Guys Read – still!

[This is a continuation of my guys read series courtesy of a fantastic workshop by Michael Sullivan.]
As we know, boys and men are reading something, even if they claim they aren’t. But what and where they are reading is something that we need to not only take a look at but we need to work with.

Where do the men in your life read?

The answer is probably “the bathroom.” Another popular answer is probably “in bed at night.” More broadly, the answer is men read in isolation – they do it when no one else can see them. If they are reading outside the bathroom or the bedroom, they’re probably doing so covertly, too. Michael Sullivan joked, with all seriousness, that the paperback book is a male’s best friend because it can fit in his back right-hand pocket just like his wallet.

Do you see the challenge?

By not seeing men reading because they read in isolation, boys don’t develop reading role models. They model this behavior, then, and read covertly, if they’re reading at all. Remember back a couple weeks ago about the fact boys think with “rules and tools.” If there’s not a road map there to guide them (i.e., a male reading role model), then it will be difficult for boys to see reading as something they should do.

That means finding male role models who are reading or getting those men in your life who do read to do so in sight of younger males. Boys want role models, and if they see it, they want to do it, too.

As you’ve gleaned from here and from the last two posts, the problem is that we’ve made reading work for boys. There are barriers all around them, even if we don’t necessarily see them. Remember that the “rules and tools” mentality combined with the lack of reading role models, as well as the belief we share about books being what it means to read is telling boys that they aren’t really reading. They believe they’re weak because they don’t do it as well as Susie or Sally and they believe they don’t read because the newspaper, magazines, or the internet isn’t really reading.

So rather than admit they can’t read, they practice the mentality of they don’t read. As humans, it’s easier for us to admit to not doing something versus being unable to do something….even if it’s the case they CAN and ARE doing it.

Never fear, though, as we can solve this problem, and the solutions are much simpler than we can imagine, given the cards stacked against boys from the start.

First – never stop reading to boys! Boys love listening to stories, and often it is this very act of reading aloud that helps them strengthen their reading skills. Find a male to read aloud to them, too. This is a bonding activity and a force of modeling the behavior.

If you don’t have time to read aloud, introduce boys to audiobooks. This increases their literacy just like the printed word does, and it also allows them to do other things while they’re reading (remember that boys prefer being active since that’s how they learn best – can you get better than an audiobook to give them that freedom?). Here’s the plug for my post on audio literacy, too, if you haven’t come to see just how valuable that learning is.

Stuck on WHAT to have to a boy to read? Welcome to Boys Lit! Remember the discussion about how boys like rules and tools? Well, their brand of books is fast paced, action-filled, and features characters who see something then act on it. These books don’t develop character who have complex relationships with one another or communicate; these are books of things happening, with a character using rules and tools to move forward. These characters are mad because the map showed a road and darn it, there will be a road (they don’t need to ask for directions!).

Boys love:

* Non-fiction (sports, action, adventure, gross, quick factual books — the sorts of things they don’t get to read in school);
* Fantasy (the hero’s journey speaks to the male “rules and tools” mindset). Sullivan believes it’s never too young to give a boy Tolkien;
* Sports (it is identifiably male – Mike Lupica has done a lot for this area, and Gym Candy was one of the best books in last 5 years for boys lit, according to Sullivan)

See a pattern here yet? These are the things they aren’t getting to read in school. Add to that non-fiction magazines, newspapers, and internet materials (of any variety, truthful or not).

But let’s not get too excited here. One of the things we’re failing to do is understand that our ideas of a good book from a female perspective is different than those of a male’s. We’re getting something different out of these books than boys are, and when we turn to recommend a title to them we’re sure they’d like — the safe choices — we’re giving them books that are for girls (aka, not “boy” writing). As much as librarians like Chris Crutcher and Gary Paulsen, those aren’t boys lit writers. Sullivan called them “girl” writers, despite their intent. As females, we cannot get into the male mind, and as such, we often overlook what’s going to really speak to them. So, we’re trying, but we’re only giving them the half way answer.

Need help now?

Rather than Paulsen, choose Ben Mikaelson (Touching Spirit Bear and others). He is a much, much better adventure writer with real boy appeal. Paulsen focuses too much on emotion and connections. Mikaelson is action and adventure.

Graphic novels – they’re the half-way answer. We need to be giving boys manga. Manga’s often based on mythology (and thus the hero’s journey) and it often spans many volumes. Once they get hooked, they will read as many in a series they can get their hands on, and isn’t that the goal?

Gothic horror – boys want to explore violence because it is SO unnatural and doesn’t make sense in their world (rules and tools). Let them read it. Boys want to start on Stephen King young. There’s a better choice in Darren Shan. The “Cirque du Freak” series is great for 4-6th graders and the “Demonata” series is great for 6-8th grade. 8th grade or older? Give them Stephen King if they ask, and Dark Half is where to begin.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what you should be doing (i.e., reading the books boys love, taking that knowledge, and considering what you recommend), you need to talk to boys about these books. Never fear. It’s not that tough! First off, general book talking rules:

1. Never talk a book you haven’t read;
2. Always talk to the back of the class because the kids at the front are already readers. Sell READING itself more than the book;
3. Book talking is not a review. Sell the book instead of reviewing it.

Now, remember that the boys are in the back and need to be sold on reading. Talk to them:

1. Keep it short (remember they think reading is solitary, feminized, and sedentary and by being lengthy, well, it is);
2. Get the boys involved (read in concert and make it a social activity);
3. Highlight what boys like (in Maniac Magee there is one scene with sports. The book is not about sports but by highlighting that, the book sells itself. Selling it as a book about race relationships goes back to #1);
4. It is EASY to book talk non-fiction. Idea: pick a book of gross facts and ask the audience to pick a number; open to that page and read.

This is so easy, but because we think like females (well, those of us who are female do), we can’t think about these things. But here it is. The secret to helping boys develop an interest in reading.

And remember back to my last post in this series asking about “the” book? For most males, “the” book that turns them on to reading is indeed a fantasy title. For the males I surveyed, often it was Tolkein or something in the Star Wars series. It’s your turn to ask what got them into reading and it’s our responsibility to do that reading, too. We need to be advocates for boys reading, and the only way to do it is to know what they are reading, encourage their reading, and insist that they ARE reading (even if it’s the newspaper). The more we do that, the more they see themselves as reader, and the more likely they will be banging down your door for the 10th installment of Shan’s “Demonata” series.

Although I’ve finished the content of this series, I will bring you one more post in the next week or two with some of the titles Sullivan highlighted — just in time for holiday shopping! I’ll include a bibliography, too, for those of you interested in learning more and reading the research behind this.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any “go to” boy titles? Do these things surprise you at all? Do you disagree at all? Lay it out there!

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  1. says

    It's so important to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it,especially boys. In fact, I've recently completed a feature magazine article on this subject that came out in October, "Help for Struggling, Reluctant Readers."

    I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

    My blog, Books for Boys is dedicated to drawing attention to the importance of reading.

    Keep up your good work.

    Max Elliot Anderson

  2. says

    The previous librarian didn't let the 2nd graders check out non-fiction books, but because the boys LOVE the non-fiction books, I got rid of that rule and those boys gobble up the sports or war or soldier or animal books.

  3. says

    Goosebumps. I was able to get the fifth-grade boys to check out goosebumps by reading them myself so I could tell them about the strange/weird stuff that was happening and then leave them hanging about the ending 😉

    It helps that I was a SAHM and a fast reader.

  4. Terry says

    As a HS teacher, I often shake my head at the choices my peers find appropriate for whole class reading. "The Poisonwood Bible," followed by "The Awakening" and then a rousing round of "Grapes of Wrath." Not that any of those aren't good, but none of them appeals to non-readers, and are particularly challenging to male readers.

    I think that Paulsen is fine for boys, depending on the title: "Hatchet" is done to death, but I think "Glass Cafe" is an easy sell for boys.

  5. says

    Terry, I can't be happier you posted that since I forgot to bring it up. One of the things Sullivan mentioned was a conversation he had with a teacher who taught "Julie of the Wolves" each year, as well as "Maniac Magee." All the boys hated "Julie" because it was a "girls book." She said she'd never change what she was teaching because it was good, and hey, the boys book is "Maniac Magee."

    It's problematic that we don't change our curriculum to reflect student needs. Obviously, the boys are not getting anything out of reading "Julie," and it's terrible to continue doing it with the retort that "they have Maniac Magee." I don't think it's THAT hard to come up with more inclusive titles…..there are so many great resources (such as, say, a school librarian!).

  6. says

    And admittedly, I think Sullivan said some Paulsen is going to appeal to boys. "Hatchet," alas, is not one of them! (I've only read that one and I really disliked it…all 4 times it was read aloud to me in school — does no one talk about what they're reading so we don't get overlap repeatedly?)

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