University of Cambridge student Sam Gould, an ex-reluctant reader, shares his thoughts on how to get teenage boys to engage with reading…
Getting boys in their young teens reading over summer can be a great way to occupy them and broaden their mind. Being 11-14 is still vivid to me: the childlike idealism, low attention span and relentless desire to escape the boring. It was at this age that S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders (a book with a heart of gold) truly grabbed me and amplified my passion for reading tenfold. In creating a world I felt emotionally involved in and a narrator I felt spoke for me, Hinton did me a great favour. The passion I developed for reading afterwards has helped me through GCSEs, A Levels and two years at Cambridge University. When questioned on admission to Cambridge by a hundred or so representatives of higher education at a conference at Churchill College, Cambridge, I emphasised not ‘gap yah’ experience, work experience or Oxbridge familiarity as my way in (they weren’t!), but having a genuine interest in books and learning, something S.E Hinton and whoever introduced me to such books (my ex-English teacher father) helped foster. If a reluctant reader finds a book that captures his world view in some way and emotionally resonates at this time in his life, it will stay with him for years, decades. He will develop first a begrudging respect for the book, then look for works that resemble that crucial read and eventually get into more cultivated literature. He might even begin to love books, and wouldn’t that be a fine thing?
The problem as I see it is that young adults (boys) are too frequently presented with two kinds of book. On one hand: lazy sci-fi and based superhero escapism which is too young, or sometimes just downright confusing, on the other: facile, derivative playground drama, which tends to get characterisation, pitch and slang completely wrong. Each side is as unconvincing as the other, and as likely to lose a reluctant boy reader’s attention at a crucial point in his education.
To turn ordinary boys in a difficult world into enthusiastic readers, we need to present them tales of other ordinary boys living in difficult worlds, negotiating the fruits and flaws of relationships with friends, family and females, not to mention their studies. They must echo the real world in some way, but this does not mean boring them to death with grit; settings which are colourful and distinct (rather than derivative and nondescript) can drag reluctant readers into a world they won’t want to leave: think Morpurgo’s No Man’s land in War Horse, Ponyboy’s greasers vs Soc’s Tulsa in The Outsiders.
Having trawled through dozens of fiction books for young adult males in the past few days, I’ve realised there’s no shortage of good stuff out there. I’ve found a wide range of authors who know what reluctant readers want to read about and serve these subjects to them in interesting ways. Jim Kay’s breathtaking illustrations in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls are but one example: they depict a terrifying pagan monster forcing a young adult to come to terms with the truths of his troubled life at home and school. Whilst I don’t think anyone should try to prescribe a formula for the interesting reluctant reader’s read, I’ve found that the best literature at this level (A Curious Incident, War Horse, Stormbreaker, Lost Boys’ Appreciation Society, The Edge, Safe) know what boys want and cater for them perfectly. Such books are well worth investing in, in my opinion.
Click here to read Sam’s ingredient list for engaging your reluctant boy readers and let us know how you get on with your students!
Sam Gould, University of Cambridge student