Sara May 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Geoff, I may just make my dad read Stupid Fast. He only reads sports books, those based on the Packers, Lance Armstrong, and Dale Earnhardt. One time we had a garage sale and he read Among the Hidden all the way through. He also read some book when he was a kid and wanted to name my brother Dante after one of the characters. I do totally agree with you that there needs to be more books for boys in that awkward teen phase!

  2. 3 Kevin Obsatz May 17, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Awesome! As a huge reader throughout my teenage years, I totally agree.

    I work with a local mentoring organization for boys 13-17 – if you ever want to check out our events, let me know. Could be a way to generate a lot of material.

    • 4 Geoff Herbach May 17, 2011 at 11:36 am

      Hey Kevin, I would love to check out the what you guys do! I’ll shoot you over an email later today!

  3. 5 Lori Landau May 18, 2011 at 10:24 am

    My son is almost 15–and he LOVES to read. that is, when he can find a book that interests him. My oldest son is 17 and would love to read if only he could find any book that talked about characters that are living lives he can relate to, or is curious about. So many books out there are fantasies–Harry Potter included. It makes me sad to see my really creative son eschew books because growing up, they were my salvation. Keep writing for boys!!!!

    • 6 Geoff Herbach May 18, 2011 at 10:36 am

      I know our sons aren’t alone, Lori! And there is some really great stuff out there (but it comes out so slowly that the kids lose momentum, I think). I recently handed my son House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni, this author who blurbed my book. House of Tomorrow is not even marketed as YA, but has a teen boy narrator who is smart and sensitive. My son read the thing twice in a week. That’s hunger!

  4. 7 Susan May 18, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Thank you!! I have 2 boys who carry a book with them everywhere. The oldest (almost 13) is starting to have this issue. Thanks for addressing it. Send titles!!

    • 8 Geoff Herbach May 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Susan, my son is 13 and a half and really slowed at the end of his 12th year (so I’m just a few months into this era, myself!). He enjoyed Ned Vizzinni’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, struggled a bit with King Dork (less narrative drive, more asides, probably better for a little older), adored Libba Bray’s Going Bovine (thick book he read SEVERAL times), and adored Peter Bognanni’s House of Tomorrow. I’ve just picked up Nick Horby’s Slam, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin for him. We’ll see how that goes (I will report)! I’m holding off on John Green (who I love) until he’s a few years older.

      • 9 Susan May 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

        Great – Thanks so much. Just purchased Stupid Fast for them (why not suggest that one?) and the Pull of Gravity (huge fan of Gae Polisner)!

  5. 10 Geoff Herbach May 18, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Oh, yeah! I love Gae(I have her book coming, too!).


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I am…

Geoff Herbach. I am the author of Stupid Fast and Nothing Special, among a bunch of other stuff. When I'm not writing, I teach writing at Minnesota State, Mankato.

Stupid Fast

Nothing Special

I’m With Stupid

Fat Boy (Gabe Johnson Takes Over)

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