Ever since I discovered “The Little Black Puppy” when I was 6 years old, I have always been a reader. So it was a major surprise to me when I had children who weren’t. How was this even possible? Don’t the children of readers automatically inherit the Reader Gene? Did the fact that all my kids were boys have something to do with this shocking state of affairs?
Before anybody accuses me of being sexist, please remember I came of age in the 1970s, which meant I’d watched enough Phil Donahue to know that historically as a society we instilled gender identity into our children by forcing boys to play with Tonka trucks and girls to play with Barbies. Which was a bad thing. And yes! I totally agreed it was a bad thing! Nobody should be forced to play with a Barbie if they don’t want to! But still. The reality was that I was surrounded by mini-males, some of whom weren’t interested in books. At all. So I began asking teachers, librarians and other parents how to turn boys into readers. Here are a few of the strategies they recommended.
Establish a reader-friendly environment at home • Make it a point to leave books, magazines and newspapers around the house. Create comfortable spaces that invite kids to sit down and read. Don’t interrupt them once they start reading. (My mother remembers that whenever she picked up a book to read, her mother found another household chore for her to do. As far as my grandmother was concerned, READING = LAZY.)
Model reading • Start reading to your boys when they’re babies. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Mine were way more interested in ripping books out of my hands and brandishing them as weapons than in listening to me. But making a regular effort is important. As your sons grow, continue to read to them and with them — especially if they are struggling. You read a page to them, they read a page to you. Or a paragraph. Or a sentence. Whatever works.
Meanwhile, they should be seeing YOU read on your own, too. This tells children that reading is important. And if a boy can see a father, a grandfather, an uncle or some important adult male in his life reading regularly, so much the better.
Talk about what’s happening in a book in a way that appeals to boys • In his funny and insightful essay “Proud and Prejudiced: Why Boys Don’t Like Chick Books,” author and English professor Chris Crowe (www.chriscrowe.com) argues that while girls and women frequently talk about how a book makes them feel, boys often want to talk about a book in terms of what happens next. It’s not that boys don’t have feelings, too. They do. But first and foremost they’re interested in a story’s action line. And speaking of action, many boys like lots of it. As Clint Johnson (www.clintjohnsonwrites.com), author and writing instructor, notes, boys often choose “books that involve adventure and are built on a great deal of obvious, external conflict (battles, races, contests, etc.) rather than personal relationships or introspection.” Humor is also popular, as the continuing popularity of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series demonstrates.
Broaden your definition of what constitutes acceptable reading material • I freely admit it. I was a Book Snob. I used to think that the only kind of reading material that counted was the novel. In my mind, unless kids were reading chapter books, they weren’t really reading.
The late children’s author Bea Williams was the person who encouraged me to take a different approach. Why not give your boys nonfiction to read? she asked me. Almanacs. Atlases. Guinness World Records books. Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not collections. Magazines about sports or computers. Reading, after all, is reading. Genius! It turns out that a lot of boys who “don’t like to read” will often spend hours poring over nonfiction.
The same goes for things like comic books and graphic novels (thank you, Dav Pilkey, for your Captain Underpants series), joke books, audio books, books with franchise connections like “Star Wars,” collections of silly poetry by people like Shel Silverstein, Doug Florian and Jack Prelutsky. Any of these things can entice a reluctant boy (or girl) to read. The same goes for “white space”— margins, chapter breaks, spacing between lines — on a book’s pages.
Let your kids make their own reading choices • A friend of mine who teaches high-risk adolescents told me that her school’s AP English teacher once asked how she’s able to get so many students to read. My friend said it’s simple. She gives her students things they actually want to read.
We parents have agendas where our kids are concerned. We just do. But having too much of an agenda when it comes to helping our children select books can backfire. Wanting a boy to read a book because it conforms to our idea of worthwhile is fine — as long as that same boy also gets to make plenty (!!!) of his own choices with no strings attached.
It’s also worth mentioning here that many books appeal to both sexes. No book should be taken off the table simply because someone thinks it appeals to just boys or just girls. As writer Jessica Day George (www.jessicadaygeorge.com) said in a recent email exchange, “There are two things that I hope my kids find out at home … and not on the playground. There is no Santa and there are boy books and girl books. (OK, also where babies come from.)”
Check in regularly with people who can make great recommendations • Jon Scieszka—the author of “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” and a former elementary-school teacher — cares deeply about male literacy. To this end he created the fabulous Guys Read website (www.guysread.com), which makes recommendations for boys of all ages and reading levels. Local author Ken Baker (www.kenbakerbooks.com) also lists good choices for boys on his blog. Finally, children’s librarians and booksellers are a wonderful resource, as well.
Remember that children — both boys and girls — develop at different speeds • Author Cara Buehner (http://buehnerbooks.com) wisely compares the efforts of encouraging reluctant readers to the process of potty training. “You can work at it and work at it and go bonkers and cry over it in frustration, or you can wait until they are six months older and motivated, and they do it themselves in a day or two. I’ve heard several people who couldn’t really read — including two of my sons — say that they got a little older and it just clicked.”
The point is to hang in there. And chances are excellent that one day you’ll look at your adult sons and realize they’ve become readers, too.