Getting Boys to Read: Two Authors Chat About It (Part 1)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had numerous discussions under the broad subject of “books for boys” with fellow author Kurtis Scaletta. We’re both ex-boys, you see, and we care. So we’ve talked about the gender gap in reading, looked at the typical remedies, passed on book suggestions (Kurtis tells me I have to read this book by William Brozo), discussed the primary importance of modeling in the home, and more.

Recently we’ve encounted several mainstream articles on the subject. And rather than talk amongst ourselves, we decided to continue the discussion in the context of an online chat.

Please: feel free to comment, react, complain, applaud, question. We know that we don’t have the answers. But we also know that there’s something fundamentally unsettling to us as men about the tone and tenor of the entire conversation.

To set the stage, let’s look at a recent Associated Press article, written by Leanne Italie: “How to get boys to read? Try a book on farts.”

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link above. But here’s a few snippets for context:

Can fart jokes save the reading souls of boys?

You better hope so.

Boys have lagged behind girls in reading achievement for more than 20 years, but the gender gap now exists in nearly every state and has widened to mammoth proportions — as much as 10 percentage points in some, according to the Center on Education Policy.

“It certainly should set off alarm bells,” said the center’s director, Jack Jennings. “It’s a significant separation.”

Parents of reluctant readers complain that boys are forced to stick to stuffy required school lists that exclude nonfiction or silly subjects, or have teachers who cater to higher achievers and girls. They’re hoping books that exploit boys’ love of bodily functions and gross-out humor can close the gap.

<snip>

‘Just get ’em reading’

Butts, farts. Whatever, said Amelia Yunker, a children’s librarian in Farmington Hills, Mich. She hosted a grossology party with slime and an armpit noise demonstration. “Just get ’em reading. Worry about what they’re reading later.”

Again, please read the entire article — which quotes parents, librarians, and bestselling authors such as James Patterson, Jon Scieszka, Ray Sabini (who writes under the name, Raymond Bean), and Patrick Carman.

And now for the chat portion of today’s program:

JP: You can’t see me, but I’m slumped in my chair. It’s hard to respond to this article without sounding like a whining ninny.

KS: I see a story like that about once a month in the mainstream press, touting books like SweetFarts as the simple solution to this really complex problem.

JP: I just get sick and tired of seeing the same types of books listed in these discussions. Very lowest common denominator.

KS: It is lowest common denominator.

JP: I find it stultifying when I come across lists of “books for boys” that begin and end with all the usual standbys: bodily humor, nonstop action, cars and trucks, sports, violence, and so on.

KS: I think you give boys those books and you aren’t communicating that you value that boy’s mind very much or that you value reading. It seems to trivialize the whole thing.

JP: And let’s not forget that there are many kinds of boys, or that boys can be many things: sensitive, caring, troubled, dreamy, mild, lonely.

KS: Those lists and assumptions don’t do very well by boys or by books. They have such low expectations for both. That’s what bugs me the most.

JP: As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not just farts and firetrucks. It can’t be.

KS: You give a boy a fart book and I wonder where it comes in that he understands reading is important and that you believe he is capable of high intellectual pursuits.

JP: Is it merely THE ACT of reading we value? I don’t think so.

KS: The real reasons boys become passionate readers is because they do find those books that make a real difference to them. “Home Run” books they are called. ONE book is proven to turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader. IF it is the right book. So you have to ask, “Is this likely to be that book?”

JP: But couldn’t it be argued that they need to begin with any kind of positive reading experience?

KS: Yeah, but I don’t really buy the story that teachers are brutalizing boys with all these terrible boring books. Mostly they read books that have had a huge kid response already. Books like The Outsiders or Maniac Magee or some other book that millions of boys have read and loved. So I don’t know where the negative experiences come in.

JP: I think it’s kind of intellectually lazy — and degrading — for teachers and librarians to hand boys some of these books. Though I have to add, that’s not been my observation of the teachers and librarians I’ve met over the years.

KS: That’s ultimately my complaint. My problem isn’t with the books. I think they should be out there and kids can read them if they want to. I just don’t like the message that boys are terrible readers and our only hope is to lower the bar.

JP: Amen.

KS: And I agree, it’s not teachers and librarians touting these simplistic solutions. It’s more mainstream press, reporters trying to find the funny lead to a complex story.

JP: Exactly. In the process, boys get reduced to primitive creatures capable only of banging on rocks and grunting. It’s condescending. And let’s not ignore the fact that, in this article at least, many of the advocates quoted here are the authors themselves. Their POV seems to be, “Buy my book; problem solved.”

KS: Ha. Yes, I admire Scieszka a lot for what he’s done, but of course he has a product line too and it’s hard to ignore that. Now James Patterson has his own “reading for boys” site, and of course he’s making fistfuls of cash off of his kids books line. It sounds bitter and jealous to mention it, but there it is. The handful of guys who are actually making a living at writing for boys are also pitched as the only hope to get boys to read and get to be the experts quoted in those articles. No room for a Preller or a Scaletta in that kind of story. So I guess I do take it personally.

JP: To be clear, in case I haven’t been: It’s not about the books. There are many, many great books out there for a wide variety of boy readers. So, yes, I think the media focus on grossology, etc., is completely misguided. We need to look at how we respond to boys in school and the messages we send. Most of all, I want to see fathers reading — that could make the single most powerful difference of all. When the focus shifts to the books, it all begins to feel like cynical marketing. I have no problem with “butt books” or whatever you want to call them, but let’s not begin to pretend they arrive riding on white horses, looking to save the day.

KS: Yes, I agree. And that’s what Sciezka says and Ray Bean says — that boys need male role models to read. The more I think about it, I just think those newspaper stories are lazy and half-assed. They want a compelling headline and don’t really care about the issue or the solution. We’re letting them frame the story and we shouldn’t.

JP: Word, Kurtis. But you know, I wish we had somebody really smart, like author Lewis Buzbee, to put it all in perspective for us. He’s so good at astute summation.

KS: Yeah, that would be great.

JP: Hey, look. Here comes Lewis now. What a coincidence!

LB: The problem that I have with such thinking is that it supposes that boys are all the same — farts and butts and such. Oh, a lot of boys like such stuff, I know I did. but that wasn’t all I liked. I hate to see any reader reduced to such a cynical — your word, JP, and a good one — description. In a way, such single-minded publishing may actually turn boys off reading. I mean, is that all books are; I can get that from my friends. Books are very intimate places, where one reader with one book can feel and think about the world in ways that are different than they might otherwise think and feel. I know that’s why I like reading.

JP: Thanks for stopping by, Lewis. We are not worthy!

10 comments

  1. I volunteered in an elementary school library for seven years and noticed a couple of things about boys: for the most part, they loved picture books and were very competitive with each other and with the girls in kindergarten and first grade in learning to read. After graduating from picture books, however, they gradually lost interest in reading. The books that remained popular were the ones that were interactive — the Waldo books, create your own adventure stuff, etc.
    My 23-yr-old son sez that it’s not necessarily a dislike for books, but it’s just that most young boys would prefer to be doing something that requires more active participation — anything BUT reading. From games of pretend to sports to video games, etc. They’d much rather see an action movie than to read an action story. More than a few have a harder time sitting still than do girls.
    I did notice, however, that some boys did continue an interest in nonfiction through middle school, whether it was in reading about frogs or volcanoes. But I think the nature channel and some of the others may have now taken the place of those books.
    It’s hard for middle school books to compete with movies and tv. The books have to be appropriate for this age; the movies they watch have far more flexible “guidelines.”
    The good thing is that boys who quit reading may still become adult readers. Priorities change, things settle down, whatever.

  2. Connie says:

    I completely agree with Kurtis:
    KS: And I agree, it’s not teachers and librarians touting these simplistic solutions. It’s more mainstream press, reporters trying to find the funny lead to a complex story.
    *******
    I have three boys myself (8-14) and not that they wouldn’t get a kick out of that book but their standard of reading is well passed just “joke” books. Our school librarian is awesome and keeps a great selection of books for boys and girls. Maybe its because she’s a mom of a boy too but I think its because she is just great herself.

    By the way, we have 4 of the 6 books you have pictured above and all your Jigsaw Jones books on our library shelves plus a few other good ones. 😉

  3. jimmy says:

    I have two boys and both have always, always had a book in progress. Some take longer than others. In our house, reading is not an optional activity — and time with electronics is limited.

    Given options, boys would not eat carrots either. And they’d drink soda instead of milk. And on and on. That’s how I feel about reading; it begins in the home.

    One other thing: I have never, ever sat down and wished if only there was something decent for my guys to read. There are so many, many, many great books. It’s impossible to get to them all.

  4. jimmy says:

    Connie, yes, Kurtis nailed it with that comment. We’ve been talking about these issues for a long time, emails here and there, and when it came to this article, it really did take us a while before the light went on and we reached that conclusion. You really had to step back — get away from the phony debate of fart books vs. non-fart books — and in order to see the larger picture.

    But importantly, on a gut level, we’re just sick and tired of boys being discussed as if we’re idiots. Let’s not forget that the gatekeepers — the editors, teachers, librarians, reviewers, bloggers — and at least 80% women. Probably 90%. That’s part of the problem, too. Where are the men?

    Thanks for stopping by the blog. I really appreciate your comments.

  5. Kurtis says:

    Katie, I keep coming back to the idea that we don’t just give kids what they like, we *tell* them what they like. Heck, I can see how much I’ve already done it with a month-old child. Cars and trucks on his sheets, football and baseball sleepers. We’ve mostly gone for neutral animal-themed clothing and decor, but we end up buying some of the “boy” stuff. And of course, none of the “girl” stuff, because even if we wanted to do the social experiment, other people would object. Kids know what’s expected of them by the time they are old enough to state a preference, and once they are in school it is amped up. Eventually kids find their own bliss and might drift far from their classmates or even their parents, but when they do go with the crowd it’s hard to know when our decisions for them became their own decisions.

  6. Kurtis says:

    P.S. Thanks for dropping by, and thanks to Connie, too.

  7. Christine says:

    As a teacher of 11 and 12 year old boys for almost 20 years now I do agree that most of the literature out there is geared towards girls and higher achieving students. It is always a problem trying to find books that boys will enjoy. But, I have never lowered my standards. We read Maniac Magee, Crash, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Holes and many other great books. The success is in the delivery, and the discussions that ensue. I often read to them and it’s always exciting to see how anxious they are to read on their own to find out what happens next. We don’t have to resort to body humor to engage boys. I totally agree with you….keep introducing them to good literature.

  8. Doret says:

    I have a lot of great boy books in my selling repertoire. So I make it point to gender balance my reading and the books I review at my blog. Plus reading only books with female MC is no fun and limited

    Boys do read, like any other reader they just want something they like.

    I’ve helped all types. Even boys who don’t like sports, fantasy or Alex rider type books and yes there are great books for them to.

    I really like sports, fantasy and Alex rider type books, but I never question, or try and convince a young reader what they should like because of their gender. I simply move on to the next thing.

    Some boys will make me work hard, trying to find the right book. But the professional that I am always up to the challenge.

  9. jimmy says:

    Christine, thanks for those thoughtful comments. I’m glad that no one seems to have taken the blog entry as a bitter screed against fart books, per say. Books like, for example, SIR FARTSALOT HUNTS THE BOOGER might possibly be excellent — and they might in fact offer positive reading experience for reluctant readers — but I just hate to see them so thoroughly dominate the conversation.

    Doret, thanks always for stopping by; I love to hear your thoughts.

  10. jimmy says:

    I wanted to add that I followed Kurtis’s recommendation and am currently reading TO BE A BOY, TO BE A READER by William Brozo. We’re not alone in the wilderness.

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