Kyle Mewburn is the author of over fifty titles including two bestselling junior fiction series. Dinosaur Rescue – about the only evolved boy in a neanderthal tribe who joins a talking T-rex on a mission to save the dinosaurs from extinction. And Dragon Knight – about a shape-shifting dragon boy who wants to go to Knight School. Originally from Brisbane, he now lives in a grass-roofed house in the deep south of New Zealand.
I met Kyle in person a couple of years ago, at the ASA Writers’ Congress–Kyle and I are both on the Boards of our respective authors’ organisations in Australia and New Zealand–and we’ve kept in touch ever since. On Facebook recently, he made some observations about boys’ reading which I found interesting, so I asked if he might like to write a guest post on the subject.
by Kyle Mewburn
Boys don’t like reading! Boys are falling behind! The sky is falling! Almost every day there’s another gloomy study, one more grim report and another grand theory on what we might do to avert catastrophe. Yet, when I recall my own childhood and the reading experiences of my peers, it always begs the question – was it ever any different? For some boys, reading was always a struggle. While for those like me, it was a wondrous escape – a delight.
As a writer of two successful junior fiction series broadly targeted at so-called reluctant readers, I think engaging this readership is akin to getting them to eat their vegetables. Take my mother. She was no Masterchef. She used to boil almost everything. For hours, sometimes. My lasting impression of broccoli was a slightly sulphuric-smelling mush with the consistency of gravel. She nearly put me off vegetables for life. If I hadn’t fallen in love with a talented, enthusiastic cook, I may never have recovered.
For lots of kids, especially boys, reading can quickly become something comparable to eating badly cooked vegetables. It’s something they’re supposed to do because it’s good for them. When I visit schools I’m regularly appalled by the diet on offer. Too often they are the literary equivalent of boiled-to-death cabbage.
In my experience, reluctant or struggling readers are by no means slow. And they’re certainly not dumb. More often than not the reverse is true – there’s a hell of a lot going on in their heads and their lives. If they only read under duress it’s often because they’ve got way more interesting things to do. Offering up trite, dumbed-down stories will turn them off reading for life.
Writing for this readership isn’t rocket science. Though a few rockets and some science never go astray. But nor is it as simple as some people think. Ever since my series Dinosaur Rescue came out, I’ve had lots of offhand comments saying basically – “If you want to appeal to boys all you have to do is add some fart jokes. They lap that stuff up.” Or “boys love anything with dinosaurs in it” – as though that explains everything.
That attitude really annoys me. For one, it suggests writing successfully for that readership is simple. Worse, it implies that readership, especially boys, are one-dimensional and an easy target.
All my stories are seat-of-your-pants stuff. I don’t actually have any idea what’s going to happen until I start writing. I think it’s important to retain a sense of spontaneity. My general theory is if I don’t know what’s happening next, then the readers can’t guess what’s going to happen either. That’s what keeps them turning the page – which is vitally important at that age. If they lose that momentum, their attentions can quickly wander off in other directions.
The series DOES contain a degree of scatological humour and some pretty gross stuff besides. I don’t make any apologies for that. It’s something most kids, especially boys, find funny. But stories with complex inter-personal relationships, especially friendships, are equally, if not more important.
In the end, re-readability is the key. The story has to be complex enough to sustain multiple readings. And it can only do that if it uses complex language, has multi-dimensional storylines, and various layers of meaning. A kid will only re-read a story if there is something new to discover with each reading. There needs to be thoughts and ideas which challenge them, with comprehension the reward for the effort of re-reading. If I can make them wet their pants laughing in the process, all the better.