Archive for The Gender Gap in Reading

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,, 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.


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.

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.”


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.”