Friday, November 22, 2013

YA Guy Reports: Why Girls Aren't Reading

My daughter used to love to read.

Voraciously. As a pre-teen she read just about anything you put in front of her, though she favored fantasy series: Harry Potter, Narnia, The Shadow Children, Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner. When she entered her teen years, she started reading realistic fiction: Sarah Dessen, Gayle Forman, S. E. Hinton. She loved the classics--Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye--and some modern classics, including Life of Pi and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When she met YA writers Erin Bowman and Kat Zhang at a workshop for young writers, she was so jazzed she ran right out and gobbled down their books as well. As the daughter of a writer, it’s perhaps unsurprising that she read so much. But it was still impressive.

And then she started high school.

She doesn’t read anymore. Oh, she reads what’s assigned (currently The Odyssey for English, a book about leukodystrophy for Biology, and newspaper articles for Social Studies). But pleasure reading has shriveled to near nothing.

As I see it, there are two main reasons for this.

--First and most obviously, the amount of homework she has every night and weekend leaves virtually no room for leisure reading. She averages four hours of homework per weeknight, five per day over the weekend. Some weekend days, she does nothing but homework. And much of the homework is repetitive, boring drills: once you’ve proven twenty times that you can summarize a chapter, you really don’t need to summarize any more chapters. But the teachers don’t see it that way, and neither does the school district. And so reading for pleasure takes a back seat to working out three hundred identical algebraic formulas to prove yet again that you can work out algebraic formulas.

--Second and somewhat less obviously, high school--or at least my daughter’s high school--strips the fun out of reading, making it yet another onerous, meaningless chore. It’s bad enough that ninth graders are reading The Odyssey (a book I first read in college, and that my current college students struggle with)--but was it really necessary to use a stodgy, antiquated prose translation of Homer’s epic poem? With so much great literature for young people out there, both classic and modern, what on earth is the point of making young teens slog through a three thousand-year-old behemoth for which they can’t possibly have any associations or context?

We obsess endlessly about why boys aren’t reading. We don’t talk so much about why girls aren’t reading. (Indeed, when I Googled "why girls aren't reading," I got the same articles about why boys aren't reading.)

Based on my experience, I’d have to say girls aren't reading because high school beats the love of it clean out of them.


  1. I could have written this post almost word for word. My daughter is about the same age and has gone through the same reading phases. I was aghast when she was assigned The Odyssey ... of all the amazing books kids could be reading, why that one at this age? Worse, our school district keeps pushing kids into reading excerpts from school textbooks rather than entire novels, which is a horrible idea. Luckily she's had teachers who have quietly resisted this. The huge homework pile is also a real problem. We give way too much homework to kids; Finnish kids hardly get any homework and consistently outperform American kids on tests.

    This year, though, something seemed to happen and my kid got back into reading novels. She is just determined to make time for them. We read Snow Flower & the Secret Fan for a mom-daughter book club we just started, and she read Never Let Me Go for an extracurricular book club some teachers started. When I heard about the latter, and that it was well attended by a variety of kids (boys, girls, geeks, jocks) I wanted to cry from happiness. Kids reading novels and joining teachers after school on their own time for a discussion ... just because. Can you imagine?

    1. Glad to hear your story has a happy ending! I'm hopeful that my daughter will get back into reading (and the signs are promising; she picked up James Dashner's new book when we went to see him last night, and she's already started to read it). The personal connection really helps young people, it seems--and now that my daughter's no longer interested in reading WITH me, it helps for her to know the author. Maybe I can find a dad-daughter book club somewhere!