Of Books and Boys

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
February 24, 2003

Fun-loving author Jon Szieszka is serious about boys' reading.

According to the Department of Education, starting as early as first grade, boys recognize fewer words than girls do. Girls do better in reading throughout their school years, read more for pleasure and consistently score higher than boys on reading aptitude tests. The Nation's Report Card, which compiles the results of standardized testing in schools across the country, found that while fourth-grade girls' reading scores improved significantly in 2000, boys' reading scores hardly budged. The same report found that more than half of fourth-grade girls read for fun on a daily basis, while just over a third of boys the same age do so.

It was just such statistics, along with his own experience as a teacher and a parent, that propelled children's book author Jon Scieszka into action. "There is no change," says Scieszka, who points out that in spite of school budgets that dedicate large amounts of money to special education and literacy programs, many boys are still failing at reading. "It is unbelievable that we can have that money and power at our disposal but what comes out the other end isn't working," he says.

Scieszka may be just the man to tackle the puzzle of boys' apparent reluctance to read. He grew up with five brothers, attended an all-boys military academy in his teens, and taught school for 10 years. He can't remember a time when he didn't love reading and writing, and his own books—all 19 of them, including well-known favorites like The Stinky Cheese Man—feature boy-friendly irreverence and humor.

Boy-Talk About Books

GUYS READ is primarily represented by its Web site, which offers educators and parents tips on how to encourage boys in their reading. Scieszka urges librarians and teachers to look closely at their book inventory and consider its level of boy-appeal. Booksellers are encouraged to have male staff members create favorite book lists and displays of books that guys would like. The site reminds adults that newspapers, magazines and comic books can offer worthwhile reading and are often more appealing for boys than traditional literature. And adults who care for boys are encouraged to read books on boys' psychology to help them understand boys' different ways of learning and interacting with books.

Above all, Scieszka appeals to the men in boys' lives to get involved in their guys' reading. To help Dads and other adults get started, Scieszka has posted a list of boys' favorite books on the GUYS READ website. Unlike many reading lists, this one isn't based on what anyone thinks boys "should" read, or on awards like the Newbery. Scieszka believes that if boys are allowed to pick out the books they like, they are more likely to get hooked on reading. So while he provides a list of his own favorite books for boys, Scieszka encourages boys themselves to weigh in on their top picks—whether they be bathroom humor books like Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey or tried-and-true favorites like James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.

GUYS READ also provides a place where boys can convene to share their own experiences with books. The Web site links to a Readerville.com discussion reserved exclusively for guys to swap favorite titles and their perspectives of books. In the discussion, guys are inundated with book recommendations, including everything from Goosebumps to The Chronicles of Narnia.

This is boy territory. Girls of any age are not welcome. When a woman weighs in with a comment, cootie alerts are posted and she's run off the discussion. When one boy mistakenly types in Goosebums instead of Goosebumps, others on the list are delighted. "I am soooo hoping that's a typo!" responds one. Another just giggles, "Heeheehee!"

For now, male librarians and educators outnumber schoolboys on the discussion, but Scieszka is working to lure more boys to the discussion by promoting it at other sites that guys visit and trying to secure additional funding to make the GUYS READ site itself more interactive for boys.

The Importance of Being Silly

Scieszka, whose father was also a schoolteacher, can't remember a time when he didn't love reading and writing. He credits Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham with impressing on him from the start that books don't need to be staid and studious. Like many people who study kids' reading habits, Scieszka notes that boys are attracted to nonfiction, fantasy and humor books. He is quick to add that many boys love anything that has to do with body noises and are loathe to touch any book that appears remotely feminine.

In fact, Scieszka suspects gender roles may partly explain why many boys don't read as well as girls. Like many people that study boys, Scieszka cites a culture that narrowly defines what it means to be a man, and that leaves women largely in charge of boys in their impressionable developing years.

While Scieszka has nothing but admiration for female teachers, he wonders how fully they can "get into the hearts of seven-year-old boys." When it comes to reading curriculums, teachers, male or female, "pick books they like," says Scieszka. "I think if teaching was composed of ninety percent men, all the books would be about farts and war, and girls would be doing much worse."

He draws on his own experience as a schoolteacher as an example of how male and female educators approach boys differently. "I was raised completely immersed in a boys' culture," says Scieszka, who taught various grades from first through eighth. When he found himself plunged into an alien world of female teachers, "I felt like Margaret Mead (the famed anthropologist who studied obscure cultures and gender roles within them)," says Scieszka. "I had no idea what was going on."

Without a model for how a male teacher should conduct himself, Scieszka went on instinct, letting his students' energies guide him. The result was a highly charged classroom with plenty of noise and frequent wrestling matches—just the kind of place boys love. "The headmaster said 'Every time I look into your class everyone's butt is in the air. You don't find that in Miss Alberti's classroom.'"

Scieszka soon found boys clamoring to get into his class. "You could just see those little guys breathe a sigh of relief when they got into my classroom," says Scieszka. Perhaps as important as providing a classroom tolerant of boys' hijinks, Scieszka saw himself as a role model. "(Young boys) could see me playing basketball with the older boys and teaching math. But they also saw me reading poetry," says Scieszka.

Without such role models Scieszka wonders how boys can be expected to embrace books. Kathleen Odean, author of Great Books for Boys, agrees, "(Say) you are a boy and you want to be a man," she says. If the only people that you see reading are women, "you see that reading books is what girls do," says Odean. An observant boy, bolstered by the threat of ridicule from his buddies, might avoid books altogether. In fact, according to Scieszka, many boys who can read avoid reading for fear that they might be branded a nerd or a sissy.

A Man's Job?

To counteract such stereotypes, GUYS READ calls on men to "Get off your...busy schedules...and read with your boys." According to Scieszka, it's the men in their lives that can do the most to encourage boys' reading. But often those men seem reluctant to take on the task of nurturing boys' literacy. Scieszka was recently heartened to see his neighbor start a father-son book club, only to be disappointed by its rapid demise.

With the inspired name of Books and Balls and an agenda that had dads reading to their boys at such masculine locales as a local batting cage, it's hard to imagine how it failed. It wasn't because of the boys' lack of interest. "It was maddening," says Scieszka. "The dads flaked out after the second meeting," when their busy schedules got in the way.

That kind of thing can send the message that guys have more important things to do than read. Not surprisingly many boys' lives are as busy as their dads' are, according to Dr. Michael Thompson, the author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys. "We are so anxious to totally over-schedule boys," says Thompson. "We're afraid if we don't they'll get in trouble."

For his part, Scieszka worries about what troubles boys will face if they don't learn to read well. He points out that in recent years increasingly more boys than girls are dropping out of high school and fewer boys are going on to college. "I think we are really losing boys," says Scieszka. And the impact is not only academic. Without access to the wider emotional range and association to feelings that books can provide, Scieszka wonders if boys' emotional lives might not also be stunted. "I want boys to feel connected and happier with themselves," says Scieszka. In that case, perhaps boys should read Summer Reading is Killing Me. If Jon Scieszka is right, it probably won't kill them.


Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a freelance writer in Burnsville, Minnesota.