Archive for The Gender Gap in Reading

RE-POST: An Interview with Thomas Newkirk, Author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

NOTE: I’ve been blogging at this site since May, 2008, which is like 120 in Blogger’s Years. My strong suspicion is that a lot of the oldies-but-goodies have not been seen by my current readership, so I decided to give this one a new airing. I still often think of Mr. Newkirk’s great book and insights. This was originally posted on March 6, 2011.

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow ReadingI posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book,Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.

The Dublin Literacy Conference — featuring Donalyn Miller, Sharon Draper, Ruth Ayres, and Hot Tubs

I had a great time at the Dublin Literacy Conference back in February. I saw a couple of old friends, Karen and Bill from the Literate Lives blog, and finally met two women I’ve known almost exclusively through their terrific blog, A Year in Reading, Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn.

You can’t talk to either Franki or Mary Lee for long before you are promising to read a book or two that they absolutely loved. These are the ones that sounded most interesting to me . . .

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

I also heard a morning keynote speech from Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer. She was terrific and inspiring, and an expert on building a classroom community of voracious readers. Boys, girls, whoever walks into the room. Many teachers told me that Donalyn’s professional book was excellent — fast, accessible, illuminating, and motivating.

So that was cool, meeting her. Riding in a car with Donalyn in the back seat. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, pulled in different directions, always seated at different tables, but it was a pleasure to become aware of her, sit in the auditorium and hear Donalyn’s thoughts, humor, and classroom-earned wisdom. The pedagogical stuff was solid, but she really won me over when she talked about specific students in her classroom, these small laser-like observations, like the boy who informed her that he did not read any books the previous year, except this: “I think I might have read Hatchet.” He wasn’t sure. At those points in her talk, I recognized that Donalyn knew these kids, stone-cold knew 6th-graders, and that she loved them. I was sold.

At lunch, Sharon Draper was the keynote speaker. Sharon is a force of nature, strong and lively and confident and outspoken, a woman to be reckoned with. My daughter has already read Out of Mind, so I brought home a copy of this book for my 7th grade son, and he’s reading it now.

Oh yeah, she also had the line of the weekend, quoting from (I think) an African proverb, but addressing all the changes in education these days, today’s sad and misguided emphasis on testing:

“If you want an elephant to grow, you feed it, you don’t measure it!

My most unexpected pleasure came from a young woman I met. We got to talking, she was there to make a presentation, and I slowly realized that this was, holy wow, Ruth Ayres from the fabulous Two Writing Teachers blog.

Me: “I love your blog. You do such a great job. I think I’ve even commented a few times.”

Ruth: “I know!”

I guess I didn’t figure she’d know me, or care, but she did. Anyway, anyway. Ruth and Staci (the other writing teacher) do a “Slice of Life” Challenge through their blog. This is their fifth year, so it’s a slick presentation, there’s even a button thingy you can download or whatever, way beyond the capabilities of this bargain basement blog. Essentially, they invite teachers (and readers in general) to put their money where their mouths are. If you are going to teach writing, then write. And share it. And enjoy it.

By the way, Donalyn was on a parallel mission, calling on teachers . . . to read. It’s obvious, but there you go. A lot of teachers, for valid reasons, feel too busy to read. But even so: Read. No excuses.

To me, I’ve always maintained that teaching = enthusiasm transferred. You want them to catch the reading fever? It helps if you’ve already got the bug.

Next week I’ll share one slice of life from my visit, because I had a great encounter in a hot tub.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking.

Reading with Cisco

Through the miracle of Facebook, I’ve enjoyed the great pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with an old friend of my sister’s, Bruce Donnola. No, my sister’s name is not “Bruce Donnola,” but I’m too tired to get myself out of that messy sentence construction. “Bruce Donnola” is actually the name of . . . nevermind. Growing up, Bruce was once very much my long-haired elder, but I’ve closed the gap over the years. He recently sent to me a brief essay that was intended for my defunct but most awesome blog, FATHERSREAD.com, which, alas, died on the vine. The blog didn’t get the response I’d hoped for, but more importantly I learned that I just didn’t have the time to give it the energy necessary to succeed. Disappointing, but lessons learned. I still care deeply about the gender gap in reading, about boys and reading.

Here’s the father’s story that Bruce sent. I scanned it quickly upon first reading, the way hurried people read emails, and thought it was good. Then I reread it, taking my time, and just now reread it again with deepening appreciation. I gradually recognized how many deep, important truths about boys and reading were contained in this subtle narrative. The comic books, the reading for information, the parental disappointment (and, at times, disaprroval), and the boy himself — an alert, active mind picking his way curiously through the pages and statistics and cereal boxes.

My wife worries that our eleven-year-old son doesn’t read. This has been going on for a few years now. It started in second grade when we bought him easy readers like Danny and the Dinosaur. We read that to him many times, imagining that he would eventually enjoy finding a quiet time to sit and reread it on his own, just like us grownups. But Cisco never had the slightest interest. He enjoyed having us read to him (thankfully, he still does). But he would not read books from cover to cover on his own. “He won’t even read Danny and the Dinosaur,” my wife despaired.

That disinclination has remained unchanged over the last three-plus years. But my response to my wife has always been the same: Cisco does read — he just doesn’t read books from start to finish, unless they’re assigned in school. He pulls out books on things he’s interested in — Star Wars, Leggos, dogs. What he does on an almost daily basis is open a book, flip through the pages looking at photos, stop when something grabs him, read a caption, maybe a paragraph or two, then move on. He does this with books, with comic books, with toy catalogs and most recently with newspapers.

My son is totally hyperactive, with little patience or desire to sit still. The way my son reads is part of the way he is. But the truth is that I was not hyperactive as a kid, yet my reading habits were much the same as his. Despite growing up in a highly literate household where everyone read constantly, much of it heavy literature (my mom’s favorite author was William Faulkner, my oldest brother loved James Joyce), the truth is that I barely read any books from start to finish unless they were assigned in school. Just like my son.

Yet I read constantly.

I read comic books the way some people eat potato chips. I couldn’t get enough of them, bought every new issue of (mostly) DC Comics every month and reread old issues dozens of times. I had a huge collection of Classics Illustrated and, despite the derision often accorded them, developed a love for the great stories of western literature that remains to this day.

I also read other frivolous things as a kid. I had a subscription to Mad Magazine, with contents that ranged from silly to brilliant. I LOVED Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, a periodical that mostly focused on old horror films from the 1930s and 40s, with a strong appreciation of earlier silent films. It was also filled with truly horrendous puns which any boy would appreciate (it came from Horrorwood, Karloffornia). This wonderful and ridiculous magazine led me into a lifelong love of cinema history.

I also read Peanuts voraciously — in fact, I probably learned the word “voraciously” by reading Peanuts. I remember often going to my parents holding a Peanuts paperback, asking what certain words meant, trying to understand jokes about Beethoven, psychiatry, or World War I fighter pilots. The intelligence, wit, and incredible comic timing of Peanuts in the 1960s are still a marvel to me. How many words are in any given four-panel Peanuts strip? Yet how much depth is contained in those words?

I also found joy reading ephemeral things like toy catalogs. I literally spent hours poring through the legendary Johnson Smith catalogs, with their X-ray specs, trick black soap and plastic vomit. Each item that was for sale was described in probably one or two sentences. But I savored each one of those brief descriptions over and over, as if they were a perfect haiku. All the possibilities of the mysterious world ahead seemed to lay in that booklet of magic tricks and practical jokes.

I could go on but the point is simple: what a boy reads is not the issue. The number of words he reads is not the issue. The issue, assuming there is no reading disability and assuming he is in a home where the parents read, is: does he have access to the books, magazines, comics, catalogs, baseball cards — whatever — that are about things he loves?

I didn’t really start reading books from beginning to end until I was a teenager, and truly it was not until I was eighteen or so that I really fell in love with literature. But the foundation had been laid in my childhood: in a house of book lovers, with good and great books shelved and piles up in every room, my parents quietly encouraged me to read by providing every silly book, comic, magazine or useless piece of printed ephemera, no matter how few words or how unchallenging, that I craved. The result was I had fun reading. The result was I have always loved to read.

So now in my son’s room you will find, once you recover from seeing the astonishing mess, two bookcases packed with books that range from early readers to teenage titles; a few stacks of old comic books, mostly from my childhood era (unlike today’s comics, they were actually meant for kids); Leggos magazines, which are mailed to us free every other month; a couple of DK Eyewitness books on Star Wars that look like they’ve survived the Clone Wars; two books on dogs recently taken out of the school library (hint-hint); a horrible new teen music magazine (he’s got the hots for Victoria Justice), and at his bedside a copy of Danny and the Dinosaur. One night recently he pulled it out on his own and decided to read it before bed. And there it remains, reread many times since. At his age, eleven years old, it presents no challenge to his intelligence and no challenge to his reading abilities. He simply likes to read it because it makes him happy.


Let Kids Read Comic Books . . . D’uh!

Instead of “Let Kids Read Comic Books,” I almost titled this entry, “Don’t Be an Idiot.” Because I can’t believe this needs to be discussed anymore.

Over at Imagination Soup, they ran a good piece with a solid message: “8 Reasons to Let Your Kids Read Comics.” Check it out, there’s a lot of worthwhile links attached to the article.

Here’s their list of “8 reasons” in brief.

1. Comics are fun to read.

2. Comics contain the same story elements and literary devices as narrative stories.

3. Comics provide built-in context clues.

4. Reading a comic is a different process of reading using a lot of inference.

5. Readers need variety in their reading diet.

6. We’re a visual culture and the visual sequence makes sense to kids.

7. Reading comics may lead to drawing and writing comics.

8. The selection of graphic novels is bigger, better, and reaches a wider age-range than before.

Yeah, feh, okay. I get that. We have to establish that comics are credible resources, that they’re valid in the classroom, so there’s a perceived need to throw in a lot of pedagogical goobledygook. But I don’t care. Because one thing I know is that many (many!) professional authors began their childhood love of reading with comic books. And that those authors are frequently men (AKA, ex-boys).

They read what they wanted to. They read what they liked. They read, period.

This dismissive notion of “boys reading junk” must be addressed. As well-meaning adults, we need to become sensitized to our bias against certain types of reading. We have to become aware of the messages we send to boy readers, the disapproving way we view their personal choices. Some of these boys pick up a comic book to read — TO READ! — and the message they get is, “That choice is stupid and you’re a dummy.”

We must trust in the process.

When I was working on my belly-up blog, Fathers Read, I received written contributions from several children’s book authors, including Matthew Cordell, Lewis Buzbee, Michael Northrop, Eric Velasquez, and Jordan Sonnenblick. One recurring strain in their reflections on their lives as young readers was the love and appreciation they felt toward comic books and, I should add, books that in general would not be considered literary. Yet somehow, despite reading what they liked, these boys became avid readers and skilled writers. Hmmm, go figure.

Here’s an excerpt from one such author/illustrator, my pal Matthew Cordell:

Five Things About Me as a Young Reader

1. Picture books I most remember liking were Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. And, sad to say, crappy series books like Berenstain bears. Hoo-boy.

2. I remember liking superhero comics very early on. Maybe even before I could actually read. It lasted til around middle school then tapered off. Quite significant here, being comics that made me want to be an artist.

3. I also was obsessed with Archie comics. They were easy to get because the Archie digests were at the grocery store checkout. These I liked for the gags and the weird 50′s vibe. Not so much for the cool factor. But I loved hanging out with these funny, upbeat, wholesome characters.

4. I loved Beverly Cleary books. The Ramona stuff, but especially the Henry books. I remember liking that it wasn’t over in just one book. Like you could still hang out in that world with these characters for the follow-up and so on. I guess like I did with my pals back in Riverdale.

5. There was this book, The Fledgling by Jane Langton, that was burned into my memory for years. I didn’t finish this book (it was required reading in 5th grade, which never really worked for me as a reader… I even fudged a book report on the thing). But I actually liked it and had always regretted never finishing it. Years went on and I eventually forgot the title and wanted more and more to go back and finish it. Last year, I finally sleuthed it out and remembered the name and re-read it. It was very surreal.

Matthew Cordell is a Chicago-based illustrator (and sometimes author, too!) of many terrific books, including: Justin Case (Rachel Vail), Toby and the Snowflakes (Julie Halpern) . . .

Mighty Casey (James Preller), Trouble Gum . . .

.———-

Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (Julie Sternberg), and more.

The Yoga & Reading Connection

I’ve been enthusiastic about yoga lately. I’m just a beginner, no peacock pose for me (yet!), but I’ve been getting more into it. I practice at home with DVD’s and do my best. I can feel that it’s healthy for me, and rewarding. The body learns to like it, to want it.

Yesterday I found myself comparing yoga to my old nemesis, running. Most runners I know are concerned, to varying degrees, with numbers. The times, the distances, the 10K and the personal bests, and so on. Usually when they have a conversation about running — how a race went, or the training for the “Fun Run!” — mathematics quickly enters into the equation.

We like to measure things. The numbers tell us where we are, help us navigate the process; otherwise we are like ships lost at sea, the night sky absent of stars. So we are comforted by numbers, and motivated by them, too.

Whereas with yoga, one of the principal tenants is that each one of us has our own yoga experience. If you can’t stretch beyond your feet, grab an ankle or a knee. There are no winners, no losers. People of widely divergent ability can take the same class and each person will have his own (valid, rewarding) experience. You can’t measure it. Anyone who practices yoga and gives an honest effort will get something out of it, each according to his own need and ability.

It was like reading, I realized. We can all sit down with the same novel and turn the same pages, encounter the same characters, events, and ideas. Do we have the same experience? Of course not.

Was one’s experience “better” than another’s? Well, okay, I suspect it’s true; I agree with Mr. Pirsig that the quality of experience matters, certainly in terms of reading comprehension and how our (singular!) understanding of a text effects emotional and intellectual responses. However, we immediately get into slippery areas, since readers understand texts differently, and there are no “right” or “wrong” responses to a work of art. A skilled yoga practitioner may well get more fullness out of a sequence of movements than someone who is not yet able to hold the poses correctly. But in the practice of yoga, nobody tries to measure these things. It would be absurd. The important thing is that you engage in the discipline of yoga and get out of it what you can.

Given practice and effort, we trust that the process-oriented experience will deepen over time. Just like with reading. Yet in the academic world, there’s pressure to quantify these experiences. We have to separate the minnows from the sharks. Bestow A-pluses and C-minuses. Issue standardized tests. Strive to measure results, meet target scores, and achieve statistical objectives. The numbers guide us to the point where, by the sorry end of things, the numbers rule over us. In our pursuit of quantifying the mystery we are in danger of losing the essential thing, because we lack faith in reading itself.

We should look at reading instruction, and writing instruction, the same way we look at yoga (as opposed to the runner’s mathematical model). Or at least, align ourselves more closely to the yogic perspective.

Trust that reading is enough. Any reading. Trust in the process, and reward the reader for engaging in that activity. Sure, an instructor must still instruct, walk the room, adjust a spine, remind one to stay conscious to the moment, breathe. Or think about the book. Dwell in it, reflect, ask questions, make connections.

In my perfect world, anybody who reads — regardless of ability, regardless of age or experience — gets an A+ and a “Great Job!” sticker.

Namaste.

The Rights of the Reader

“What we need to understand is that books weren’t written so that young people could write essays about them, but so that they could read them if they really wanted to.” Daniel Pennoc.

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A note from my pal, Lewis Buzbee, alerted me to a book he figured was right up my alley.

Here’s the summary from Indiebound:

First published in 1992 and even more relevant now, Daniel Pennac’s quirky ode to reading has sold more than a million copies in his native France. Drawing on his experiences as a child, a parent, and an inner-city teacher in Paris, the author reflects on the power of story and reminds us of our right to read anything, anywhere, anytime, so long as we are enjoying ourselves. In a new translation with a foreword and illustrations by Quentin Blake, here is a guide to reading unlike any other: fresh, sympathetic, and never didactic, it is a work of literature in its own right.

It was one of those reading experiences I took slow. A book, translated by Sarah Adams and marvelously illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, that could be polished off in a single sitting — There! Did it! What’s next?! — but one I stretched out across several weeks, better to let it sink, like a stone slowly settling in thick liquid. My copy a mess, filled with marginal notes, underlines, stars, circles, asterisks.

The chapters are short, poetic, slowly building upon a thesis the way sedimentary rock accumulates over time. You almost don’t notice that it’s headed in any particular direction. The concerns of the book are straightforward: We love to read as children, we love to be read to, and yet over time that love for many of us seems to fall away. We stop reading, fatigued by it all. Why?

What is it that we do, as a society, as educators, as parents, to suck the pleasure out of reading?

Pennac takes us through the life stages of a reader, from infancy (when we associate reading with intimacy, warmth, love) to high school (when reading matters, it becomes important, dogged, unhappy — and there will be a test!). Yes, Pennac (and Blake) have issues with the withering effect of accountability, the administrative need to measure and test.

Blake writes about education — standards and craven accountability — in the book’s introduction. And I think he nails it right here:

The French version of this is a rather dry respect for arts and letters. In the U.K., and, as I understand it, in the U.S. as well, one senses not so much a respect for the subject as an urge to convert an elusive entity into something that can be tested. Am I just imagining it, or is there, behind all the tests and targets, a sort of fear of the rich, fluid diversity of the material — a fear, perhaps, among those who want to be in control at many levels of art and educational administration, that they cannot actually see or feel the substance they have put themselves in charge of? How satisfying, by contrast, the reassurance of a well-checked box.

Also by contrast, here’s Chapter Eleven in its entirety:

The book isn’t prescriptive, beyond a reminder of the importance of reading aloud, reading for pleasure. Instead, it’s a good read for anyone interested in books, and reading, and education. Anyone who cares about children, who believes in the value of reading. It’s a book that asks questions, challenges old assertions, and makes you think.

Here’s links to a couple of reviews: Miss Remmers’ Review, a more critical look by Nathalie Foy, and finally, Josh Lacey of The Guardian.

Pennac concludes with 10 “Rights of the Reader.”

THE RIGHTS OF THE READER

1. The Right Not to Read.

2. The Right to Skip.

3. The Right Not to Finish a Book.

4. The Right to Read It Again.

5. The Right to Read Anything.

6. The Right to Mistake a Book for Real Life.

7. The Right to Read Anywhere.

8. The Right to Dip In.

9. The Right to Read Out Loud.

10. The Right to Be Quiet.

Read, Dad, Read

I was recently asked to contribute a guest blog to the BookPig April Newsletter.

No, I didn’t know who they were, either. Something about “children’s books, Netflix style.” Which I kind of maybe understand.

Okay, I don’t. No clue. I think you mail them a book . . . and they turn it into a movie? Something like that.

Click on the link above if you’re so damn curious!

Here’s the brief blog I wrote for the BookPig Team . . .

Read, Dad, Read

Ninety-five percent of parenting is showing up. It’s not epic trips to Disneyland or tickets to a fancy show. It’s about being there. It’s about the small things. And if you believe in the importance of reading, then your children need to see you reading. This is particularly true for fathers, because these days boys are increasingly getting the message that reading is a girl thing.

It’s instructive to recognize the strangeness of reading from a boy perspective. To read means to be silent, to sit still, isolated. It’s shutting one’s self off from the world, at a time when many boys desire noise, and activity, and interaction with others. Reading, in that context, is downright weird.

Why don’t more boys read? Is it in their DNA? Are the books to blame? The way the school day is structured? Is it the video games? Perhaps it’s partly all of those things. Who knows. But this we do know: Boys look up to their fathers. Just observe a little boy as Dad shaves in front of the bathroom mirror, face covered with foam.

Now imagine that same boy as he spies his father in a chair with a book — or newspaper, or magazine, or e-reader — in his lap. Dad reads. It’s a powerful, transformative message that goes to the core of a young man’s self-image. Dad reads. Now listen as father and son talk about books, perhaps debating what might happen next with a certain character; or maybe together they pore over a box score from last night’s ballgame; or they look up facts on the computer to settle an disagreement. Dad reads. Because he enjoys it. Because it’s a guy thing. Guys like finding out stuff, figuring out the world a little bit. Getting smart.

Chances are good that boy will think, “And I read, too. Just like Dad.”

James Preller Interviews . . . Thomas Newkirk, author of “Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”

I recently read Thomas Newkirk’s outstanding book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture. I sent him a complimentary email and, to my great surprise, he agreed to an interview. My reasons were selfish. I simply wanted to learn more from this very smart, insightful man.

Back in college, I had an English teacher who taught me an important question: So what? I mean, okay, boys don’t read as much as girls. They do other things well. What’s the big deal?

I think there are two responses. Reading well is so tied to school success — and to liking school — that it is unethical to write off a big percentage of boys as non-readers. It may have been possible in previous times to drop out or barely finish school and go on to good jobs. But that is not the case now.

I think the bigger argument that reading is a deeply pleasurable and enlightening activity — or can be. I don’t want boys to miss out on it.

Thomas Newkirk.

One of the things I loved about your book was how you wove in small pieces of memoir, little stories from your life, and connected those experiences to the book’s larger themes. You tell a wonderful story about how as a young man you visited the library in Harvard. You saw a dusty old scholar with a suitcase full of index cards and suddenly recognized the absolute weirdness of the literary life. Silent, isolated, inactive –- and how utterly strange it must appear to a non-reader. As book lovers, I don’t think we fully appreciate the perspective of the non-reader, how foreign it must look to a boy who typically chooses action, companionship, and noise.

Reading doesn’t have to be silent and isolated — although it must appear that way to readers who have never been in what Nancie Atwell calls “the reading zone.” When we enter that zone — identifying with characters, visualizing, hearing the voices of the narrator and characters — we are NOT alone. And if reading can be shared in friendship groups, talked about, it becomes even more social. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to learn that we are not alone, and I believe that.

You made a funny comment, when exploring the tension between literacy and the code of the real boy: “What better disguise could there be for Superman than to turn him into a writer!” It’s just not a very masculine endeavor, is it, shutting one’s self away from the active world, isolated and alone, sitting in a chair in silence. How much more un-boy can you get?

But I think technology is changing that. To compose with the resources of the Internet — to make digital stories, to navigate the various social networks, to create animation. We have recently seen how exploiting these social networks can bring down dictators. This is writing that is anything but isolated. Maybe school writing and reading is too isolated, but digital literacy is anything but.

At one point, you note, “Boys often feel than an open show of enthusiasm for schoolwork, particularly in the language arts, can undermine their identity as a ‘real boy.’” It seems like boy culture –- the codes of behavior — can be a major obstacle for boy readers.

Absolutely. I remember the African American journalist comment on the social pressure for African American boys to see trying at school as being “white.” His comment was: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” One reason parents look desperately for charter and private schools is to find places where trying and excelling at academics is part of the school culture.

As an adult, I enjoy reading closely observed, realistic fiction. Life’s little moments. I love Richard Ford and nothing ever happens in his novels. It takes him twelve pages to go to the store to pick up some muffins. And that fits in perfectly with a classroom emphasis on memoir writing. But I can vividly recall that as a boy I wanted things to HAPPEN in my stories. Otherwise, why write about it? So I think when boys are pushed to write about, say, their trip to the beach, about real things, they are bored and disappointed. A bomb didn’t explode? A shark didn’t attack? Why bother writing about eating chicken salad sandwiches with Uncle Max?

There has been a lot of the imposition of adult tastes on students — who may find fantasy and adventure genres more appealing. I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.

Many years ago, not long after 9/11, I volunteered in my oldest son’s 3rd grade classroom. One boy, typical of many you discuss in Misreading Masculinity, wrote a story that included exploding bombs. I learned from his teacher that the mandated response was for us to forward the story to a school counselor who would contact the boy’s parents: “Billy’s writing about bombs again!”

Yes, unfortunately, many schools have given up on making meaningful distinctions here. I have never understood, for example, why it is OK to read about violence, even the gruesome violence of Beowulf, and that’s ok, even culturally valued. But if a kid writes something like that, it’s off to the guidance counselor. For me the key question is this: does the writing seem threatening to anyone; does it make anyone feel unsafe or targeted. If is does, it fails to meet the basic rules of any school. But if a kid writes a Star Wars take-off and a space ship explodes, does anybody really feel threatened by that?

I guess it’s natural for us, as enlightened adults, to want boys, or any students, to value what we value. We want them to read and appreciate what we consider to be good books. When those values aren’t shared –- when, say, they like low-brow stuff, AKA, “crap” –- the tendency is for us to see it as a deficiency in them. There’s something wrong with boys.

I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. Teaching is a cross-generational trade.

As a man who came to reading through my boyhood love of sports, where I’d dive into the morning paper (pre-ESPN, thank goodness) for the stats and scores and stories, I liked that you included a nod to “the literature of sports tables.” I can read a box score and imagine a half-dozen story lines.

Yes, it’s so rich in information — the scores by quarters or innings. Who’s hot and who’s not. It is still my favorite page in the sports section. I am convinced that one advantage boys have in math is their early immersion in sports statistics.

At times you use the term, “school literacy.” How do you distinguish that from ordinary literacy? Is it a matter of “school-approved” literacy?

School literacy is necessarily a limited subset of possible literacies. It traditionally focuses on the verbal over the visual; on high culture over popular culture; on print over oral expression; on realism over fantasy and escapism; on extended formal writing over informal and expressive writing.

It resonated with me when you gave a historical perspective on oral vs. silent reading, linking it to a “cult of efficiency.” We know that speed readers are taught to eliminate sub-vocalization, and instead to scan chunks of language, eliminating meaningless words. Yet as a writer, some of the best advice I can give is to read what you’ve written aloud, to really hear what you’ve written, the sound and rhythm of the words. That is, it’s the total opposite of what most of us do in silent, sustained reading!

I am convinced that even when we read “silently” we are attending to the intonations of language. In other words, “silent” reading is not really silent. That’s why writers will often read their work aloud to revise—even though almost all their readers will not read it aloud. But I would argue that they still register sound in some way, internally. I will expand that idea in my new book, The Case for Slow Reading. Stay tuned.

You argue for television as a legitimate source of writing topics. Why do you see television as an under-valued resource?

I think schools see TV, the Internet, and video games as the enemy. And this makes some sense—studies show that many students spend way too much time with this media, often multitasking. But I believe that TV can teach dialogue, conflict, characterization, narrative, humor. The visual narratives can provide scaffolds, or cultural props, for students to use in their writing — if teachers let them. They can write parodies or alternative versions with their friends co-exiting with fictional characters — Darth Vadar and the kid down the street — all in the same adventure.

I hesitate before opening this can of worms, since much of my livelihood depends upon the approval of gatekeepers (editors, teachers, librarians, bloggers, book purchasers) who are overwhelmingly female. Clearly, the world of children’s books is a woman’s world. Is that, in your opinion, part of the problem when it comes to boys literacy?

One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.

Finally, can you recommend any other books on this topic?

I’d read Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers. I’d also watch the PBS documentary “Raising Cain.”

I loved Fletcher’s book and commented on it before, so I second the nomination. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. And I’ll be looking forward to your new book, The Case for Slow Reading. I posted on that subject back in September, 2010, and led with a quote by . . . Thomas Newkirk: “Teachers can enhance students’ pleasure and success in reading by showing them how to slow down and savor what they read.”

My best to you. Keep up the great work. And here’s a clip from “Raising Cain.”

Readers, note: Please check out my other blog, FATHERS READ, for more on the subject of boys literacy. I’ll be away on school visits for most of the week.

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Thomas Newkirk is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels — from preschool to college. His book, Misreading Masculinity, was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the most significant books for teachers in the past decade. He is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Ideas Worth Fighting For and The Performance of Self in Student Writing.

James Preller Interviews . . . Alan Silberberg, author of “MILO.” Part One (that’s right, there are “parts!”)

Readers can connect with Milo, by Alan Silberberg, in very different ways. I suppose that’s true of any book, we all bring our disparate selves to the text, but it seems especially true for Milo, a story for middle grade readers that embraces broad goofy humor on one end, and authentic, emotional grief on the other. Actually, that’s not true. Those qualities aren’t on separate ends, but are intermingled throughout. It’s a book where a boy can sneeze on someone’s neck in class, then return home to a house of fog and loss, where no one has quite figured out how to move forward after a death in the family. For me as a reader, it wasn’t the humor that hooked me. It was the humor combined with real emotional depth.

That rare thing in children’s books: a boy in full.

After I read Milo, I wanted to meet Alan because I sensed that he and I shared things in common. So I contacted Alan through his website and requested an interview. There was much I wanted to discuss, and our conversation flowed so naturally, that our Q & A went on slightly longer than The Reagan Years. I decided to break it up into two parts. I’m indebted to Alan for his time and patience and for the care he took in answering my questions.

(Whew. I’m relieved he’s not a Yankees fan.)

Alan! Hey, thanks for stopping by all the way from Montreal. Which is still in Canada, right? Could you please leave the soggy Uggs by the front door? Yeah, the moose, too. That’d be swell.

It’s true, Montreal is still in Canada. But you know, I’m from Boston (Go Red Sox!) so my heart — and shoveling technique — is from New England.

I gather that you didn’t initially set out to tackle this huge, daunting topic –- the death of a parent.

You are so right! When I started writing this book my goal was to write a pretty silly book that would include my cartoon illustrations. What started as a goofy look at a 7th grade kid starting a new school turned into something much deeper once I realized I had my own story to tell.

I know that this book grows out of your own personal experiences. Could you give us a little background on that?

My mom died of brain cancer when I was nine years old. It happened really fast too. It was a terrible time in my life and I guess I have always identified with that lost boy whose mother suddenly went away. In my family “death” never really got discussed so after she died we all just did our best to pretend we were okay, which on one level was comforting because I didn’t have to really deal with the grief and loss. With my sense of humor intact, I moved on from that life-altering event — but always dragging along a sad piece of me like a shadow.

A sad piece of me like a shadow,” that’s nice. I just finished a young adult novel that grapples with some of the same feelings, where things unsaid are more important than what’s spoken. But I don’t suppose you’d let me steal that “sad piece of me” line, would you?

Be my guest. Just buy me an iced espresso some time. And a cookie. Chocolate chip is always nice.

At one point in the book, Milo says, “I miss a dinner table that doesn’t feel lopsided,” and I completely understood that line.  I mean, you got me right there. My oldest brother, Neal, died of AIDS back in ’93. And after that, I often said that our family became like a ship that listed to the side. The ballast was off, you know. We never sat in the water quite right after that.

I think that’s what loss does to a family — even the most messed up families are a balanced whole. And the loss of someone we love just throws that balance totally off. And I think it doesn’t matter at what age we lose someone — that loss sets us adrift. I like your boat metaphor.

You attempt to do something that’s not at all easy –- balancing some traditional, goofy boy humor with a sensitive, heartfelt story about deep, deep loss.

Once I knew that the silly story I started out to write was drawing deeper from my life I made the decision to stay true to who I was back then. Life was suddenly sad — but I was still a funny kid. I think it’s important to have a balance in a story like this because life isn’t all one thing or another and a story about loss can also be a funny story. Of course the cartoons help to give the book a lighter tone, but to be honest, some of the cartoons are quite poignant and a bit sad too.

I have to say, I’m often frustrated when I encounter these limited notions about “what boys like” and, consequently, “what boys are and can be.” So we see books with the goofball stuff –- with varying levels of originality — but not very much in the way of emotion. Because I guess there’s this idea that boys don’t “do” feelings. And perhaps they don’t, I don’t know. But at the same time: it’s real, it’s true, this stuff happens to actual boys. As I’ve said before, it can’t all be farts and firetrucks.

I know what you mean. I hear it all the time that a book is a “girl” book or a “boy” book and sometimes I think that’s just marketing. Whether boys, or girls for that matter, will be drawn to Milo is out of my hands. I have gotten wonderful feedback from kids who have loved the book and have had the experience of knowing first-hand that the book has helped kids dealing with loss. At the other end of the spectrum — I know kids who have read the book because they love the cartoons and think the story is “real” but still made them laugh . . . and made them think. At the end of the day I want Milo to find its way into the hands of kids who like a good story and especially those kids who are ready for the real emotions that I wrote about.

Tell me a little bit about the father. He’s suffering, too, but because we see him from Milo’s point of view, we just get this sense that dad is basically out of it. For Milo, he has to find help elsewhere –- because dad’s not emotionally available.

Milo’s whole family has suffered a loss and though the story is told from Milo’s point of view he experiences his dad as being kind of absent. There’s one cartoon I did where Milo says that he misses his dad almost as much as he misses his mom, because his dad is having a hard time too. I think that’s what can happen when one parent dies. The child can lose two parents.

There are a few helpful adults in Milo’s world, and I think you handle them realistically. They don’t swoop in and save the day. In fact, well, nobody does. Nobody can. But they do help.

I guess it would have been too easy to have some adult be able to make everything “okay” for Milo. But that just isn’t realistic. What I did want to explore though is how Milo learns how to grieve his mom’s death with the help of his older neighbor. She doesn’t make everything right for him but she is the one who opens a door that leads him to say the goodbye he never said. It was a healing part of the book to write for me because I got to be Milo and say the goodbye I never said too. And that all happened through Milo’s relationship with the neighbor character, who was based on one of the moms in my neighborhood who took me in after my mom died.

That must have been a remarkable moment when you were able to hand her the finished book.

It was actually bittersweet because the real Sylvia passed away just after the book came out. I had told her months earlier how she had inspired a character in my new book and she was very happy about that. I was told by her family that they were able to read some of the book to her before she passed and that she was very touched by it.

I’m glad you were able to honor her with that gift of recognition after all these long years. I also really liked Milo’s friendship with Marshall. They are just boys, you know, going to the store, spending their money on junk food, sitting down on the curb, goofing around like a pair of glorious idiots.

And yet at the same time, Marshall is clearly not a total clod. I’m not sure what I’m saying, exactly, other than I think your book respects the complexity of boys –- and as an ex-kid myself, and a father of two boys, I really appreciate that.

Thanks. I really liked creating the relationship between Milo and Marshall. It just felt right that these two would know each other and get along so well. Marshall is a bit left of center, but I was hopefully not writing a geeky character, just someone who lives life in his own unique way. Milo is more of an internal guy and Marshall is an extrovert — so the combo really works. Thinking back to the friendships I had back at that age and being the father of a son who just lived it also helped me channel their relationship.

Alan, let’s pick up this conversation on Wednesday. I assume you can stay over, right? You can sleep on the cot. In the closet. With the Uggs.

And the moose.

PLEASE COME BACK LATER THIS WEEK FOR THE THRILLING, DEATH-DEFYING CONCLUSION OF THE ALAN SILBERBERG INTERVIEW.

CLICK HERE AND BE MAGICALLY TRANSPORTED TO PART 2.

A Boy Talking Movies

You need to stay to the end for this to make its full impact, and I strongly recommend that you do.

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The video was produced by Mama Hope:

Mama Hope is a non-profit organization focused on building self-sufficient communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.Mama Hope partners with Community Based Organizations and invests in high impact, cost effective projects, that meet their fundamental needs for food, water, education and health care. Mama Hope’s successful projects to date have directly benefited over 55,000 people.

You can learn more about Mama Hope’s “Stop the Pity, Unlock the Potential” Campaign by clicking here.

As a personal comment, I believe this video makes a point about all boy stereotypes. Forget, for a moment, that Alex is an African boy in Tanzania. In many respects, he can be any boy, head filled with action movies and explosions and whatnot. But like any boy, he’s much more than the stereotypes will allow. He’s also charming, also hilarious, also bright, also curious, also hopeful, etc. And those whole qualities should be reflected in the range of books to which boys are exposed.