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Boys Don't Read, Except When They Do

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LIBRARY CHILDREN READING
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When I was young, I hated reading.

Every summer through elementary and middle school ended with tears and tantrums over summer reading I hadn't done and refused to do.

Sure, there were a few books I endured because I had to, and one or two that I sort of liked, but no one would have accused me of being a Reader. I'd rather have watched T.V. or played video games.

These days, I tell this to groups of elementary school students when I visit schools to talk about being a writer, and, when I get to the part about TV and video games, the boys in the crowd usually cheer.

Their cheers, and the eye rolls from their teachers at the back of the room, reinforce what we hear in study after study, article after breathless article: Boys Don't Read.

The 2010 Kid and Family Reading Report, sponsored by Scholastic, found that regardless of race, geography or socioeconomic status, boys were lagging far behind girls in reading outside of school assignments. Only 39 percent of boys rated reading outside of class as important, while 62 percent of girls said it was "extremely or very important." A 2005 NEA study by Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky found that between 1980 and 2004, the gender gap in reading between boys and girls had grown so wide that the authors determined it had become a "marker of gender identity." Again: Boys don't read.

It has become conventional wisdom in publishing for children and teens that girls will read a book with a boy on the cover, but boys won't read a book with a girl on the cover. In the book business, a lot of time is spent thinking about how to lure boys into reading. Humor is a sure bet, with Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid leading the way. But publishers aren't done there. Add a card game? Add a video game? The hit series 39 Clues did both. Trinkets? There are tales from James Frey's fiction factory about adding a sword to I Am Number Four so there would be something to merchandise when the movie came out. And, as the Hunger Games phenomenon shows, you don't have to have a boy protagonist as long as you have satisfying levels of violence. If you shoot it, they will come.

Turning boys into readers isn't just a worry for publishing executives trying to find the next blockbuster series. There are massive policy implications. Girls are outperforming boys in reading in all 50 states, and boys are more than twice as likely to be to be placed in special education classes than girls.

Literacy expert Pam Allyn, founder of LitWorld and the Books 4 Boys program at Children's Village and author of the newly released, Pam Allyn's Best Books For Boys, observes that "illiteracy rates correlate with the risk of a jail sentence later in adolescence, making it twice as likely for nonreaders to be incarcerated." And indeed, 93 percent of the prison population in the United States is male.

The stakes for boys reading are high. The last few years have seen a spate of thoughtful books published, grappling with the "problem" of school age boys. They have titles like Boys Adrift, The Trouble With Boys, The Purpose of Boys, and Why Boys Fail. There is broad agreement that boys are a struggling and that they must be turned into readers.

But what if they already are?

When I tell elementary school students about my own years as a boy who didn't read, I talk about TV and video games to make a point, not just to get a cheer. Even when I hated to read, I was hungry for stories. I found them in places that weren't teacher-approved, but I found them just the same.

Video games and television shows were filled with plot and conflict, character and emotion. I read Choose-Your-Own Adventures and X-Men comics and Nintendo Power Magazine and Zoobooks and I made up my own stories about the villains and the heroes, the far-flung places and wild animals. I never thought of anything I did as reading, and I never thought I was training myself for a life as a writer.

But I was.

When Matt De La Peña was growing up in a "tough working class neighborhood in San Diego," he would go to the library every morning, but he wasn't there for the books. "I wasn't technically a big reader," he said. "But I would tear through every issue of Basketball Digest, hidden inside the biggest book I could find, so that the librarian wouldn't catch me." He knew she wouldn't approve.

"I didn't think much of it at the time, but I wasn't interested in just stats. I was looking for the narratives surrounding the game. Who were these players? What did they have to overcome to get where they were? What drove them to be the best?"

A self-identified jock, basketball took him to college, and gave him the material for what would become his first novel, Ball Don't Lie. He is now an acclaimed young adult novelist, and is widely read by that much-lamented constituency, teenage boys.

"[My guy fans] are usually kids of color, usually from the wrong side of the tracks and they find themselves in my books. None of them would probably define themselves as readers. But a smart librarian probably put the book in their hands, pivoting off the sports interest to bring them to the novels. And they are some of the most loyal fans. Once they're hooked, they read everything."

Boys don't read. Except when they do.

The fact is that boys are reading. Just like girls, boys are hungry for stories that speak to them, that excite their imaginations and reflect their experiences. They are hungry for information to help them make sense of the world, or achieve a goal or just to geek-out on whatever is holding their attention at that moment. How could I read about the weight of elephant poop and not feel the ground shaking under a stampede of massive beasts or giggle at a pile of poop twice my size? How could I battle a spider-shooting monster heart on the last level of CONTRA, and not dream up my own elaborate monsters to battle?

Boys today are consuming more text than at any time in human history. Adults simply are not valuing the reading that boys are doing. Teachers, librarians, writers like me, and even boys themselves, have privileged the literary novel above all other forms of literacy.

A researcher at The University of Western Ontario recently looked into the reading lives of boys and found that almost all of the boys in her study described the reading they enjoyed, just like young Matt De La Peña and I did -- game manuals, fact books, graphic novels, sports magazines -- as "not really reading."

As Professor Thomas Newkirk observed in his groundbreaking 2002 book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy and Popular Culture, "Our students are awash in narratives -- they are dexterous channel surfers..."

He argues passionately that schools need to broaden the tent of "what counts and does not count as a valid literacy activity," inviting so-called 'low culture' into the classroom alongside 'great literature' and showing that the interests, needs, and tastes of boys are valued and have a place in a reading life.

There are plenty of fart jokes in Shakespeare, and plenty of pathos in Captain Underpants.

Who are we to say which is "real" reading?

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