Thursday, October 30, 2014

Compelling Middle-grade Boy Readers to Turn the Page (Post by Joe McGee)

This past weekend I had my three young boys over to stay with me – ages 13, 11, and 7. And while they’re active and get outside to play, they are, like the majority of today’s children, addicted to technology. If it were up to them, they’d stay on the couch, eyes glued to a screen (iPod, iPhone, Xbox, etc). But they read, they most definitely read  (their dad’s a writer, they’d better read), and when they come over they know they’re not watching television. I don’t even own a television, but I do own books…shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books. But watching them on the couch, all pushing buttons and wrapped up in their game thing-a-ma-jigs, I got to wondering, how do we inspire this same hunger for reading? How to we get middle-grade boys eager to turn the page? How do we get boys reading as voraciously as they are when playing video games?

Peter Langella, in his 2013 Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture “Boys and Literacy:
Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process,” offered a startling statistic: that only 1/3 of 13-year-old boys read and that 30 percent of potential middle-grade readers are plugged in for three or more hours.

As writers of middle-grade fiction, how can we meet the needs, and challenge the cognitive and critical development, of the present day middle-grade boy reader?

Through progressive revelation, shorter chapter construction, and powerful, chapter-ending beats, middle-grade fiction can compel boy readers to keep turning pages, despite the lure of the multitude of electronic sirens.

On the “Guys Read” website, a web-based literacy program founded by the award-winning children’s writer and first National Ambassador of Young People’s literature, Jon Scieszka, several reasons are offered as to why boys may not read as much as their female counterparts. One such reason is their “action-oriented, competitive learning style.”

In the same sense that video games provide “achievement” awards for completing segments of a scene, accomplishing a task, or acquiring necessary information, books can award their readers with satisfying information or pivotal answers to clues.

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell states, “progressive revelation keeps readers turning pages.” Bell instructs the writer to drop clues like bread crumbs, drawing the reader forward with “unanswered questions.”  Bell further explains that mystery and hints, introduced in stages, makes the reader wonder what is happening and, ultimately, discovering the plot in controlled, incremental doses.

This method of pulling the reader forward through the desire to see questions answered and secrets revealed acts in a similar manner to video game rewards for in-story accomplishments. In short, satisfying curiosity and providing a path towards logical storyline completion is the achievement children are used to getting.

Charles Gilman does a wonderful job of progressive revelation in his “Tales From Lovecraft Middle School” series. As each book in the series is conceptually designed as a self-contained mystery, with links to an overall arc built on intrigue and suspense, the reader is fed a steady diet of clues, questions, and answers; just enough to sate their appetite and evoke deeper interest.

Another method to get boys turning pages and eager to read more than they currently do, is in the design and construction of the story itself. Shorter chapter lengths provide a different sense of accomplishment than the aforementioned concept.

Shorter chapters serve to compel increased page turns for two reasons. On a deeper level, containing a scene in a smaller vessel (i.e. a shorter chapter) allows the generally distracted reader to more easily grasp the story they are offered. Parceling plot in smaller chunks allows the reader to digest it quicker, easier and more satisfyingly.

Secondly, there is an inherent feeling of satisfaction in finishing a chapter. I believe that this holds true for both children and adults. Humans like completing things. If a young reader is able to read a chapter rather quickly, they may feel as if they have accomplished something. If the story has captured their interest and if the questions demand answers, they are more likely to turn that page and dive into the next chapter (especially if they expect that next chapter to be manageable).

Another element for compelling middle-grade boy readers is using chapter ending beats.

Robert McKee, in his book, Story, defines beat as “an exchange of behavior in action/reaction” that “shape[s] the turning of a scene.” That last beat, he explains, is the “Turning Point.”

While McKee intends his use of turning point in the traditional sense of story structure, I refer to it in the literal sense of a page turning point. Referring to the “Guys Read” contention that boys are more inclined towards “action-oriented” and “competitive learning” styles, the idea of fashioning powerful, cliffhanger endings is certainly a good way to get them turning pages.

Leaving a reader in the midst of action, or introducing a potential obstacle or challenge, may be enough to trigger the arguably innate desire for young male readers to turn that page.

While these are in no way intended to be gimmicks or ploys to trick an audience, they are concepts intended to meet the current mindset of a majority middle-grade boy readers.

The numbers of male readers within the middle-grade and young adult genre are depressingly low. Through understanding, accepting, and challenging the cognitive and critical thinking skills of middle-grade readers, as well as recognizing the needs existing in their own learning and reading processes, we may be best able to keep them turning pages and picking up more books.

To quote Jon Scieszka’s online literacy program: “Guys Read.”

Now, let’s get them reading more.


  1. I might be atypical for my gender (but I know I can't be alone) but I actually didn't like to be super-competitive as a kid, and I'm male just to be clear, that's a BIG part of what turned me off from sports (among other things...)

    That doesn't mean I don't want action in my stories.

    But maybe I'm just the kind of reader that appreciates more detail-oriented prose versus those who'd rather have semi-lyrical prose and perhaps more of a romantic at heart than most boys when I was a kid and even now as an adult.

    I hope boys will respond well to "Gabriel" even though the title character is not of the Tom Sawyer/Wimpy Kid crowd.

    Most of my beta-readers for Gabriel have been women, often mothers with a son or sons, but I sometimes felt the feedback from some of them (not all) while still making valid and specific suggestions to improve my story, I often had the assumption they used their boys interests/attention span/reading level as the default for all, at least that;'s how I felt some of their advice on that was framed.

    I often found a lot of the mothers of sons had lower expectations of boys either getting the nuances in my story and it's non-traditional male characters and/or enjoying the book in general.

    Yet the few male beta-readers I've had (two of which are fathers of sons, and one a middle school teacher who teaches a co-ed class) had those same reservations.

    I wonder if mothers read books about boys and men with a different filter than their fatherly counterparts.

    That said, I do have to play devil's advocate on one point: Television, in general, is NOT evil! (LOL)

    I'm not criticizing anyone's "Screen Time" philosophies, but I'm just giving a friendly reminder that you have to put television in perspective.

    Before I learned to see books as entertainment (not just as information tools) I learned about story through films and television, and I get a bit annoyed when writers talk about television in general as the enemy.

    There's trashy television, of course, but there are trashy books, and both mediums are subjective as to what's treasure or trash, IMHO. Besides, we're always talking on Project Mayhem that we should let kids read what they love, even if it's not always challenging them in a uber cerebral manner.

    Also, video games have their place, I like my action games, but I mostly play RPGs, which involve a narrative (or creating your own) as much as (and sometimes more) than the combat, the best RPGs have both.

    I don't play games as much since I gave it up for a few years to begin my writing career, but when I do, I make no apology for it. When I couldn't read or write much of anything during a really traumatic burnout period in 2011 and parts of 2012, getting back into video games gave me an outlet for that pent up anger and frustration my writing life had, and I'm still working through some of the aftershocks of that dark time in my life.

    There are times when I need a change of pace.Writers always tell each other to take inspiration from all areas, not just from novels, nonfiction books. plays and poetry, music film and television is part of that inspiration. Okay, I'll shut up now, but GREAT post today, and this is one of those hot debate topics for me. (Smile)

    1. An aside, as I often say, I didn't learn to love reading until I was 16, and while they may be hard for some parents/writers/teachers to hear, I say this to instill hope in the long run that reading for pleasure is not IMPOSSIBLE after 3rd grade, REALLY, sometimes it takes longer to find those books and writers that sing to you as a reader.

      Just make sure they're as technically on track as you can and then let them direct their reading interests.

    2. Thanks so much for reading and your comprehensive reply! And don't get me wrong, I am not an opponent of video games, TV, movies, etc....I just fear that many of our children today are doing too much of that. Many children are spending hours upon hours in front of a screen. It's all about balance. But certainly, TV, movies, games, etc can be very powerful imaginative sparks and certainly excellent ways to get kids interested in following a good story. Thanks again, Taurean.

    3. Thanks for replying, Joseph,

      I'm not a parent or educator, but but I do respect their side of it, and it's true too much of nearly anything can be problematic, but I've met some people offline who are so anti-television and/or just the internet in general it scares me.

      I think that sends just as unhelpful message to kids and teens.

      Of course, our online interacting is not an absolute substitute for offline interaction, but for many of us (Especially writers who don't have a supportive network offline), it's a way to fill some part of that need we can't always get offline for various reasons.

      A lot of what we as authors do is solitary, and while many writers are introverts, not all introverts are these mythic/stereotypical anti-social hermits, either.

      As shy and tongue-tied as I am (which isn't obvious if you've never met me offline or even talk on the phone) when I'm conversing offline, that doesn't mean I want to live in my "cave" FOREVER!

      I just wanted to speak to that side of it, and while boys are often typecast with this issue, it's a problem for girls, too.

      The thing is there are more empowerment programs for girls and women in nearly every sphere versus the LIMITED programs for boys for similar issues....

      Also, an edit from my first comment: "Yet the few male beta-readers I've had (two of which are fathers of sons, and one a middle school teacher who teaches a co-ed class) had NONE of those reservations."

      I just think it's healthy and valid to see the student side of this.

      After all, we writers and parents were/are students ourselves, and if we find something a challenge, why wouldn't it be.for those younger in age and life experience than ourselves?

      While it's true many kids are less risk averse than the average adult, not all kids were of that ilk.

      I think sometimes writers we focus on not falling into the "perfect character" trap we don't realize that we don't give their flaws and mistakes the same level of nuance as their strengths and good points, not out of ignorance, but because we're trying so dang hard to not be boring or preachy.

      Not all spirited kids take it to the trying level of "Dennis the Menace" or "Eloise" in EVERY circumstance, or there are at least degrees to that.

      For some kids, including myself when I was a kid, there's WAY more nuance than what's often talked about or acknowledged in a positive way.

      You can have a soft-spoken girl at home whose assertive side comes out in sports or as a member of a debate club.

      An aggressive, outgoing "everyboy" could write deep and profound poetry few ever hear (except maybe a relative or pet sworn to secrecy...)

      Just saying doesn't mean we're also autmoatically saying "We don't want to learn X" just because X is a struggle. Whether that's math, reading on a technical level (which is a different, but related problem to reading for pleasure, not just for informational purposes)

  2. Great post! My editor was quite firm about those short chapters, and I think she was right. I recently attended a Guys Read Book Club at a library (a wonderful, wonderful program for boys/dads), and the chapter ending beats in my book was actually discussed. Not that they called it that .. just that several boys were able to quote some of the chapter ending lines verbatim. It proves just how powerful and important those lines are!

    1. Exactly! And really, it's not JUST for the boys. It's for anyone, right? Who doesn't want to be on the edge of their seat, anxious to turn the page or read "just one more page, one more chapter."

      Thanks, Dianne. :)

  3. Your guys sound just like mine--although the youngest one prefers playing Lego to screens. Thank god for small mercies, eh? I've found that the tablets really complicate things. When I harrumph about "that's enough screen time," they give me "but we're reading." (Oh yeah, and I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.)

    Thanks for the good writing tips, though. I do love to write (and read) a good cliffhanger.

    1. Yeah, I think it's today's kids in general, Michael. They are growing up as cyber-babies. William Gibson had it right....won't be too long before they can just plug their heads into the interwebs. But we do what we can do, right?

  4. Interesting post and discussion. I also write short chapters and end with strong beats -- that was a definite effort, although I wasn't thinking "boy" when I did it.

    Good points from Taurean about TV and other media, like games. There's a lot to learn there, both for kids and for us who write for them.

    1. Absolutely, Kell...I'm not ANTI-tv or media, in fact my boys and I are avid Doctor Who fans and we discuss story, character, setting, plot, etc. I know that there are many excellent games and shows to stimulate their imagination. But for me, growing up, it was a game like Dungeons & Dragons that did that (not a video game that gives you limited operating room and feeds you everything). But games are becoming more and more open and intuitive, and that's a good thing, as long as they don't spend too much time in front of the screen.

  5. Boys are strong visual learners and our 'always on world' serves to reinforce that. Reading is hard work for them because it moves so much slower than the rest of their day. I read out loud to boys as they follow along, or find books on tape. A dramatic reading can do wonders to create the images they crave. Graphic novels also help. I commend you for pushing forth the importance of reading for your boys.

    1. Thanks, Greg! And I agree...graphic novels are excellent primers to peak their interest in discovering a good story. Jeff Smith's "Bones" was a great one to get my boys reading more on their own, initially.

  6. Excellent post. As an author who writes books targeted at MG boys, I've incorporated most of this advice into my work (my chapters are still a little long at 10-16 pages). Shorter chapters, progressive reveals and cliffhanger endings, aka The Dan Brown Formula, are all useful tools to have in the toolbox when writing for boys. I'll add one more to the list, and this advice I heard from a ten year old who was vlogging a glowing review of Percy Jackson on Youtube. He said he loved the way Riordan used "sound effects" in his writing. Without knowing, he was referring to onomatopoeia. Boys tend to appreciate action words and action sounds, which is the same reason I loved the fight scenes on the 60's Batman show back when I was a kid. Ka-POW!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!