Tom Bonnick: Boys, left to their own devices

Tom Bonnick: Boys, left to their own devices

Editor's Note: Friday's (20th February) #FutureChat will feature, in part, renewed questions about how much appropriate reading material is produced for boys. A spur to those questions arrived last week in the form of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize shortlists being released, as my Bookseller colleague Charlotte Eyre reported, with 15 of 18 titles written by women. We asked Nosy Crow business development manager Tom Bonnick for his thoughts on this, from his perspective in the children's books sector. As you'll read, he responded good-naturedly: "What the 3-out-of-18 number does do is provide me with a usefully contemporary segue into my 'it’s hard to get boys reading' topic, and I’m not above that sort of thing." - Porter Anderson

Last week’s unveiling of the 2015 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlists reminded me of several things:

The children’s book market is in fantastic health. As The Bookseller have reported, in 2014, children’s book sales were up by almost 10 percent, year-on-year -- particularly impressive in the context of an overall decline in print book sales -- and this shortlist shows why: it’s a brilliant selection of books, demonstrating how much imagination, creativity and talent exists in children’s publishing at the moment.

Waterstones’ commitment to championing new talent is unparalleled. Last week the Bookseller reported, Publishers encouraged by Waterstones revival, and nowhere can this be truer than in children’s publishing. The knowledge and passion of Waterstones’ children’s buyers and booksellers has brought new authors and illustrators to the attentions of parents and children everywhere, and for smaller publishers, without big name celebrity authors or YouTube vloggers on their lists, this sort of support is vital: bricks-and-mortar bookshops staffed with enthusiastic, informed booksellers are how readers will discover authors and illustrators like the ones on these shortlists. This is absolutely reflected in Nosy Crow’s own growth last year: in 2014 our Nielsen BookScan TCM sales were up by 41 percent on 2013.

Selling books to boys is difficult. As has been discussed elsewhere, only 3 of the 18 authors on the Waterstones shortlists are men (one of them, G.R. Gemin, is a Nosy Crow author, shortlisted for his fantastic debut novel Cowgirl).

I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions from this particular figure, because, (a) male authors and male readers are not the same thing, and (b) I think that, broadly speaking, the books on these shortlists have very strong cross-gender appeal.

But what the 3 out of 18 number does do is provide me with a usefully contemporary segue into my “it’s hard to get boys reading” topic, and I’m not above that sort of thing.

Boys don’t read as much as girls. Tempting as it might be to dismiss that statement as a gross generalisation, it is objectively, statistically the case. Recent research by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) found that more parents of girls said that their child read daily than parents of boys (75 percent vs 68 percent). Parents of girls were also more likely than parents of boys to report that their child enjoyed stories “a lot” (83 percent vs 74 percent). And girls are almost twice as likely as boys (18 percent vs 10 percent) to read stories more without than with an adult.

Perhaps that’s where digital and on-screen reading experiences has a role to play. The same NLT research found that twice as many boys as girl (24 percent vs 12 percent) look at or read stories on a touch screen for longer than they look at or read printed stories. I have heard variants of this figure in anecdotal form more times than I can count over the past couple of years -- not just in research papers and at conferences, but in emails, tweets and messages from parents, teachers and librarians all over the world.

And this is exactly what we had in mind when we set out to make apps at Nosy Crow.

We know that children are spending more and more time with touchscreen devices – boys in particular – and we want at least some of that time to be spent reading. And we believe that the way to engage children with reading on a touchscreen device is by making it as engaging, compelling and innovative as all of the competing forms of media available on the same screen.

This is what motivated us (please excuse the shameless self-promotion) to create our Jack and the Beanstalk app. More than any of our other apps, Jack and the Beanstalk is aimed at reluctant boy readers. It has an emphasis on reading for pleasure, built within a “game-like” architecture -- a non-linear narrative, a “scoring” mechanism, multiple endings -- that we think works well at encouraging boys who love on-screen gaming to participate in a reading experience.

I don’t mean, by all this, that because we’ve found ways of using screens to engage some boys with reading that we can give up on print (and it would be foolish to think so: while the children’s print market enjoyed its meteoric growth last year, digital revenues remained stubbornly small).

Actually, what I’d really like is to see an end to the oddly parochial habit so many of us in the publishing industry seem to have of pitting the two formats against each other.

In children’s media, in particular, I really can’t see a reason why the two platforms should be anything but complementary to each other, and if I may return to the NLT’s invaluable findings one final time, here’s why: because children who read both print-based stories and stories on a touch screen are more likely to demonstrate above-average attainment than those who only read print-based stories.

I don’t have an answer to the vexed question of how to get boys reading more. But I’m absolutely convinced that we won’t go about achieving it by categorising some forms of reading as more valid than others.

Join us each Friday for our live #FutureChat with The FutureBook digital community at 4 p.m. London (GMT), 5 p.m. Rome, 11 a.m. New York, 8 a.m. Los Angeles.

Main image - Shutterstock: Nekrasov Andrey