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Boy meets book: Why our sons don’t read

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why don’t boys read?

This question has plagued parents, educators and librarians since it was determined 30 years ago that a typical boy will have scholastically scored worse than girls in every age group, and that those scores worsen during the “tween” years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teen females have outperformed teen males on reading assessments at a relatively constant rate from 1971-2008, and rates have not changed much since then. By the time our sons reach middle school, they are nearly 11⁄2 years behind our daughters in reading.

Answers to the question vary, and chances are you’ve heard most of them already. The most common answer is that most boys favor nonfiction over fiction as early as 4 years of age; they are more likely to read about military weapons, dangerous animals, cars and trucks, dinosaurs or sports, and books like these don’t often fill a classroom’s or parent’s bookshelf. Another answer posits that schools favor classics to satisfy testing standards, and reads such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “April Morning” or “A Tale of Two Cities” do not, as a rule, interest most teen male readers. Teacher and author Jon Scieszka, whose books include “Trucktown” and “Guys Read,” lists a number of reasons why boys don’t read on his website, guys
read.com, including “the action-oriented, competitive learning style of many boys works against them learning to read and write,” and that “because the majority of adults involved in kids’ reading are women, boys might not see reading as a masculine activity.” Lastly, there is the argument that many teachers don’t know what’s available for boys, which I found was very often the case with my two sons.

Educators and researchers agree that there is no “magic bullet” to encourage boys to read more, but one universal solution advanced by both groups is: Offer boys a multiple of choices in reading material, both fiction and non-fiction titles including magazines, graphic novels and newspapers. My own experience has indicated that if they choose to read fiction, boys read stories that have the following characteristics in common:

1) A strong and/or entertaining and relatable male protagonist such as Geronimo Stilton, Klaus Baudelaire of “A Series of Unfortunate Events”; Dan Cahill of The 39 Clues series; Will of the Rangers Apprentice series; Quentin Jacobsen of “Paper Towns”; “Maximum Ride” from the series of the same name; with a plot that contains either.

2) Constantly moving action (see: all of the above).

3) Humor or gross-out humor. “Diary of Wimpy Kid,” “Captain Underpants,” “Walter the Farting Dog,” are a few titles many moms of boys (and girls) are familiar with.

The last characteristic (although I’m sure there are some who would disagree) is:

4) A male author. With two of the best-known exceptions being J. K. Rowling and S. E. Hinton (which are, interestingly, both gender-neutral author names), the only popular female fiction author among boys in recent memory is Suzanne Collins, author of “The Hunger Games,” a dystopian series about a futuristic America that centers around an annual event where chosen teens fight to the death in a specially designed arena.

Besides the fiction and nonfiction categories mentioned above, comics and graphic novels are also a huge draw for boys. Choices include not only graphic novels such as “Avatar,” “Bone,” “Fullmetal Alchemist” and “The Walking Dead,” but the comic strip collections “Fox Trot,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “The Far Side” and “Garfield.” Magazines are also popular: Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated and Transworld Skateboarding attract tween and teen males, while Cobblestone, Sports Illustrated for Kids and Ranger Rick are available for elementary school-age boys. Primary and elementary-age boys also find that movie and toy company book tie-ins – the best known is LEGO – such as the Ninjago, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pokemon, Transformers and Bionicle series are especially appealing and often interactive with their own toy collections.

Although there are many factors that work in tandem with making available boy-friendly materials and titles (the best known being less video game time; gently suggesting more “literary” choices to read is another), one of the most critical determinants for getting boys to read is to read to them early, and read to them often. The sing-song rhythms of “Goodnight, Moon” and “Brown Bear Brown Bear, What Do You See?” a baby listens to during his first months of life establish the foundation for a love of reading, whether it’s reading by himself or being read to. Once he’s reading on his own, try to maintain the habit of reading out loud to your son. My younger son and I chose some early Newbery Award winners (awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children) to read aloud when he was in elementary school, the most memorable being “The Wheel on the School.” At times, my older high school-age son would sit outside the bedroom door (it would have been totally uncool to sit in his little brother’s room) and listen to the story of Lina and her friends solve the mystery of why the storks did not build nests in their small Dutch village as they did in neighboring villages. Not exactly boy-centric material, but because it was read out loud, both boys listened to the story, eager for the next chapter the following night.

The Brookline Public Library offers all the above titles and genres, and we have plenty of suggestions for encouraging your son to read. Pick up our brochure “Boy Meets Book” for a list of title suggestions, websites and blogs that address the issue of getting boys to read, part of our efforts to motivate boys into developing and maintaining a life-long love of reading.

Vicky Sandin is the children’s librarian at the Brookline Public Library. She can be reached at 673-3330.

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