Walking Enigmas: On the Reading Habits of Teen Boys

February 14, 2013 | 3 books mentioned 12 3 min read

coverAt parent-teacher conferences earlier this year, I spoke with at least 10 sets of parents that lamented the uncommunicative nature of their teenage sons.

“You would know more than we do.”

“He speaks up in class?  That’s good because he doesn’t talk much at home.”

“I ask him if he has work for class but he always just says ‘no.’”

It makes me think that this is why The Catcher in the Rye is a classic. People are just so thrilled to hear a teenage boy’s thoughts.

Then maybe they’re sorry they asked.

There’s no getting around it: 15-year-old boys talk to their friends more than they talk to their parents. They probably talk to their dogs more than they talk to their parents. In class, they can’t stop talking for five minutes to work independently on a writing project, but when they get home, apparently, they’re mute.

When they’re talking in class, it isn’t about their thoughts and feelings. But my informal qualitative research suggests that young men today are growing up with the same basic longings and tribulations that Holden did. How do I know? How do I have any idea what these walking enigmas feel inside? By what they read, of course. Teenage boys might be closed books, but the ones that they open are those in which the author manages to capture the honest-to-god truth about coming age. Here are three books the teenage boys in my class have been reading:

coverThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: I’m so excited that this novel has been made in to a movie; originally published in 1999, Perks might not be enjoying the readership it is today without the film publicity and modern cover art. The book merits its evolution from cult classic to mainstream movie fame — in turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Stephen Chbosky’s novel gets the coming-of-age motif just right. His character Charlie is the wallflower that the title references, and Charlie’s journey, told through letters to an anonymous recipient, is ultimately one of moving out onto that dance floor and of refusing to play bystander to his own life.

A freshman in high school, Charlie navigates friendship, bullying, crushes, sex, drugs, and loss. He is an earnest, shy kid who struggles against depression and seclusion, hanging on to moments of joy and human connection. The novel is just angsty enough to feel honest, without being cringeworthy, and the voice is real and raw. I haven’t met a student yet who didn’t relate to Charlie’s story.

coverBall Don’t Lie by Matt de la Pena: One of my favorites this year, Ball Don’t Lie tells the story of Travis Reichard, or as his mom used to call him: Sticky Boy. Matt de la Pena’s character portrayal is incredibly rich — not only when it comes to Sticky, with his compulsive tics and subconscious motivations, but with the entire cast: Sticky’s addict mom, his girlfriend, Anh-thu, and all the boys who go head-to-head on the basketball court and the streets.

We first meet Sticky on the gym floor of Lincoln Rec: “the best place in L.A. to ball.” De la Pena’s description of the game and the boys who play it is so vivid you can hear the squeak of sneakers on the court and the thud of the ball on the bent and battered rim. Initially, all but the outcome of each play is a mystery, and it takes a while to get to know Sticky, a foster kid whose only dream is to play in the NBA. Sticky is slow to show himself, as his past has left him broken, and the uncertainty of his future leaves him guarded. But, chapter-by-chapter, piece-by-piece, greater depths are revealed, and the book opens up to an emotional and riveting account of an urban basketball community, and a boy looking for a home.

coverWill Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan: Yet another delight from John Green, and this time with the added bonus of Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson tells the story of two Will Graysons: a pair of teenage boys who meet serendipitously, at a time when a small miracle of coincidence is just what each one needs.

The two male protagonists, one gay, one straight, navigate platonic and romantic relationships with varying degrees of success and failure, with all the modern day complications of texting and online messaging. The story builds to an epic climax, complete with a high school musical and passionate declarations of love. The writing is funny, the characters relatable, the circumstances engaging, the themes meaningful and poignant. I haven’t seen my copy of the novel since September: as soon as one student signs it in, another signs it out.

is a graduate of Rutgers University where she completed her undergraduate degree in English and a MA in Education. She currently teaches English at Hightstown High School in East Windsor, NJ.


  1. In eight years of teaching high school juniors and seniors, there are only three books that work with/for almost every teenage boy: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Things They Carried.

  2. Those are great books, ZK. Your comment made me think that it might be important to note that many of my 9th grade students are reading just at or below grade level. Hopefully it won’t be long before they’re reading titles like those you mention above.

  3. Your male students might also like Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper, Tyrell by Coe Booth, and Monster by Walter Dean Myers (he has many boy-friendly books) just to name a few that were successful with my own male students reading below 9th grade reading level.

  4. Dear Carolyn,

    Great article. I can definitely relate to your perspective as a teacher.

    I work for a Boston Public Schools high school and one of our goals is to change students’ feelings toward reading. It’s funny. If you ask most of our students what they think about reading, they’ll say, “I don’t like to read.” Or “reading is boring.” But then if you ask, “What’s your favorite book?” the student will have a favorite book.

    So students will love a specific book or two but not reading … It’s curious.

    Our goal has been to change our school’s culture around independent reading, to get students to read books they will actually enjoy and want to read even if the books aren’t topnotch literature. This can mean graphic novels, Walter Dean Myers, Zane, or other types of books generally coded as “high interest, low skill.” Now don’t get me wrong, I love topnotch literature as much as any reader of The Millions, but most high school students–and, overall, most readers I think–would prefer something recent, relatable, engaging, and thrilling over a 19th-century masterpiece.

    Anyway, it’s good to think about how to achieve this of goal getting students to become people who read for pleasure. There’s a pretty large numbers of adults, I think, who after flipping through the assigned texts in high school (and college) quit reading forever. It’s unfortunate. Best, –Alex K.

  5. Anecdotal evidence, but the boys I’ve known over the years who became good readers improved their reading skills by reading books that interested them and that at least some adults thought were “above their reading level.”

    My own experience was that content sufficiently interesting was worth reading even if it taxed my comprehension. But what interested me wasn’t what interested every other girl in the class, and boys’ interests were as different as the girls’ were. No book caught all of either gender, let alone an entire class. Some boys like mysteries, some like thrillers, some like science fiction, and so on. Ditto girls. I think it’s worth looking beyond what adults think should interest kids…offering books in other genres than those I usually see touted by teachers and parents (fiction of immediate social relevance, “problem” books) to see if the slow readers might not come alive when exposed to books whose content is already of interest.

  6. It’s hard now to imagine a time when August (and August #2!) will stop talking at home, but I know it’s bound to happen. Exposing kids and young adults (male and female) to literature is a big part of the battle, I imagine, and just having a range of titles available does some of the difficult legwork for them. In a library or a bookstore, knowing where to start looking is tricky, so what you’re doing in your classroom is hugely important and will have an impact. Thanks for this post, Carrie.

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