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:
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.