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Book Talk: How Can We Make Boys Love Reading? Some Answers from Literate Men

from Chess Rumble

“They want to be what they see. A boy doesn’t want to be a woman. He wants to do what a man does. And if he doesn’t see a man reading, he won’t read.” —Gail Giles, from "Wanted: Male Models." School Library Journal, December 2008.

Librarians, educators, parents, and caregivers keep noticing the same thing: A lot of boys don’t read, or don’t like to read. Girls are increasingly surpassing boys in school—from elementary and middle school to college and beyond—due in part to an interest in and love of reading. Surely boys are missing out on the great adventures books can offer. What’s holding them back?

We asked some of the men who write and illustrate our books for their thoughts on why boys don’t like to read. Read on to find out how these creators of children’s books came to love books themselves, what they tell boys who don’t read, and what they think should be done about the reading crisis among boys. You will also find links to great books for boys and other helpful sites.

Tony Medina G. Neri W. Nikola-Lisa Jesse Joshua Watson Don Tate Joseph Bruchac
(from left to right: Tony Medina, G. Neri, W. Nikola-Lisa, Jesse Joshua Watson, Don Tate, and Joseph Bruchac)

You’re a guy and you like to read. What made reading an important part of your life? What keeps it an important part of your life?

Tony Medina: When I was growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by books. I didn’t have children’s books, nor did I see many adults or my cousins reading. My attention span was basically shaped by television and a desire to go outside and play. It wasn’t until the ninth grade, when I had to complete a book report assignment or risk receiving an F, that I really forced myself to read an entire novel. I felt I had truly accomplished something that I didn’t think was possible. The story was so engaging. It truly allowed me to utilize my imagination, transporting me from my little blue room in Co-Op City in the Bronx to another world and someone else’s life and problems. That was when I literally got hooked on wanting to read more and more.

G. Neri: One of the reasons I write for boys is because there are so few men writing from the male teenage perspective. So when I write, I’m thinking about the boy I was, the one who didn’t like reading. My breakthrough as a reader came when I found a book that changed the notion in my head of what a book could be. It took me by surprise and I probably thought, I didn’t know you could do that in a book! As the writer, I try to surprise the new reader by constantly reinventing the notion of what a book can be or do. Voice is really important. I wrote Chess Rumble with a distinctly urban male voice, something you rarely see in books. The number one thing I hear from readers is that they are shocked to read a voice like that in a book. Inner city, street—call it what you will; it’s a voice they know and can relate to but have never seen in print before.

W. Nikola-Lisa: I grew up in South Texas, where reading was most definitely not a part of my life. I didn’t find the library until I got to high school. I attended an elite private high school in Florida. We had a beautiful library with vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling book stacks. The only reason I visited it, however, was because that was where you served your detentions—in the library after school. And I usually had a few to serve every month. As I sat there looking around, I’ll never forget how that room impressed me; and I began thinking: If people build an entire room just to house books, then books must be very important. That was when I really started looking at books in a more serious manner.

Jesse Joshua Watson: Reading has been important to me since I was a little guy, because my dad used to read to my brother, sister, and me all the time. Sometimes I wished that we had a TV, like my friends. But I really did enjoy our family time reading books. My dad read us lots of different kinds of books—from science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury to picture books by Tomie dePaola. He also read us huge, vast collections of books such as C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, the Time books by Madeleine L’Engle, and many others. Looking back, I can see a direct correlation between the enjoyment I got out of those times and my love of reading as an adult.

I think that big books can be intimidating, but in reality even the slowest of readers can make their way through the thickest books by chipping away at them a little at a time. As a kid, I think I must have read The Lord of the Rings trilogy twenty times or more. Why, you might ask, would I do something like that? (Especially given how long those books are!) Because I enjoy the process of reading. I don’t look at books as something I need to solve, or get to the end of. I just like being inside the walls of the book—cruising around, exploring, having fun, and watching the world. Books can be like a viewfinder that you get to climb inside of. I know, right? All those cheesy Saturday morning commercials about how cool it is to read, about how you can become a pirate or a prince . . . I know. I know. Still, they’ve got something there!

Another amazing thing about reading is that it gives us a glimpse into the true magic of our brains. We start out reading these little black characters bunched together on white paper, but pretty soon we are not even thinking about which letters and words we are seeing. Instead, we are seeing images. As an illustrator, this is what I do when I begin to illustrate a book. I look at a stack of paper with letters arranged on it, and pretty soon my mind is making its own movie. Then I just start sketching what I am seeing. And you don’t have to be an artist to experience this. We can create imagery with our minds that our hands could maybe never replicate.

Don Tate: I’m an avid reader now, but I was a late bloomer. It wasn’t until early in my twenties that I fell in love with reading. As a child, I enjoyed illustrated children’s books, medical encyclopedias, and magazines such as Ebony and Jet. But I didn’t do books at all. In high school, I was introduced to Poe, Steinbeck, Conrad, Twain, Doyle, and Hawthorne. Greek and Roman mythologies were my required reading list. But I wouldn’t read that stuff. These books represented quality literature; but, for whatever reason, they just didn’t speak my language. What I needed—and didn’t even know at the time—was an African American male voice/point of view. I didn’t discover that until later in life.

When I discovered authors such as Richard Wright, Gordon Parks, and Claude Brown, I became hooked on reading. And once I became hooked, these people’s voices eventually led me to others I’d overlooked. Because I started so late, I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Reading remains an important part of my everyday life because—and I know this will sound like a cliché—books open doors. Books provide a gateway to other worlds, other opinions, other cultures, other periods throughout history. Reading makes for a better-informed individual.

Joseph Bruchac: I was raised by my grandparents, as I explain in my autobiography, Bowman’s Store. We lived out in the country, without many other kids around; but I never felt as if I was alone. That was because I had two things: the woods behind our house where my Abenaki grandfather taught me about the natural world, and my grandmother’s books. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t either doing something outside—climbing trees, playing in the nearby creek, following animal tracks—or, if I was inside, reading. We didn’t have TV back then, just the radio. So I developed the habit early of following the trail of my imagination through stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Reading taught me things about the world around me and about myself. It was both an escape from everyday reality and a way to understand better the very tangible world of nature (I loved anything written about animals) and the complicated world of human interaction. I was always reading several books at a time, and that’s still true today. I also devoured comic books, that formerly despised art form that is much more respected today and is being called the graphic novel.

Today, despite the Internet and television, I still find that books touch my imagination more than any other creative medium. When you read, there’s more room for your mind to work than there is with visual media, where pictures move and images are ready-made. As a writer, I am constantly learning from the things I read; and reading remains for me the cheapest, easiest, and most mind-stretching way to travel.

What would you like to say to boys who don’t have reading as part of their lives?

Tony Medina: I think if you let books into your life, reading will truly transform you. Reading will expand your mind, your experiences, your vocabulary, and your understanding of yourself and others. If you’ve never traveled, as I hadn’t when I began reading at age fifteen, reading will allow you to visit other countries and other worlds. If you feel lonely, books will keep you company; they will never let you down. Unlike TV, books allow you to use the author’s words to imagine your own version of the world in the story or poem. And who knows, you might be inspired to become a writer, or an actor, or like someone in the story who really grabs your attention.

Books are not boring. They could never be boring. There are millions to choose from. Take a chance and open one; reading a book will be like meeting a new friend.

W. Nikola-Lisa: Reading is an important part of every life. You can’t avoid it. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t read something. Several days ago, a student asked me if I read every day. Spontaneously, excitedly, I responded that reading is like breathing; it’s something that I do without thinking. I’m always picking up a book, a magazine, the mail, my iPod. . . . Words are all around us. But I should pause and say, a book is the most special of all the things I read, because nothing can duplicate the experience of reading a riveting story. And nothing can duplicate the physical experience of holding a beautifully made book.

Jesse Joshua Watson: It is never too late to begin something. Even if you feel as if you are way behind. It does not require a lifetime of reading to make you a reader now. All it takes is one simple step. Open the book. If you open it and find that this book is not for you, no worries! There are lots of books in this world. Find something you do enjoy and read about it. You’ll be surprised to find how many books there are on just about anything and everything you could possibly be interested in.

Don Tate: To boys who don’t read, I warn: Don’t cheat yourself. Knowledge is power. There’s a reason slave owners didn’t allow Black folk to learn to read. Uninformed people are easily victimized, and they miss opportunities to better their lives. So don’t go there.

Joseph Bruchac: Just read, no matter what it is. And don’t read because people tell you that you’ve got to do it. Read for pleasure, read for information. Read to learn how to understand and do things. If you are interested in something, read a book about that subject or about someone who succeeded in that area—car racing, skydiving, filming sharks underwater, whatever. If you like those things, you can find them in books. You can also find yourself in a book.

The mind is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. The more you read, the better you’ll be at reading.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in reaching boys and getting them to read? How do you deal with these challenges?

Tony Medina: I think that boys have to be surrounded by books and people who like to read. They need to get away from the TV and video games and the Internet long enough to take on the challenge of reading. It’s all about reeling them in with stories that they can get excited about, stories that will transport them and get them to forget about their own problems, which is what I suspect video games and TV and probably sports also do for them.

The ultimate challenge is to make books part of boys’ worlds, their environments, their households. We need to make reading more attractive and cool for boys. Let them ride their skateboards with a backpack on their backs and a book under their arms.

G. Neri: I always say you can’t give Jane Austen to boys and expect them to connect to it. That time and place is too far removed from their own experiences. You must create a bridge to Jane Austin, expose boys to the fact that their stories are just as worthy of being represented in books. So I look at Chess Rumble as a gateway book, something that surprises boys, gets them reading for the first time and hopefully opens them up to exploring other voices in other books too.

The other thing about books for boys is that the stories must deal with issues directly, honestly, and without sentimentalizing or being preachy. Add a cover boys won’t be embarrassed being seen with and make sure the inside is not daunting. A thin volume told in free verse with ultracool illustrations made Chess Rumble attractive and readable. I have seen it firsthand many times: A boy in the back of the class, looking bored, picks up a copy of an eye-catching book and opens it with no intention of reading it. But the images and realistic voice grab him; and before he realizes it, that boy has read the entire book. I’ve seen this happen with my own book, and often I’ll be told later that that boy has never read anything before. Those moments give me all the juice I need to keep writing stories for boys.

W. Nikola-Lisa: This past week I was at a book signing at a local school, and I observed a father and his son buying a book. It went like this: The boy found a “graphic novel” (it could have been a book of cartoons; I couldn’t see it that well), and he raced to show his father. “Please, can I get this book?” the boy pleaded. But the father told him to find something else, no explanation, just find something else. The boy looked around, but without much enthusiasm, and then returned to his father with the same graphic novel. “Please, can’t I just get this one?” the boy pleaded again. “No,” replied the father, and walked away. The boy slammed the book down on the table, picked up a book nearby—not even opening it—and took it to his father. “How about this one?” he asked. The dad looked at it and nodded. They bought it and walked out.

Wow, if only that dad could have seen the eagerness in his son’s eyes when the boy picked up that first book. Let your kids read anything—anything! You’ll have plenty of time to guide them in their book selection decisions; but when they’re young, encourage them to read as much as possible no matter what they choose. I wish someone had done that when I was a child. Instead, I had to find my own way to books, and it took an extraordinarily long time to do so.

Jesse Joshua Watson: Getting boys to read is difficult in our society. In my view, there are forces at work that desire us to be uneducated, simply for the purpose of creating good little consumers. We need to free our youth from the grip commercial media has on them. When a child picks up a book, it is a direct confrontation to that system. That is a type of revolution on a social scale, and I am all about that—changing the direction of our society. When you go to a library and choose your own book, you take control of your life. Even if it is a very small step, it is one in the right direction. Readers become thinkers, and thinkers become leaders.

Don Tate: Boys are wired differently than girls. In general, boys want to run and wrestle and compete and throw things. They don’t want to sit still and curl up with a book. So the challenge is in channeling their interests beyond throwing things. With my seven-year-old son, my wife and I let him know that reading in our home is important. We provide him with books on diverse subject matter, but we also let him make choices about what he will read. I’d rather see him read a biography, something historical, or something science related. But he’d rather read Star Wars: The Clone Wars or SpongeBob books. Nothing wrong with that if it keeps him reading.

Joseph Bruchac: People often do not realize that it is a biological fact (well proven now through all sorts of studies) that girls read better than boys. It has to do with brain development. Eventually, in their late teens, boys catch up. But by then they’ve often been turned off reading. It’s also true that we are all individuals. Not every boy in fourth grade, for example, will be a slow reader compared to a girl of the same age. And different people enjoy reading different things. When we require every child to read the same book, it may not be successful.

Guys often like books about sports (and I’ve written a few of those), about adventure, and about how things work. They also like stories about monsters and gross things. Cool. Give them books of that sort to read. Start them off with Goosebumps books and then watch them move on to Stephen King’s more thoughtful scary tales.

Classifying boys as slow learners or criticizing them for their lack of ability is counterproductive. But there are several easy things that can be done to turn them on to reading. One is to let boys read what they want to read. Just let them read. Don’t ask them to write book reports and even give oral reports on what they have read. Just get them to read. The second thing is to find something that interests boys and then to read aloud to them. Again, no tests. Don’t even have them read aloud. Read to them. There are some very interesting recent studies that show that boys who have been reading below their grade level improve dramatically in every area related to reading except spelling after being read to for a few hours every week over a period of several months. It’s also generally true that boys of all ages enjoy being read to.

Books for Boys
Around the World
¡Béisbol! Latino Baseball Pioneers and Legends
Buffalo Song
Capoeira: Game! Dance! Martial Art!
Chess Rumble
Crazy Horse's Vision
DeShawn Days
Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars
How We Are Smart
In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall
Jim Thorpe's Bright Path
Joe Louis, My Champion
The Jones Family Express
The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby
Louis Sockalexis: Native American Baseball Pioneer
Love to Langston
Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes Story
Seven Miles to Freedom
Steel Drumming at the Apollo: The Road to SuperTop Dog
Strong to the Hoop
Summer Sun Risin'
Surfer of the Century
Willie Wins

Other Resources
Boys Read
Guys Read
Boys Blogging Books
Book clubs 4 Boys
Why Boys Fail