Writing for Fickle Boy-Readers

When it comes to reading, boys tend to be less than enthusiastic.  Ask any frustrated teacher, librarian or parent who is trying to find enticing material for the young male reader.  If that doesn’t convince you, check the statistics. According to the International Reading Association, 39.9% of boys surveyed called reading ‘boring’; 11.1% said the stories they were asked to read were boring; 7.7% said they just couldn’t get into it.  Compared to girls, boys spend less time reading, prefer activities like watching television or movies, and score a grade and a half lower on reading tests. For many boys, reading is ‘something that girls do’.

The reasons for the dismal record are varied and complex, mired in genetics, social stereotypes and environmental influences at home and at school.  For writers of material for young people, though, the news is a silver lining of sorts. The market is rich in opportunities for those who know how and what to write for the fickle boy-reader. Witness the success of series books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, proof that despite their lacklustre reading interests, boys can, and will become hooked if the material and approach are right.untitled

For writers up to the challenge, here are a few things that turn on – and turn off – boy readers, and perhaps editors who are looking for marketable boy material, too.

Guys lead…

According to Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope? (Robert Lipsyte, New York Times, August 19, 2011) while girls will read books about boys, boys – especially teenagers – rarely read books with predominately female characters – at least not willingly or openly.  Whatever the genre, a strong male cast with one or more central male protagonists encourages boys to read further.

Go big, go bold…

Call it stereoboy adventurertypical, but it’s often true: boys tend to be adventurous, competitive, and risk-takers when it comes to physical pursuits. In Why Johnny Won’t Read (School Library Journal, 08/01/2004), Michael Sullivan says: “Developmentally, boys view the world as a place filled with rules and tools, and their job is to understand how it works in order to get things done.”  All of this plays out in the topics that interest boys – sports, dinosaurs and daredevils, mystery and adventure, magical and supernatural encounters.  Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where oversized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds.

 Action first, then emotion….

Just watch a group of boys at play. Roughhousing and competition are mainstays.  Feelings and emotions, meanwhile, often take a backseat. While girls find satisfaction in internal reflection, dialogue and passages that strike an emotional chord, for many boy readers this is a turn-off According to www.guysread.com/about/, “boys aren’t practiced and often don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction”.  To grab boys’, action and plot – physical stuff – should be front and center.  Emotions and feelings – the things we often associate with character development – can follow but as a consequence.

Fast and sure starts …

No tortured and slow beginnings for boy readers who don’t have the reading skills or patience for this. The first few paragraphs must capture their attention, and embroiling boy readers in action from the start is one way to win them over.

Add sensory jolts…

brainBoy brains function differently than girl brains, and that impacts the way that boys process information.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (Jossey-Bass, 2002) writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’ and to fully engage boys while they read, they need additional sensory input – a boost of sound, color, motion, or other physical stimulation.  Authors wise to this, reach boy readers by delivering extra doses of sensory detail.

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for young people.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

The Keys to a Successful Teen Novel?

What makes a best-selling novel for adolescents?  I decided to read two teen novels that have enjoyed huge popularity.  One was published in 2007 and another in 2011. In January of 2013 both were still on the New York Times bestseller list. 

miss peregrines home for peculiar children by ransom riggsAs I read Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and The Absolutely True Diary of  a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie I looked for what characteristics the novels share that might have contributed to their massive success.

1. They have a male protagonist. 

2. They are written in the first person. 

3.  The hero of each story is part of a minority group- Jacob in Peculiar Children is Jewish and Arnold  in True Diary is a Spokane Indian. 

4. Their mothers and fathers are well-meaning but struggle with personal problems of their own that make it difficult for them to effectively parent their sons. 

5.  The main characters have a close  relationship with a grandparent and that grandparent has a huge impact on their life. Both Jacob’s grandfather and Arnold’s grandmother die in the story. 

absolutely true diary of a part time indian

6. The main characters each have a friend who is a stereotypical bad boy. Jacob’s friend Ricky in Peculiar Children has green hair, smokes, spits and drives a battered old car. He’s described as a “punk, redneck James Dean”.  Arnold’s friend Rowdy in True Diary is “the toughest kid on the reservation”. Both Rowdy and Ricky help protect their friends from……..

7.Bullies!  Bullies of various kinds plague our heroes and they must each find the courage to face them. 

8. The novels contain a fair bit of profanity.

9. Characters in both books meet with violent deaths which are described quite graphically. 

10. Jacob and Arnold are exceptionally intelligent.

11. Our protagonists have medical issues. Jacob is seeing a psychologist because of crippling phobias and Arnold has poor eyesight, stutters and experiences seizures. 

12. The young men end up with attractive girlfriends. Jacob has Emma and Arnold has Penelope. 

13. The two main characters are not middle class.  Arnold’s family is incredibly poor and Jacob’s is incredibly rich. 

14. There is an important visual element in each book. 

Arnold is a gifted cartoonist and illustrates his diary with his lots of drawings. 

There are many photos of the peculiar children and adults Jacob befriends in his novel. 


It would be interesting to read all the books on the teen best seller list and see how many of these fourteen characteristics the others would share. Which of the fourteen do you think are the most important to include in a successful novel for teens? 

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Two Audiences

Leaving Them Cliffhanged

The Newspaper – A Great Resource For Children’s Authors

MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

Two Audiences

“The adults were crying and the children were laughing.”

I'll love you foreverI heard Canadian children’s author Robert Munsch speak at an education conference in the early 1980’s.  He was developing a new story called I’ll Love You Forever.  He told us his method for getting a picture book ready for publication was to tell the story to dozens of audiences. He evaluated their reactions and then adapted the story accordingly till he thought it was ready to write down. By the time he had finished telling his I’ll Love You Forever story at the conference, the hundreds of teachers in the audience were all in tears.

Robert Munsch thought he had a winner with I’ll Love You Forever because he often told the story to groups that included adults as well as children.  When he got to the last section where the son rocks his mother to sleep, the parents and teachers would be crying and the kids would be laughing. The story drew a strong emotional response  from  both age brackets in the audience.

you can write children's books by tracey dilsI am currently reading You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils. She says since teachers, grandparents, librarians and mothers and fathers are the ones who buy books for kids, our stories need to appeal to adult emotions and sensibilities. Adults may choose to buy a children’s book because they find it artistically, philosophically or nostalgically appealing. 

In her blog post The Dual Audience For Picture Books writer Darcy Pattison reminds us that adults are gatekeepers for children’s access to books. We need to think about whether parents would enjoy reading our story to their child or whether a teacher  might choose it because it fits with a school curriculum topic.

Robert Munsch got it right with I’ll Love You Forever. He has sold more than 15 million copies of the book.  The secret to his success was writing a story that appealed to both adults and children. 

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Leaving Them Cliffhanged

Writing For Children Not As Easy As I Thought

MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

The Kid Inside

Eighty grade 5 & 6 students filled the library of an Ontario school where I was the guest author a few years ago. I love visiting schools, in part because I was a teacher for many years so I feel like a prodigal son returning home. But I also love visiting schools because as an author of books for young people, students provide me with a healthy dose of reality. Students, like the ones at this Ontario school, are my target audience when I write. What they say, how they feel about my books, what questions they ask – all of these things matter.

boy readingAfter the session, one student lingered longer than most and the librarian asked if I might have a few words with him. Josh had read my book, Survivors, cover to cover, she explained. Why, he had even gone a step further. He had prepared a survival kit, a backpack filled with emergency supplies. Josh kept it under his bed at home just in case the house caught fire, or a tornado struck, or some other disaster like those portrayed in the book put his life in danger.

At first, I was concerned. Had my book provoked unnecessary fear and damaged Josh for life? But after a few words with Josh I breathed easier. He wasn’t traumatized or frightened, just ambitious. He’d figured out a way to process the information in a useful way that made sense to him. Kudos to Josh.

Besides relief, I felt something else at that moment. Satisfaction. Somehow the stories I had toiled so hard to get right in my office at home had transcended time and place. Across many miles, they had touched a young reader, fueled his imagination and sent him on a quest of his own.

I’ve reflected on that experience a number of times and wondered just what magical combination of ingredients makes such a strong connection between author and young reader possible. Probably there are dozens of factors, but for me one keeps rising to the surface. While writing for kids like Josh, I had somehow reached deep inside myself to find my own inner kid – that boy of long ago who had dozens of questions, who wondered in awe at new-found things, and who had tasted first-hand the fear, confusion and angst of growing up. I had tapped into that well, found my footing and when I wrote it was from that place, one kid connecting with another.

To connect with their readership, I think all successful writers of children’s material do this. They remember as vividly as yesterday what it was like to be a kid. Whatever their genres, they write from that place, invoking childhood emotions and experiences that are universal, mindful of the wonders and worries that drive all youngsters no matter where they live.

kids playing

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and an author of non-fiction books for young people.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

My Year of MYRCA


This past year the Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award (MYRCA) celebrated its 25th anniversary. Each year for a quarter century now, grade 5 to 8 students across the province have been offered 15 to 18 shortlisted Canadian novels to read, discuss, and assess. In mid-April, students who have read or heard read a minimum of 3 titles vote for their favourite. Votes are collected, tabulated, and when the dust settles a MYRCA winner and two Honor Book winners are announced.

from Rebelight siteboundless

This year, my mystery-adventure novel, Missing in Paradise, was among 17 other honoured titles on the 2015-2016 MYRCA shortlist. My book didn’t win. That honor went to Kenneth Oppel for his wonderful novel, The Boundless. But, as with many things in life, winning isn’t everything. In my case, it was definitely the journey that counted.

Here are a few highlights from my banner year:

Early May, 2015– The shortlist for 2016 is announced. I see names I recognize – icons like Eric Walters, Deborah Ellis, Kenneth Oppel & Jennifer Dance. Wow!  I  am on the same list.

AT Ste Anne School in Ste Anne, Manitoba
                      At Ste Anne School in Ste Anne, Manitoba

October 19-21, 2015 – On a MYRCA blitz sponsored through grants by the Manitoba Arts Council, I visit schools in Carmen, Ste. Anne & Richter. City or rural, kids everywhere share a common bond over books, but for many rural students meeting a ‘real live’ author is first-time experience. As MYRCA’s ambassador I spread the word of its merits, hoping to hook teacher-librarians not already involved in the program.

At the Roundtable-MYRCA event
                          Hopping tables at the MYRCA-Roundtable event


With fellow authors Melinda Friesen, Suzanne Costigan, Gabriel Goldstone Deborah Froese
               With fellow authors Melinda Friesen, Suzanne Costigan,                                      Gabriel Goldstone & Deborah Froese

October 21, 2015 – At a combined MYRCA & Winnipeg Children’s Literature Roundtable dinner event, I sit at a table with 7 others. Some are teachers, others students , librarians, parents. We engage in a lively discussion about reading, writing, school, travel… A half-hour later, I move to another table. A new group. A half-hour later yet another move, another group. It’s a unique experience – readers of books meeting the people who write them, and finding common ground in their love of stories.



December 16, 2015 – Walking into the library of École Saint-Avila during lunch break, I am floored by what I find. Sixty-five students are involved in the school’s MYRCA program. It’s a huge number! In collaboration with the teacher-librarian, two parents spearhead the operation. The kids are totally hooked. Many have already read more than their required quota and are eager for more.

MYRCA Display at Ralph Maybank School
               MYRCA Display at Ralph Maybank School

Feb. 10, 2016 – An email arrives from the mother of a home-schooled student. Her son has read my book and has a suggestion. At the one point, my main characters use a home-made metal detector. He’s researched the topic and found a website with detailed information. Could I add the link to my author website? I write back. Certainly and thank you my resourceful reader.

April 2016 – After an author visit, a grade six student lingers, waiting for others to leave before approaching. He describes his favourite scene from the book, then high-fives me for “doing such a good job” . Later, his teacher tells me that he has Aspergers. She’s surprised by his response. Normally, he is detached and rarely engages, but this time…. Somehow this time, it was different.

So there you have it. A few highlights from my MYRCA journey. The goal of the program is to promote literacy by celebrating the best in Canadian literature. As an author, I saw evidence of literacy at each stop – eager readers gobbling up books, speaking of characters and plots that resonated with them, and networking with the writers who crafted the stories they love.

Considering the 400 plus titles offered by MYRCA over its 25 year history, and the thousands of young readers involved in the program, MYRCA has achieved its goal in spectacular fashion.

Congratulations MYRCA on 25 outstanding years!

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.
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