'It's a way of getting them into reading, hopefully.'
And you thought it would be tough when Cato and Macro took on "the tribes of Britannia." That's what's going on in Brothers in Blood, the 13th in the Eagle Series of historical and military fiction, just out last month from Headline. In it, the Roman prefect Cato and the centurion Macro have to find a traitor and thwart a plot against their lives.
But no, actually, this is author Simon Scarrow, suiting up to take on the boys of Britannia -- the boys who aren't yet bookish in Britannia, that is, those reading-reluctants who look a lot like his son's mates.
"I've got two boys, myself," he tells me, "and it's not a problem getting them to read. But what intrigues me is their friends, who keep saying, 'Oh, reading is boring, books are expensive," you know, all the usual excuses they make."
Scarrow and the game developer Amuzo are meeting "the usual excuses" with an unusual response: a mobile game-app designed to let you "storm your way across the battlefields of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East," the blurb tells us, "with Cato and Macro in their fight to defend the Roman Empire’s rule over Britannia."
By making the game available as a free download from both the iTunes AVaIApp Store and Google Play, Scarrow and Amuzo m.d. Mike Hawkyard hope to outflank the guys, in SPQR-glorious style, catapulting them into reading by sharing with them the special joys of the Flaming Pig. Actually that's The Flaming Pig! -- "an explosion of pure bacon" that seems never to appear in promotional copy without its exclamation point. One can only assume that the punctuation would make good sense if you were confronted with one of these projectile porkers.
What's especially clever here relies on the author's willingness to play along, if you will, and allow the game itself to be developed as a genuine leading event for the target reader, not as a cereal-box prize.
"The key," Scarrow says, "is to make the game the thing, make it fun, and the books become secondary...the reward is an excellent book that will flesh out the story of the game."
That's probably exactly the kind of generous thinking required to generate a true bridge from one boyhood pastime to what we'd like to see become a man's lifetime of reading here.
"And you know, there's another side to this, too," Scarrow says. "I have a lot of adult readers who are really enthusiastic about books and want to get their offspring into reading, as well. And it's all very well for an adult to put a book in front of a kid and say, 'Here, read this.' But it's something else to say, 'Well, look, we'll play the game and if you're interesting in finding out more about the series, then here, what about these books I've been trying to get you to read all the time?"
Not quite a Trojan horse (that would be Greek, not Roman, of course), but before a gamer gets too comfy building his fort's granary and training up his army, here comes actual text from Scarrow's books. And however gamey may be the play on that tablet in your son's hands, what he's suddenly reading on a luminous scroll is deadly serious stuff:
The sprawling mass of the first six cohorts was at last approaching the upper barricade. The slope behind them was littered with men, few of whom had been wounded. Many simply sat, or lay, slumped in the mud, summoning up fresh reserves of strength before trying to continue. Before them a figure rose up on the barricade, brandishing a sword, and the blast of the enemy's war horns rang out along the breadth of the hill.
What happens in the translation from these high-powered battle novels to a youth-wooing game?
In the land of Amuzo, Cato and Macro look less like the Calvin Klein-class studs you see on the series' book covers and more like post-Flintstone bounders at a tourist bar near the Colosseum. Does that matter? Hell, no: different aesthetics for different purposes.
And however cute these bobbing, swords-and-shielders might look in the pastures of Britannia's commander Caratacus, Scarrow and Hawkyard are on the march to do the work many in publishing today are overlooking.
'60,000 boys failed...in reading at age 11'
That was Caroline Horn reporting for The Bookseller in Boys' reading 'a worry in 75% of schools in the UK. She was going over the findings of the Boys' Reading Commission, conducted by the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission and compiled by the National Literacy Trust.
The chair of that commission, Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell could not have put it more plainly than he did in his commentary for the National Literacy Trust:
By the time they reach school, many boys are already lagging behind in literacy: at age five, there is a gap of 11 percentage points between boys’ and girls’ achievement in reading. More and more boys struggle with reading and literacy as they progress through the school system and by age 16 girls are matching, or more often outperforming, boys in every GCSE subject except for construction. Boys are also less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to spend time reading outside of class.
"The issue is becoming more pressing," Barwell went on.
So what is making boys more likely to struggle with reading? The Commission has found it is not biological and therefore not inevitable. Not all boys struggle with reading and while the literacy gender gap is seen internationally, there are notable exceptions including Chile and the Netherlands. Something we are doing as a society is making boys more likely to fail at reading.
For all the clarity of these warnings and demonstrations of a crisis, the publishing industry seems slow to respond.
Barwell's explication of the commission's findings makes it clear that early-life exposure and home-and-school approaches are not working:
The Commission has found that the gender gap begins in the home, with parents supporting boys very differently from girls. In school, what is taught and how it is taught and assessed all impacts on boys’ achievement, while boys’ gender identities, influenced by society’s expectations and reinforced by their peers, can negatively impact on their attitudes to reading, the amount of time they spend reading and ultimately their reading skills.
Children's author Jonathan Emmett has created a site, Cool Not Cute, devoted to issues in young boys' reading, in particular, drilling down on the picture-book stage as a place far better equipped to support girls than boys in their needs to build early reading habits.
Emmett's The Clockwork Dragon, a new picture book with illustrations by Elys Dolan, comes out 5th February from Oxford University Press.
As I reported in April, one of Emmett's core arguments -- certainly a thankless one but important for industry consideration -- is that "the lack of gender-balance among publishers, teachers, librarians and picture-book-buyers is making picture books more appealing to girls than boys."
What he's saying -- and what the complaints of some parents seem to confirm when they say they can't find adequate content for young boys -- is that the preponderance of women in children's publishing divisions may be behind an inadvertent exacerbation of the problem.
And it's significant to note that Emmett holds men as responsible as women on this.
"I’ve repeatedly stressed, he told me in April, "that if one demographic group was to blame for any content bias in picture books, it is adult men, for failing to take sufficient interest in what young children are reading."
While Scarrow isn't working in picture books for boys, he's certainly opening an avenue into an adjacent form -- gaming -- that has the attention of the young males who aren't reading enough.
"It's beguilingly simple," Scarrow says, the scheme of the Cato and Macro game.
"You start out with a Roman fort. Then you build certain buildings. Granaries, siege-weapon workshops, barracks, officers' quarters, these sorts of things. And all these things unlock other towers or units. And you train up your troops, then take them to a battle. And Macro and Cato lead them in battles. You play Macro and Cato in each of the battles.
"Each of the battles is based on one of the books. So when you choose which battle you're going to fight, you go onto a map screen, a map of the Roman empire. And each level leads you from one book to the next book in the series.
"For example, in the first book, there's a battle in a German village. So in the game, there's a little bit of context to explain why it's important that they hold this village, and then there's a battle in the village. There's a bit of dialogue between the characters so you get some sense of what kind of characters they are.
"The idea is to try to build up a degree of empathy, as far as you can in an app or game...each battle has three kinds of goals you need to achieve, and each goal unlocks a bit of text. The idea is that if they want to know more about what a Roman battle would be like, they can read about it in the game, as a reward," drawing on text from the Eagle Series books, themselves.
"And this might entice a reaction of, 'Oh, well, maybe Mom and Dad weren't so crazy when they recommended that book, and maybe now I'll give it a try."
The model Headline and Amuzo are using here is such that while the game app is free, the books are not. If a reader enjoys the game and wants to read a book, he'll need to buy it.
"They're getting a fair amount of text in the game," Scarrow says. "There's nothing to lose from giving it a try." There are some in-app purchases available, he says, but they're not critical to a full experience of the game. "I've played it for several weeks now," he says, "without spending any money on it.
"And I managed to talk my publisher," Headline, "into investing in the game from the marketing budget. The split, in fact, Scarrow says, is that "Amuszo owns 50 percent of the game, the publisher owns 30 percent of the game, and I own the last 20 percent -- I put some money in, as well."
The developer, Scarrow says, will be monetising the game using advertising. "There's a possibility from the publisher's point of view that some money from the marketing budget will actually start making a profit," he says. "Which might be a first."
Scarrow sees the potential here for future projects to lie in "the way we've done it. It's not something you have to buy into. The game is a bit of fun that hopefully creates a bit of marketing buzz as far as Headline is concerned, recruits some readers, and -- from my point of view -- gets kids interested in a bit of history and it gets them interested in reading.
"We've got problems recruiting young male readers. And anything we an do as industry people to find ways of getting kids back to books is worth doing."
Battles, smart and not
Scarrow talks of seeing a kind of gap in books for boys these days between the celebrity-driven appeal of work, say, by David Walliams, and young-adult material. His brother, Alex, is a writer, too, the author of the Time Riders series. In both their cases, Simon Scarrow says, they see a better uptake in foreign rights -- "Germany, France, Spain, Holland," he says, "but there seems to be a problem with male readers in the UK."
He thinks that educational initiatives, even well-intentioned, can at times be the problem.
"I was on a radio programme with a teacher from an association of English teachers -- I'm actually a teacher, myself -- and she was saying that they were trying to get the government to change the syllabus so that boys would not have to read any text more than a hundred pages in length.
"And I was saying, this is just crazy. If you say a hundred pages now, in five years, you'll be saying 50 pages. At what point does reading literature entail only reading something that short?
"I think we need to be ambitious for our kids. Get them reading."
Scarrow brings an interesting look at the "choice" question, too. This is the debate around whether curricula should specify to young readers what they must read -- only some of which will be interesting to a given personality, and the rest of which may put a youngster of either gender off reading forever.
"My oldest son," Scarrow says, "wants to join the army, and I'm not very keen on it. So for a while, I've just tried to introduce him to other things, saying, 'Look, have you considered this?' and being very negative about the army. And all it did was create a lot of resistance to anything I suggested.
"When I turned 'round and said, 'Look, okay, it's your choice to join the army, and I'll see what I can do to help you in this, immediately it opened him up to all sorts of other stuff. He became far more receptive.
"So I think this idea of laying down the barriers is just crazy. What you do is acknowledge the reality of people's tastes and desires, and see what you can do to build on that."
In that spirit, then, Scarrow and Headline and Amuzo are looking to see whether the way to a book might be through a boy's game-app. The author says he'll be in touch with us later to let us know what the uptake is and what they're learning from the reactions of readers to the game.
Meanwhile, he confesses to a perfectly understandable drawback, all his own, as the creator of a highly successful series based on these two warriors: "I've been playing it for a few weeks, and I get horribly distressed if Macro or Cato get killed in a battle, I can tell you."
Main image: Amuzo.com