Monday, April 5th, 2010

'Sweet Valley High,' the Great Retweening and Why Boys Won't Read

90s Tweens Will CUT YOU"Has there ever been a better moment for tween girls?" asked Ada Calhoun in the L.A. Times last week, pointing to the cultural ascendancy of Disney and Nickelodeon robots Hannah Montana, Taylor Swift, iCarly and Selena Gomez. Then fans of American Idol watched as an army of twexters voted for dreamy over Didi. ("America is a teenage girl," lamented TV blogger Richard Lawson.) So strong is the spirit of this young generation that even the women of my own just-older cohort have sought its approval, offering up recycled heirlooms from our own childhoods like so many olive branches. Just hitting bookstores is The Summer Before, a Baby-sitters Club prequel that will pave the path for the re-release of several early BSC installments – The Truth About Stacy, anyone? – later this spring.

The BSC announcement triggered a deluge of inquiries to Scholastic, particularly from "people who had a next generational stake – teachers, librarians, parents" – who grew up adoring the series themselves. It might take these committed "ambassadors" to drum up real attention, given the enormous amount of content currently tailored just for young girls.

* * *

But what of their brothers? In the glittering galaxy of "aspirational" characters, it is difficult to find any live-action males who are more than a sidekick. (Who knew Sam from Clarissa Explains It All would one day be the norm?) "The world is becoming more coed, and tween TV is reflecting that," Calhoun writes.

HI SAM!Tween test scores are reflecting something worse. In a Sunday op-ed in the New York Times, "The Boys Have Fallen Behind," Nick Kristof presented a slew of grim statistics to back up the headline, including a Center on Education Policy report finding that boys lag in reading in every US state. This is not out of nowhere: Christina Hoff Summers, for one, was writing back in 2000 that "it's a bad time to be a boy in America," having questioned the conventional wisdom that boys were favored in classrooms many years before that. Drawing on Richard Whitmire's new book Why Boys Fail, Kristof argues that while the world has grown increasingly verbal, the boys have not.

"Some people think that boys are hard-wired so that they learn more slowly," Kristof wrote, "perhaps because they evolved to fight off wolves more than to raise their hands in classrooms." (Ah yes! And presumably the girls have been naturally selected to submit to authority.) But, anyway, Kristof floats a solution:

Some educators say that one remedy may be to encourage lowbrow, adventure, or even gross-out books that disproportionately appeal to boys (I confess that I was a huge fan of the Hardy Boys, and then used them to entice my own kids into becoming avid readers as well.)

Indeed, the more books make parents flinch, the more they seem to suck boys in. A web site,, offers useful lists of books to coax boys into reading, and they are helpfully sorted into categories like "ghosts," "boxers, wrestlers, ultimate fighters," and "at least one explosion."

This is an age-old issue: should kids be allowed to read whatever they want, so long as they're reading? Or adults, while we're at it: N.B. that great back-of-the-bus scene in A League of Their Own:

Mae Mordabito: Sound it out…

Shirley Baker: Kimm…

Mae: Kimono.

Shirley: Kimono, kimono. Off. And. Gr – Gra – Grabb"d.

Mae: Grabbed.

Shirley: Her. M – mi – mil – mil – milky, milky. White, white. Milky white.

Evelyn: Mae. What are you giving her to read?

Mae: Oh, what the difference does it make? She's reading, okay? That's the important thing. Now go away, go, shoo, shoo. Go ahead, Shirley, you're doing good.

Shirley: Thanks, Mae. Milky white bre- breasts.
[Gives Mae a surprised look]

Mae: It gets really good after that. Look. The delivery boy walks in…


It was no World War II-era kimono porn, but Sweet Valley books were still the sort of literature that could be pulled from one's hands at any moment by a disapproving mother or guardian. One such would-be vigilante was West Virginian librarian Mary Huntwork, who in 1990 took to the pages of The School Library Journal in despair: her 11-year old "good reader" daughter had "fallen prey" to those "skimpy-looking paperbacks with the rosy-cheeked blonds on the cover," the ultimate betrayal.

Nick Kristof may feel a low-simmering shame for his love of the Hardy Boys, but those books were Balzac in comparison to Sweet Valley. Huntwork laid out all of the reasons to cluck: "poor character development; weak writing; use of stereotypes; emphasis on superficial and materialistic values (clothes, makeup, cars, popularity, physical appearance); sexism (female characters find value only in relation to boyfriends); and finally, failure to reflect real life (predominance of white, middle-class characters, facile solutions to dilemmas)."

But some words on the dedication page of a genre fiction anthology caught her eye. Never apologize for your reading tastes, it said, and Huntwork softened: "Part of building trust, of course, is acceptance," she wrote, "not only of the adolescents themselves, but of their reading choices." Several studies outlining the positive, habit-forming benefits of reading even the schlockiest fare ultimately calmed the worried librarian. "After several months of research on teenage romance fiction, I too no longer view Sweet Valley High as a threat," she wrote. "Still, doubts remain. I found no study that assessed the reading habits of teen romance readers two, five, or ten years after they have outgrown the books."

SWEET VALLEY RACKIt's unclear whether, twenty years later, we readers have outgrown the books at all. Much of the series was reissued in 2008 (with some updates, of course: Elizabeth now has a blog) and Diablo Cody has a film in the works based on the original 152-book series. (A friend coined a quite diablocodian phrase for all this commerce of nostalgia: "retweening.") And in February, Publisher's Weekly announced that St. Martin's Press had picked up Sweet Valley Confidential, a novel that will follow Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield through their now-adult years, "providing a flashback to their youth for 20- and 30-something women everywhere."

Rebecca Mead's New Yorker story late last year about tween publishing powerhouse Alloy (itself a descendant of Sweet Valley High "book packager" Cloverdale Press) ran for seven thousand words, roughly 95% of which are about girls. Mead details, with sparkling detail, brainstorm sessions ranging from "a 'Marley & Me' for teen girls" to a "young, female Jason Bourne" to every mathematically possible Gossip Girl permutation and derivative. Boys get no more than a few token mentions: once in conjunction with a "zombies for tweens" book; once while dissing a box-office flop called Sex Drive that starred Seth Green and was based on a book for boys called All The Way; and here, in the article's Historical Pullback:

The business of packaging books for kids was invented…by Edward Stratemeyer…who got his start writing boys' stories for the magazine Golden Days…before launching his own adventure series, "The Rover Boys," in 1899. Stratemeyer's innovation was to produce books that were intended to entertain rather than to instruct, as was more typical of children's literature at the time. The series, which was published under the pseudonym Arthur M. Winfield, begins when three Rover brothers, Tom, Dick, and Sam, are sent off to a military academy for misbehaving at home.

The misbehavior theme struck me: "Hardy Boys were my favorite," a friend said when I asked what he read as a boy, besides Goosebumps. "They actually got into trouble and stuff."

BOYS BEHAVING BADLYSo boys, who once read about getting into trouble, now get into trouble for not having read. Kristof points out that verbal skills are often taught "in sedate ways that bore boys," causing them to "get frustrated, act out, and learn to dislike school." This is not dissimilar to another demographic that shies away from books: adults learning English as a second language. Many ESL students "assume that reading must always be hard work, that it must entail word by word decoding of difficult texts," Kyung-Sook Cho and Stephen D. Krashen wrote in their study, "Acquisition of vocabulary from the Sweet Valley Kids series."

The subjects, four women aged between 21-35 and in possession of varying levels of English proficiency, were given the second-grade-level Sweet Valley Kids series (chosen for being "both interesting and comprehensible") and encouraged to underline unfamiliar words or ask questions as they moved through the text. After a couple of months:

All four women became enthusiastic readers… After the first volume, all four women were clearly hooked on the Sweet Valley Kids series… [Mi-ae] reported reading them in nearly every free moment and expressed the desire to read the entire 33-volume series. In her own words (translated from Korean): "I never get bored reading the Sweet Valley series. This series of English books is the most interesting and understandable I have ever read. The Sweet Valley series are the only English books I keep reading."

The four women, on average, cruised through at a clip of over 100,000 words per month during the study, a pace faster than that of the average US middle-class child. (Cho and Krashen cite a 1998 study estimating that this child reads somewhere in the ballpark of one million words a year, while Kristof quotes a lower number of 800,000 based on Whitmire's recent work and warns that by fifth grade a child at the bottom of his class may only be reading 60,000 words a year.)


"I read the Sweet Valley series with interest and without the headache that I got when reading Time magazine in Korea," said Jin-hee, another subject in the study. "Most interestingly, I enjoyed reading the psychological descriptions of each character."


That last part is key. Much that I have read about Sweet Valley lists as a positive the tendency of girl readers to assess and relate to one or more of the series' archetypes. In the case of Sweet Valley, it's a binary: "the series' trademark characters — sweet, studious Elizabeth and flirty, scheming Jessica – were dramatically different aspirational fantasy figures who appealed to readers' dreams of being both the good girl and the bad girl," wrote Amy Pattee in The Horn Book Magazine when Sweet Valley was first retweened in 2008.

The cult of personalities extends to even more scattered casts. Ask a woman my age which Baby-sitter was her favorite, and you're likely to get a strong answer — "I want to be Stacey when I grow up," wrote one commenter on a Flavorwire post that asked Where The Baby-sitters Are Now. Her feelings aren't surprising: publishers and the marketers following behind them have for years encouraged this sort of choosiness, turning characters into mini-brands. Nearly a decade before girls my age were having wild and crazy sex and declaring themselves a Samantha, they were watching Wild 'n' Crazy Kids and declaring themselves… a Samantha.

Boys have fewer printed-page characters with whom to relate, and many turn instead to sports or video games. A 1996 Brandweek article about how to lure girls into playing computer games mentions males only once: "blood-thirsty game-players making Doom, Duke Nukem and Quake into alt-entertainment phenomena." Little has changed in fourteen years. Still, instead of pinpointing what it is that attracts boys to gaming and adapting their output accordingly, media execs are just co-opting its lingo: Calhoun writes that a year ago Disney launched a "boy-centric" channel called Disney XD that lamely borrows the video game concept of "leveling up" to emphasize teamwork and effort. Can't you hear all the Halo players slamming down their controllers in disgust?

* * *

While marketers used video games to grab boys' attention, girls my age were wooed by our love of schlocky fiction: the Brandweek piece mentions a "Baby-Sitter's Club Friendship Kit" CD-ROM with which girls could "create storylines using their favorite BSC characters."

"The great thing about these products is, they put the girl in control," said one media executive, using a language of empowerment that crops up all the time. (As Huntwork concluded in her essay: "Each time a girl selects a Sweet Valley High book, she is telling us something. Publishers know this and have listened closely.") But there lurks a downside to all this kowtowing: one writer quoted by Calhoun argues that icons like iCarly "show boys only the way girls want to see them." Disney executives, according to Calhoun, insist that "the issue isn't that boys aren't being served enough boy characters, but that boys have changed and now have no problem relating to strong female leads."

BUT CAN ALL BOYS TALK ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS?Calhoun's piece is littered with these sorts of semi-Darwinian references. It's troubling that while girls are encouraged to exist on their terms, boys are expected to improve, to level up, as it were. "We've found that boys, especially in recent years, have become more emotionally intelligent," said Nickelodeon's Marjorie Cohn, adding that "in the same way we celebrate Hillary Clinton, we should celebrate boys being able to talk about relationships." Disney's Gary Marsh, meanwhile, calls tween boys "complex beings who are evolving." Now's as good a time as any to shed all those pesky wolf-fighting genes, I suppose.

To hear writer Jen Singer describe it, though, little boys' taste hasn't suddenly changed. Writing on the Times' Motherlode blog, she describes her own small transgression, her let-them-eat-dirt:

"Who would send this in?" asked another mom who was helping set up the elementary-school book swap. She held up [my] copy of "Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty," and grimaced at the cover, which featured a photo of a kid picking his nose. "The boys are going to all herd around this one."

I can remember boys herding like that, snickering furtively and elbowing ribs. The book was the dictionary, and the passage in question was the definition of "mount." Boys were then boys, as they ever will be, and it turns out we really ought to have been praising them: not only were they reading, they were kind of discussing relationships too.

Katie Baker had a Kirsten, and then was a Dawn (but was really a Kristy) before settling into life as a Miranda.

71 Comments / Post A Comment

saythatscool (#101)

"Has there ever been a better moment for tween girls?"

Only before I turned 18.

KenWheaton (#401)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid FTW!

hockeymom (#143)

See also, Exploding Underpants.

das motorbike (#3,228)

i grew up reading Encyclopedia Brown, and it has made me the insufferable know-it-all that i am today.

Matt (#26)

My avatar would like to point out that this piece is racist against comic books.

This. The boys in my library read comic books like a bunch of crazy comic book reading motherfuckers. At least one a month, I have to explain to our board why it's good that we buy comics, and why it's good we keep them near the Asimov shelf.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Sooooo true.

katiebakes (#32)

I wholeheartedly endorse comics too! Mostly because Dan Kois is never wrong.

Matt (#26)

Right on. And while my comment above comes off as kinda arch-glib, I really do think there is something to this. I never would've started reading like I did if it wasn't for the long boxes full of purple prose DC used to run next to the action in the late 80s and early 90s. (Even loving Grant Morrison as I do, I kinda miss those days!) And a kid picking up an issue of "Batman & Robin" today is reading something she or he could write a dissertation on in 10 or 12 years. If there are still colleges then, I mean.

Bittersweet (#765)

The Bone and Amulet series are great for fantasy aficianados like my kid. Plus, cool artwork and fun for adults too!

Adouble (#1,300)

Agreed with the main point, even if I feel that the only dissertation for Grant Morrison's work would be "Literary Stockholm Syndrome: Understanding how people come to like Grant Morrison when he's inept at plot, characterization, and dialogue". I think Bone is great, if a little too young for tweens. I'd suggest a lot of the newish noir stuff (Brubaker, old Bendis, Sin City), the first book of Runaways, and The Umbrella Academy.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I'm confused about Grant Morrison. On a friend's strong recommendation, I read the first two volumes of Invisibles. While I could admire the … bravery, I guess? … of some of the content, I think the reader could achieve the same overall effect by listening to The Wall and God Save the Queen playing on top of each other while reading a high school freshman's book report on 1984. The effect being total incoherence. Was that just a bad place to start?

Adouble (#1,300)

Morrison's All-Star Superman might be a better starting point. Or his run on Animal Man, which I guess is noteworthy for bringing post-modernism into superheroes. Which obviously isn't actually important, but excited some folks.

LolCait (#460)

I read Sweet Valley and other similar books (never BSC, though, for some reason — maybe that was too girly) that were passed down from my older sister, but also liked more boy-centric series like Christopher Pike, and Fear Street, and Paul Zindel (Loch is a really good, fun, adventure story that I imagine boys that age would like — I sure did!). By the time I was fourteen or fifteen, I had turned to light-fare "grownup" entertainments like Elmore Leonard and Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, not Disclosure).

If there is no clear way to market-focus tweenage books to boys, then maybe parents/teachers/librarians should consider steering boys to less-sexy, less-scary adult mystery series or to the evergreen fantasy series (LOTR, duh). I think once you stoke the fires, boys who genuinelly want to read (and that's not all of them, nor is it all girls) will read a lot of surprising, non-pigeonholed stuff.

But I also read Star Wars books, so who the hell knows.

You know what? Just have 'em read Calvin & Hobbes. That's all they'll ever need, really.

bureaucrette (#367)

Thank you. For weeks, I have been trying to remember the title of the Young Adult book about the Loch Ness Monster that wasn't set at Loch Ness. It proved difficult to google.

I also liked Loch at that age, although I was a girl.

HiredGoons (#603)


bureaucrette (#367)

Yes, before I transitioned. I think Britney Spears sang a song about it.

HiredGoons (#603)

Well played.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

It's true. I devoured the Hardy Boys series, Goosebumps, and CYOA as a kid. (Although mostly on the low end of the 'tween' span suggested.) From 9 or so to whenever Episode I killed it, I had quite an appetite for the often terrible Star Wars novels.

After that, I found the bookshelf for my dad's scifi collection, which started with cheesy yellowed pulp novels from the 60s and 70s and broadened into everything from Terry Pratchett to Neal Stephenson. Now I read like a maniac, highbrow and lowbrow alike, so long as the writing is solid.

One aspect of this issue that I think has been neglected here (and generally) is the comic book, i.e. the best thing EVER if you want to get boys to read. Start 'em young on superheroes and Hellboy and Scott Pilgrim, and eventually Neil Gaiman will do all your work for you.

davidwatts (#72)

I never thought I would (sort of) meet another person who shared my devotion to those terrible, TERRIBLE, AMAZING Star Wars novels. I can't believe that blue admiral guy just was cold chillin with that whole fleet of star destroyers! So trying for the New Republic! And Han and Leia had kids! Good for them.

brianvan (#149)

I grew up reading TIME Magazine and now I'm suddenly jealous of those ESL Korean women.

(Seconding Matt's comment about leaving out comics. I don't think Katie is racist about comics and graphic novels, but virtually everyone in the western world has a condescending literary opinion about them. That, and difference between the visual/literary content of those publications and traditional printed books, is worth exploring in the context of this subject.)

spostaby (#1,081)

I grew up reading TIME too! And Newsweek. But I loved it. (Also, Harry Potter, which was the only cool thing to read as an early 00s tween. And I was reading Newsweek articles about how Harry Potter was getting kids to read at the same time. I think I was proud of myself?) But I also read BSC and SVH–ironically, because I had helpful siblings to tell me I shouldn't be reading them for serious. I think that was my early tweens though; I spent my late tweens in the politics section of the library. Also, Neil Gaiman! And Terry Pratchett! And now I just read The Awl.

Dickdogfood (#650)

I was the detestable dork in the class that was largely uninterested in any books that were clearly for kids, and naturally attracted to stuff that seemed "adult." Like, uh…The Book of Lists, Gray's Anatomy, and The Whole Earth Catalog.

Dickdogfood (#650)

Oh wait. PEANUTS. I read practically every Peanuts anthology published before 1980.

jfruh (#713)

I firmly back the "let them read the trash they like and they'll turn into readers" thesis. When I was an adolescent (mid-to-late '80s/early '90s), the only not-actively-marketed-to-tweens books I read were sci-fi, and even then pretty much only unadventurous canonized sci-fi — Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury. My mother literally despaired that I would rather read Foundation for the zillionth time time than whatever "classic" she was trying to foist on me. Then around my junior year of high school I started reading other stuff, and three years later I was taking comp lit classics at an elitist Ivy League college.

As for boy-oriented tween literature, I devoured the Danny Dunn books as a kid — does anyone else remember these? He was a junior scientince geek (but of the manly, adventurous sort) whose mother was housekeeper for a real live inventor, with whom (along with a couple age-appropriate friends) he had various adventures (space travel, time travel … I think there was one involving terribly lizard-things in the Sudan?). The books were actually written in the '50s, though they slapped '80s-friendly covers on them … I remember reading one of the space travel books and realizing that their science was out of date, then looking at the publication data and feeling BETRAYED.

I also read the Encyclopedia Brown books obsessively, along with similar mystery-solving youth stories (anyone else remember the no doubt utterly forgettable T.A.C.K.?) but these honestly were really more word puzzle collections than books per se.

jfruh (#713)

Oh, also good for tween boys were Judy Bloom's Fudge books! (Which are really about Fudge's older brother, when it comes down to it). And yes, it does not escape notice that all of these books were written decades ago.

brianvan (#149)


Also, as a boy it would not hurt you to read "Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret".

OuackMallard (#774)

Thanks for reminding me of the Danny Dunn books! I was also pretty into Mad Magazine.

I think I agree with your thesis, but that there is part of me that wonders how I'd react if my son started reading the Left Behind books. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.

HonoriaGlossop (#1,247)

My path went from Nancy Drew to Encyclopedia Brown to CS Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle and Tolkein. With a whole lot of Wodehouse thrown in (our bookshelves were PACKED with Penguin Classics).

Also, my brother and sister are 8 and 9 years older than me, so that meant I had (sneaky) access to a ton of seriously age-inappropriate stuff. I read Judy Blume's "Wifey" when I was nine, and boy, did I have some questions.

Bittersweet (#765)

My 12-year-old cohort's age-inappropriate favorite was Lace, by Shirley Conran, borrowed and never returned from someone's mom. We had the sex scenes bookmarked…and never saw goldfish quite the same way again.

Megan McCarthy (#4,282)

That bio is fantastic.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Loved this a lot. Mind you, among the teen boys of my own acquaintance, they seem to have caught up by high school. At which point they seem to ID with mainly William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. Or that Why? guy, Yoni Wolf (good poetry.)

It doesn't sound like much has changed on the girls-reading-vs.-boys-reading front in the past 35 years or so.

I used to love to read as an adolescent, but I didn't let any of my guy friends now about it. Reading was not a cool thing for boys to do. When I went to my local library to take out young-adult books, the others who were my age were mostly girls.

My favorite author was Madeleine L'Engel. When I'd read all her famous sci-fi books like A Wrinkle in Time, I went back and read all her earlier books, which were written for girls. I didn't care; they were good books. But i didn't let anyone at school catch me doing it.

Classic tween reading that will broaden both your vocabulary and your world view: Sydney Sheldon, Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins and, yes, Stephen King. None of these writers are to be read past the age of 16. FACT.

Mar (#2,357)

V.C. Andrews?

Vulpes (#946)

My grandmother gave me Rage of Angels to read when I was, like, ten. I went on to devour every tawdry page of the Sidney Sheldon oeuvre. To this day, I'm astounded by her faith in my maturity.

Ohhh, Rage of Angels. Classic! My personal fave to read over and over again ("What's this t'ai chi stuff? Should I be doing it?" "How did that deposit slip trick work, exactly?") was If Tomorrow Never Comes. That's totally the girl I wanted to be when I grew up!

And, sad to say, I never knew about V.C. Andrews until I was officially Too Old. :(

Vulpes (#946)

My favorite was Bloodline. Snuff films! Sexual abuse in orphanages! Dreamy Welshmen! And THEN I went on a Jackie Collins fix.

Good Lord, Mantooth! If Tomorrow Comes.

Sigh. First I misspell his name, then I misname his book… I should have my "Bewitched" card revoked!

I also wanted to be Lucky Santangelo when I grew up!

Also? My "I Dream of Jeannie Card." That should be revoked.

Possibly also my commenting privileges.

belltolls (#184)

I have a Sidney Sheldon story. May I tell it? Okay. I worked for his publisher many years ago and had to meet him at the Park Something-Or-Another. He and Georgia were leaving to go back to Los Angeles. I delivered What-Ever-The-Fuck I was delivering and went down with them as the bellmen lugged out one zillion LV bags.

We had just moved to Manhattan and boy did we find our nice new apartment on 16th Street expensive, so we worked hard and saved our pennies and loved New York and were happy — as only ignorant, young mid-westerners can be in New York. It was near the end of the month and there was Kraft Mac-N-Cheese on the menu for the rest of the week. I think I had ten dollars in my pocket to make it through the week.

As I was walking away Sidney called after me, "Can you take care of them please?" Meaning the bellmen. Mr. Hollwood-Broadway-New York Times Bestseller could not dig in his pocket to pull out some of the pocket change of the millions of dollars he had socked away in there.

So I did.

I was well aware Sheldon's books were utter unreadable shit, which made it all the worse. I wish there was more of a Gift Of the Magi ending to this story but there isn't.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Excellent confessional, that. In the same vein: James Clavell.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

When I started reading books with chapters (a downright milestone if my parents and teachers were to be believed, which they weren't), I read science fiction. Though the sort of half-baked Scholastic Books sci-fi, in which aliens and robots served to demystify the crazy world of adults through supernatural explanation. My lengthy obsession with the My Teacher is an Alien books catalyzed what was probably the second time I ate through the whole of an artist's oeuvre (Bruce Coville). (The first being that of Michael Jackson.)

I followed sci-fi out of Young Adult Fiction-ville to, where else, Ray Bradbury short stories, while my taste in YA fiction changed rapidly, from Roald Dahl (probably wouldn't be the wordplay fanatic I am without those books) to the sad, traumatic stuff Jerry Spinelli tried to fill my young head with (Wringer is a fucked-up book).

Though it was never, ever cool to read, I never felt the need to hide it, probably because I was already bound by my glasses and haircut combo to the fringes of grade school society.

And as for future developments, well, science fiction tends to usher you toward dystopia. In middle school, I purchased a copy of 1984 featuring a forward by Thomas Pynchon, and I wondered, Huh, who is that fellow? and that is the sort of wonder from which you never return.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

I guess this is meant to be yet another anecdote in service of the "Let them read trash!" perspective.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

It's funny how practically everyone here has his own "I read trash and it totally worked out!" story. I think I am seeing a pattern.

Bittersweet (#765)

YES! Loving this discussion. It's giving me all kinds of ideas as my munchkin heads towards tweendom.

Mar (#2,357)

If they can't read, then why do they keep raping people?

Yeah, but seriously, as far as gateway reading for boys goes, what about things by men named Thompson? Jim Thompson's noir novels are sexy, well-written, and easy to read; a lot of them have been filmed as well. Tween boys like reading Hunter S. Thompson because his vision of masculinity is at the same maturity level as theirs. Both of these options are good for boys who don't like sci-fi but do like hearing boobs described. High pulp is attractive to huge swathes of people, especially those who are afraid of genre fiction (see "Lost.")

HiredGoons (#603)

The Boxcar Children are going to let the air out of your tires for this.

Vulpes (#946)

And then dump your body in their uranium ranch!

Vulpes (#946)

I really got into reading via my mother reading to me from D'Aulaire's Greek Mythology. Then I got into The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. I read the Star Trek and Star Wars books. I went through a huge Agatha Christie phase. I was just all over the place. But, when you're a little gay nerdling, books are preferable to the painful reality of social ostracism. *sad face*

laurel (#4,035)

Re acceptance of new/uncertain readers, the 'read to dogs' programs slay me:

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

Nobody has mentioned Twilight yet? Really?

No readers of the Classics Illustrated comics?

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

Whoa, KB — awesome! But let me offer a(nother) non-heterosexual (and pessimistic and probably annoying!) take on this, which is that reading fiction in almost any form is (generalization alert!) an introspective activity that requires the reader to get "in touch" with his/her emotions, and is thus (like many and probably most such activities, ranging from music theater to psychoanalysis) perceived by contemporary mnstrm culture to be effeminate and/or 'gay' (i.e., fggty/stupid/weak). (Note that 100 years ago this was not at all the case, btw.) (Also, it's less of an issue for girls to be perceived as effeminate, for obv reasons!) So the desire of (many) boys — particularly adolescents — to avoid being seen with a book has a lot to do the desire to avoid the effeminate/gay label; this is another example of how homophobia continues to send our culture spiraling ever deeper into the new dark ages.

sox (#652)

Did anyone read Zilpha Keatley Snyder? The Witches of Worm, The Headless Cupid, The Changeling?

These were kind of the pre-Harry Potter witchy ones, and such a nice contrast to alternate with the Sweet Valley books!

spostaby (#1,081)

Yes! I had to read something between Harry Potter books.

Mar (#2,357)

Yes, those were amazing. Relatively sophisticated, as well.

HiredGoons (#603)

The Headless Cupid!

Also: John Bellairs.

hyphenanne (#1,790)

Is Gordon Korman pretty much a Canadian thing? Because I grew up on his books (Bruno & Boots! "I Want To Go Home!") but it seemed like they were definitely targeted to boys. Also Encyclopedia Brown, and later on horrible, gory murder mysteries that terrified me.

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

One American vote here for Gordon Korman. I have particularly fond memories of No Coins, Please, which I must have reread 30 times as a kid if I read it once. (The power of positive parking!)

SaraC (#4,318)

OK, my love for Gordon Korman has caused me to do what nothing else could: I created a username and commented here for the first time. Seriously, my love knows no bounds for "I Want to Go Home", "Our Man Weston", "Losing Joe's Place", "Bugs Potter" and "A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag."

rickboy (#4,286)

I am aging myself here, but my first fascination with reading came rom the Tom Swift, Jr. books. That led me to Juls Verne, Asimov, required school reading of Mark Twain,etc., and then to books that were bothering squares, like "Catcher in the Rye", and "Slaughterhouse Five"

KenWheaton (#401)

For non sci-fi, there were outdoor adventure books by Jim Kjellgard, each about a boy and his dog. Big Red, Wild Trek, etc. (Each pretty much involved a boy, one specific breed of dog and getting lost in the woods.)

Also, as a gateway drug, Calvin and Hobbes works wonders and still feels current.

Moff (#28)

I tried telling my 12-year-old mentee that Choose Your Own Adventure books were us old people's version of video games, but Assassin's Creed 2 had just come out, so that was a pretty tough sell.

Moff (#28)

Stotan, by Chris Crutcher. There is a book boys should read. Probably other things by Chris Crutcher, too, but definitely Stotan.

Andy Rosenberger (#3,872)

Has anyone mentioned Matt Christopher? I realize The Awl isn't a sports-centric crowd, but speaking as a child who watched The Year in Sports 1991 daily from ages 5-8 I probably wouldn't have learned to read if not for Christopher. I've actually also read good returns re: the teen sports fiction of Mike Lupica (gag).

On the same note, I think every boy in my school read Heart of a Champion by Carl Deuker in 8th grade, and I once declared to my brother that if I became rich I would buy the rights to the movie.

Finally, early Grisham novels (The Client, The Firm [although the highlight of the book for my 6th grade self was the scene where Mitch has a beach romp with the hooker]) are surprisingly accessible for the later ages of tween boys, albeit the length is a bit ambitious.

katiebakes (#32)

I never read Matt Christopher, but a LOT of the pals I informally polled spoke fondly. Whoa, I just went to his website and it speaks of a casting call for a movie version of "The Kid Who Only Hit Homers"!!!!!!!!!!! MY ENTIRE THESIS HAS BEEN SHOT, although actually they'll probably just cast a Jonas Brother.

joeclark (#651)

It must be stated that this posting shares its thesis with Save the Males by Kathleen Parker (blog post).

Also, while I am not going to sign on to the homophobia explanation for boys' unwillingness to be seen with books, I will point out that gay boys are not going to be interested in the same books straight boys are. This is another path to adult effeminacy, but let's leave that for another day perhaps.

Lux Alptraum (#3,933)

I realize this is a bit tangential, but I find it incredibly depressing that any sign of female cultural dominance sparks a hand wringy "But what about the boys?"

As an adult woman, most of the quality movies (and other forms of entertainment) I'm presented with feature male protagonists (as well as predominantly male casts); heavily female movies that aren't, well, directed by Nancy Meyers are few and far between. I don't hear anyone playing a tiny violin for me (though I wish they would!).

If boys have to (gasp!) learn to identify with female characters, or at least appreciate their exploits in order to master those basic fundamentals of education, I don't see that as a bad thing. Women have been taught for years that white men are the "default" character option–maybe it's time to flip the script.

NinetyNine (#98)

I'm always surprised at the infrequency with which The Three Investigators series is mentioned (at the very least, as 'boys books'). Great stuff for anyone, though very boy-focused.

Though my parents were far from screaming liberals, I always find these conversations a little odd. As long as my sister and I were reading, my mother didn't care what the content was. Since we were voracious readers, we swapped books (and toys) without much consideration or worry about imprinting (so I played with Barbie dolls regularly).

Maybe prejudice free competition is the best way to go. My sister would have turned up her nose at anything as (sorry) simple-minded as BSC, so I would have just followed her lead (in the same way I read Judy Blume because it was 'highbrow' YA lit).

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