What boys are reading and if boys are reading are perennial topics of conversation and sources of concern, but to hear three authors discuss the topic at the Writing Genre for Boys panel at BEA last Friday, maybe we don’t need to worry so much. The conversation drifted from what the participating authors – Jack Gantos, Jon Scieszka, and Kevin Emerson – read when they were kids to the way they use humor in their writing, “reluctant readers,” and the very idea of writing “for” boys (or girls) to begin with. Beyonders author Brandon Mull was also supposed to take part, but didn’t appear, leading Scieszka, at one point, to quip to his empty chair, “Brandon, you’ve been quiet.”

Jordan Brown, a senior editor at HarperCollins, moderated the panel, and he opened by asking the writers what they used to read when they were boys. Series were clearly a hit, with Gantos (From Norvelt to Nowhere) professing his love for Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Cherry Ames, while Emerson (the Atlanteans series) recalled reading the Three Investigators books, “lots of Choose Your Own Adventure,” and the nuances of the multiple threads of Spider-Man comics. “I don’t think there was such a thing as genre then,” said Scieszka, editor of the Guys Read series. “There were just really crappy books and the books they made you read in school.”

Readers Digest Condensed Books and the Classics Illustrated comics line were also popular with the authors in their youth. Gantos remembered hiding Classics Illustrated under his bed “like child pornos. My mom would call them ‘moron books’,” he said. “The kind of books that keep a young man from becoming a man.”

Scieszka said he thought today’s kids have “so much more available” to them, and observed that they are far more sophisticated readers, since they are used to more complex entertainment, print or otherwise. “I think the definition of humor has expanded,” said Gantos. “Humor is the welcome mat to bring you in to the book. You bait the reader with humor, then boom here comes the theme, boom here comes the interior life of the characters.”

When Brown asked the panelists about the degree to which they consciously write for boys, they generally agreed: they don’t. Emerson recalled being told, “ ‘Kevin, you write these books for boys.’ Like it’s this charitable work we do.”

“I wouldn’t encourage people to write for boys, even though that’s what we do,” Scieszka said. “I think it’s a weird mistake. I hope we can get beyond that. Bridge to Terabithia was for everyone.” The Stinky Cheese Man author also shared an anecdote that struck a chord with the audience, as he described meeting a fifth-grader and his mother at a recent event. “His mom said, ‘He’s a reluctant reader,’ ” to which the boy responded, “No, I’m not, I’m a picky reader.”

“I’m so glad he stood up for himself,” said Scieszka.

During Q&A time, a librarian asked about pigeonholing male and female readers: “Do you worry about sticking people in gender prison cells? What can we do about that?” Scieszka responded, “There is no one boy reader, no one girl reader. What works for boys to get boys reading works for all readers. Give them a choice, let them be part of the choice. It’s kind of that simple.”

Emerson’s answer: “I do my best not to think about those things.” He added, “I can always spot who my readers are,” when visiting schools. “Girls, boys, all social strata.”

Asked about the digital distractions that today’s kids face, Gantos said, “I have no fear of the device. I’ve been going into schools for 25 years, and the crop of readers now is greater, they read more widely and with more depth, and they’re more interested in books.” He credited teachers and librarians for helping make kids aware of the array of books available to them. “Kids have variety,” Gantos said, “and I think if we keep writing more good books, we’ll have more good readers.”