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Getting boys to read

Here's a publishing truism with legs: girls love reading and do it of their own accord, but boys enjoy reading about as much as homework. You can probably contradict this statement with examples of boy bookworms, but in general, trying to...
April 1, 1999

Here’s a publishing truism with legs: girls love reading and do it of their own accord, but boys enjoy reading about as much as homework. You can probably contradict this statement with examples of boy bookworms, but in general, trying to reach boys ages eight to 12 remains a hurdle for kids publishers. To date, most publishers have blamed boys’ disinterest in books on the way they’re wired.

‘Boys don’t read the same way girls do,’ says Jane O’Connor, president of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. ‘Often, they want something that they can use for a book report that’s around 64 pages long that they can read quickly. Sometimes they even check the size of the type.’ Despite boy disinterest, publishers are finding ways to snare boys’ attentions . At Barnes & Noble, book sales targeted to middle-grade boy readers were up significantly last year, according Steve Geck, director of children’s books at the New York-based book chain.

So how are publishers doing it? ‘You have to make the books engaging and relevant to them. If you have the right content, he will come,’ says Jean Feiwell, editor-and-chief and publisher at Scholastic.

The right content, so far, has meant incorporating subjects like sports, sci fi, mystery and horror. One of Scholastic’s most popular boy book franchises is Goosebumps, the success of which Feiwell credits to author R.L. Stine’s mix of horror and black humor. More recently, the Animorphs series, which features supernatural tweens who morph into animals, has garnered a predominantly boy audience, too. (At present, there are 200 million units of Goosebumps books and 24 million copies of the Animorphs titles in print.) Feiwell is betting that boys will also glom on to history with My Name is America (released last September), a fictionalized history series spun off from Scholastic’s girl-targeted Dear America books, which have sold five million copies since 1997. Feiwell believes the short action-packed tales of male characters fighting in the American Revolution or living on the Frontier will resonate with today’s boys.

Feiwell is also confident boys will love six new Scholastic titles based on the film Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace, which will launch at retail in early May. But if tie-in titles based on the latest blockbuster don’t work for boys, then satisfying their penchant for goofy humor usually will. On this score, Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers has found the ideal complement in Zak’s Files, a series about a smart-alecky time-traveling fifth-grader. In all, there are 18 books in the series, with the next title, How I Saved the Year 1000 Problem, slated for a fall release. Scholastic’s answer to boys’ love of zaniness? Captain Underpants. Written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey, the books star a super-hero who fights crime wearing only a pair of underpants and a towel-cape. The first CU book, which has sold 700,000 copies since `97, uses a comic strip format with plenty of illustrations, a layout boys respond favorably to, says Feiwell. The next book, entitled Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, will be available in the fall.

Retailers trying to capitalize on the buzz of boy-specific titles should be wary of marketing too aggressively, warns Geck, or else boys might feel they’re being patronized. In addition to keeping a middle-grade readers section, where boys books are located, and a subsection for book series in its children’s department, Barnes & Noble has a ‘reader recommends’ display near its fantasy section, which includes mostly sci-fi and fantasy books for YA and middle-grade male readers. Some B&N stores have held father and son reading days to introduce boys and their dads to new titles, but so far these promos have produced mixed results, Geck says. B&N has also tried to attract boys to its stores by cross-merchandising popular books with licensed product. Geck says the chain will be stocking all new Star Wars books in POP displays with posters from At a Glance and miniature action figures and plush items from Applause.

‘When there’s a new book series, the publishers are very good about giving us a list of licensees, so we know what other licensed product is out there in the marketplace,’ says Geck.

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