Boys and reading

A boy readingIt’s kind of funny how writers keep sounding amazed that boys have such problems motivating themselves to read, and wondering, gosh, how to motivate them. Here’s an article from Library Administrator’s Digest, called, “Why aren’t little boys reading?” There’s not a whole lot of substance to the skimpy advice given here, which is a shame.

The article focuses on the findings of some focus groups of elementary-aged boys conducted by the Toledo-Lucas County (OH) Library, but they don’t reveal much of anything useful. The article says:

Early in the process, the library hosted two focus groups with local boys between the ages of 7 and 10. There were few surprises from these honest energetic youngsters. Boys tend to like nonfiction, action, adventures, graphic novels and stories about sports. The information gained at these sessions will help guide the library.

Um, well, duh. Any of us who have worked with boys knows these things. Wow – boys, in general, need brief, punchy, fact- or fantasy-oriented stuff. (As opposed to “real-life fiction” kinds of books, which many girls love, but boys not so much.) No surprise.

Then, as you can see if you read the article, they give several recommendations, such as “Construct library displays that will be of interest to boys,” without saying specifically what those displays might involve. C’mon – Superheroes? Inventions? Wild animals? It isn’t hard to come up with ideas, so why don’t they offer any? Is there a bias against nonfiction, and against comic-book-style fantasy, and another bias favoring “real-life” fiction, on the part of many librarians? I won’t say, but I’ll leave it to anyone reading this post to decide.

I think that there must be a lot of librarians who are still uncomfortable that lots of boys don’t want the same “easy” things that lots of girls want, and aren’t happy that boys need to be lured into things that are “bookish.” It really isn’t that difficult, though, to make the right kinds of books appealing.


You may have heard about the new Roald Dahl Funny Prize (I love that name) for works of children’s literary humor in the UK. If not, zip over right away and read this story in the online Guardian. I particularly like how this story ties children’s humor – which typically isn’t taken very seriously by children’s literature scholars, prize judges, and teachers – and literacy.

Lots of children – especially lots of boys in the middle grades – learn to read at least partly because they want to read books like Dahl’s and Dav Pilkey’s.

Here’s a quote from the story that I feel all of us in library land should read at least twice:

Moreover, humour is one of the best ways to make children into readers. Hence the source of support: Roald’s widow Liccy Dahl believes that not only did her husband think there was “nothing better than a row of giggling children”, but also that he longed for every child to be literate “and you can’t start them on Shakespeare”. Jokes are seductive. Rosen’s theory is that funny books liberate kids from their controlled lives – for the smaller ones by inverting what they know; for the older ones by puncturing teenage angst. And that the best funny books avoid improving morals.

It’s those kids, many of whom are boys, who really don’t want their “morals improved,” who are especially hard to reach, and who need to be told, “Hey, you can be literate and still be your cool and goofy self.” Although we don’t hear from Jon Scieszka in this British piece, I’m certain that he would be nodding along.

If you’ve been a librarian for more than a couple of years, you probably have memories connected to cassette tapes – circulating those book ‘n’ tape combinations; practicing your storytime songs or puppet shows or storytelling; or learning songs in your car on the way to work.

But those days are mostly over, and the cassette tape will soon join its brother, the 8-track, and its cousins, the 5 1/4 and 3 1/2-inch floppy disks and the VCR cassette, in the Misty Never-Never Land of Obsolete Technologies. This New York Times story, “Say So Long to an Old Companion… Cassette Tapes,” reminds us of what’s passing. It reflects on the things that made cassettes special, right to the end:

While the cassette was dumped long ago by the music industry, it has lived on among publishers of audio books. Many people prefer cassettes because they make it easy to pick up in the same place where the listener left off, or to rewind in case a certain sentence is missed….

Cassettes have limped along for some time, partly because of their usefulness in recording conversations or making a tape of favorite songs, say, for a girlfriend. But sales of portable tape players, which peaked at 18 million in 1994, sank to 480,000 in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The group predicts that sales will taper to 86,000 in 2012.

That’s the end of the line for cassettes, but can you guess where cassettes hung on longer than anywhere else? In libraries, of course. Libraries accept and give up technologies reluctantly (why do you think it took libraries 12 years or so to get into video gaming?), and this story reminds us how perfect cassettes have always been for one important kind of library material:

…for audio books, the cassette is an oddly elegant medium: you can eject it from your car, carry it home and stick it in a boombox, and it will pick up in the same place, an analog feat beyond the ability of the CD.

In the 80s and 90s I spent a lot of time on the children’s room reference desk putting boys (and girls, but mostly boys) who were reluctant readers together with an unabridged cassette copy of books like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe along with the book itself. “Have them read the book while they’re listening to the tape,” I’d tell their moms, and many of those moms came back, smiling and saying, “He read the whole book! Do you have any more of those tapes?”

Now those books are all on CD, and soon they’ll all be downloadable. I certainly don’t feel as if future generations will lose much by never having experienced the cassette. But I will miss them – I remember, as the article mentions, making mix tapes of favorite songs for girlfriends, and practicing lines for my puppet programs on cassettes. I also remember all those times my old cassette player pulled the tape out of the cassette (I had a car player that especially used to do that), and I’d have to eject that jumbled mess of tape carefully and wind it back into the cassette with my fingernail.

Do you remember doing that? Digital files aren’t quite the same…

Several times, I’ve pointed out the Reading Rockets site from WETA Public TV as a good place for library folks who work with kids to visit. I wanted to point out a couple of worthwhile articles on Reading Rockets that you might find worth a read.

One is called “Making Reading Relevant: Read, Learn, and Do!” For adults working with K-3 kids, it offers several activities that turn what’s in a book into a real experience. Don’t pass up any chance to let parents and other caregivers know that “making reading relevant,” putting printed words together with large motor skill activities and 3-D objects, is one of the most important things they can do – especially for boys, who are often behind girls in language development skills, and especially for kids whose parents have less education.

Making reading “relevant” means making the difference between a child who gives up on reading by the fourth grade and one who becomes fascinated with learning about new things through print.

Here’s another, called “Use Summer Fun to Build Background Knowledge.” One of the biggest problems children from lower-income families face in school is a lack of “background knowledge” – the basic information about how the world works that many school lessons, and books, assume that children of a particular age already have. But not all of them – particularly not all of those kids who have gained most of what they know sitting and watching cartoons on video most days – may know things such as that the earth rotates around the sun and the moon around the earth, or how plants grow from seeds.

If you haven’t looked at Reading Rockets yet, pay a visit. It’s a great way to pick up lots of child development and literacy tidbits – the kind you can pick up and then pass along – quickly and pretty painlessly.

Austin Public Library Bibliophiles

I’m back from ALA, and I have to go back to work today. But before I do I wanted to post a few more quotes from the ALA conference. And I also wanted to give a cheer for our book cart drill team – the Austin Public Library Bibliofiles – which won the silver at the Book Cart Drill Team Championships on Sunday. (That’s them on the left.) They won a Demco book cart (yeah, that’s it in the picture) that was painted silver, with a little plaque on one end.

The Championship was MC’d by the comedy duo of John Scieszka and Mo Willems, who hammed it up shamelessly and had us all chanting “DEM-co!” (Demco sponsors the Championship) throughout. It was great to watch our homies place as we cheered them on. (Those book headdresses spin, by the way.)

I saw that Alan Sitomer, Los Angeles media specialist and YA author, was giving a program on encouraging boys to read, so of course I was there. He works in an inner-city high school with kids that are almost entirely Latino and Black, and they’re kids who many adults consider not worth spending much time or effort on. These kids are often mouthy or unmotivated. But Sitomer, who could be one of the dictionary definitions of the word “enthusiastic” (he was named California Teacher of the Year, and you can tell he really enjoys public speaking), told us, “You have to believe that kids are reachable. If you don’t, nothing will reach them.”

He uses computer time, Web resources, and any technology he can to get the young men he works with to read. But he also uses something as simple as handing out jokes, printed on paper. He said that when the more motivated students start laughing, the less motivated will read them, too. (Warning – the following jokes are boy jokes):

Q. Why do gorillas have big nostrils?

A. Because they have big fingers.

Q. What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup?

A. Anyone can roast beef.

Q. What do you call a hunk of cheddar that doesn’t belong to you?

A. Nacho cheese.

Sitomer says that for this group, many of whom are one bad grade or boring class from dropping out, he doesn’t try to tell them what they must do. “I let them tell me what they like,” he says, “and then I build bridges for them from their outside interests to what’s in the media center.”

I also went to hear T. Berry Brazelton, the Grand Poo-Bah of Pediatricians, who spoke Monday morning. He sat thoughout his talk, and seemed a little hard of hearing – but that wasn’t unexpected after he told us that he had just turned 90. (He said that members of Congress held a celebration for him in Washington, and “they asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I asked for $2 billion for children and their parents.” Ah, we wish.)

Brazelton said that the most important role for the public library should be to help parents understand child development. Anything librarians can supply and market to parents – books, videos, and programs – that will help them comprehend the ages and stages their children are passing through will help them feel more in control of what can be a stressful and confusing process.

He showed us a wonderful film clip of a 12-month-old boy who was passing through a phase Brazelton called “storage.” Brazelton kept handing the boy small toy figures, and after he filled his hands with them, he took them into his mouth, and then looked at his mother as if to say, “Aren’t I so great?” It was a lot of fun.

If you’ve never been to an ALA conference, go when you can. It’s a wonderful way to expand your “box.” (You know, the one they’re always telling you to think out of.)

A boy readingWe all know that kids often admire the men in their lives – and often it’s because men possess the mystery and charm that comes from keeping a greater distance than the many women in most kids’ day-to-day existences. For boys in particular, it means that whatever these men do, the kids will take seriously.

Because many men aren’t enthusiastic readers, and in particular not readers of books, boys often will quickly get the message that reading isn’t a thing that men do. The Reading Rockets site from WETA Public Television recently posted two pages of tips on ways for men to encourage children’s literacy. Here’s one, and here’s another from the National Literacy Trust in the UK. These pages were created with fathers in mind, but not all kids have fathers who play active roles in their lives. Depending on the family situation, moms’ boyfriends, or children’s uncles, grandfathers, and male family friends can fill this role, too.

The most important part of this message, though, applies to all of us who spend time around kids, and is titled “Walk the walk”:

Your child learns from what you do. Make sure the messages you are sending about reading tell your child that knowledge and literacy are valuable, achievable, and powerful.

All men who interact, even in small ways, with children need to get this message. It’s harder for those of us in public libraries to talk and work directly with the men we need most to reach – the ones who aren’t readers, yet have children at home. Any time we have the opportunity to speak with them, we should make it a priority.

Demigod in Training T-shirtIf any of you are fans of the Rick Riordan Percy Jackson series, the way I am, you’ll want to visit the Boys Rule Boys Read! blog run by a couple of guys at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (NC) Library to read the story of a program they’ve done to celebrate the series. Anyone attending the Percy Jackson Summer Book Club program will get one of these utterly cool T-shirts that say (in case you can’t read it on the photo) “Demigod in Training,” and if you know the Percy Jackson series, you know what that means.

What’s even cooler is that these T-shirts were donated by a Charlotte local who wanted to help out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County staff. What a great thing, what a great shirt, and what a great help that is for the library. I hope everyone who reads this has someone in their community who is willing to do cool things like this for the library and the kids who use it.

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