What Do Boys Like to Read? Ask Them.
By Drego Little
The perception that reading is boring and a chore can be death to a young reader’s development. In order to read well, kids need lots of practice. The more you read the better you get. Although this sounds intuitive, there is a little more to it when the readers are boys.
When making reading selections for boys, do not underestimate the value of books with utility, action, and interest. Utility is important because struggling readers - especially boys - enjoy reading about real things. Utility gives boys a sense of agency when they read; they are learning about the real world in a way that helps them understand it better. The Guiness Book of World Records is popular with boys of all ages. Action may sound obvious, but is a bit more complicated. Adult readers, don’t necessarily need an action-oriented payoff, they can take pleasure in the dialogue and character development while the story builds. Many boys are impatient with stories that take too long to get off the ground or stories that are designed to convey some big important lesson they may be too young to understand. And, unfortunately, interest can’t always be placed on the top rung of priorities when meeting curriculum requirements.
There is nothing more damaging to literacy education than the perception that reading is something kids do for someone else; if boys are not encouraged to read what they want, the perception and its damage will be evident. Interest is what teachers and parents must pay attention to if they want to get boys reading and keep them reading.
I have been in too many schools and bookstores where boys were told “don’t you wanna’ read something else?” by adults who did not value or understand the choice a boy made. Trash is the word most often used when describing the books boys want to read. Whether a boy chooses comic books, wrestling magazines, video game “cheat” books, or a slang dictionary, their choices should be taken seriously.
I hate skateboarding. I don’t know why I just do. Every time I see some boy tripping over a skateboard again and again I just shake my head. When my son was 12 (he’s 15 now) he loved skateboarding, it was all he talked about. I relented and bought him a skateboard, but I refused to spend good money on a skateboarding magazine. We eat breakfast at the same place on Saturdays and our regular stop before the restaurant is a magazine store. One weekend after I had made my choices and was at the register I turned around to find my boy standing there looking sad…with a skateboarding magazine in his hand. “It’s their special double issue and it talks about all the top skateboarders,” he said. I tried to smile over my gritted teeth and bought the magazine. It was the size of a small city phonebook and he read it for a week straight. Although there weren’t what I would call meaty articles, there were a lot of short interviews and pictures. Many of the skateboarders talked about how they didn’t’ fit it at school, or about how skateboarding kept them out of trouble. As a literacy scholar I couldn’t find any justification whatsoever in keeping my son from something he liked that, outside of a few racy ads, he enjoyed reading. Four months later he had subscriptions to all four of the main skateboarding publications. He read them all as soon as they hit the living room table.
And what did I learn? I put my disdain for a sport before my son’s reading development. It is very hard not to do this. As parents we have values that are sometimes at odds with what our kids think is cool. Not a new phenomenon, but one that should be carefully considered when reading material is at issue. No educational dictum I’ve seen could be more easily followed than one that requires one question: What do you want to read?
What follows is a reading list in progress. It grows every month and every month some boy tells me one of my choices is boring. I have tried to stick with titles that have held up over time. The annotations are meant to introduce a title, but they should never be taken as substitute for reading at least the first twenty pages of a book.
This is a picture book for younger readers, illustrated in a kind of comic book style. They play Super Hero games at the beach. What’s remarkable about this book is that the drawings and sequence of the pictures in the book give the reader the experience of being in the minds of the children, a rare feat, and a quality that many of the greatest children’s books share.
Agent A to Agent Z
Too many alphabet books have great pictures but are boring to read. This one is a breath of fresh air. Though not an alphabet book in the strict sense of the term it’s a rhyming book that features the alphabet as a central theme. Readers must help Secret Agent A round up all of the other lettered agents. But there’s a twist, Agent A is told by headquarters “one spy is out of line, I need to know his name by nine”.
Imagine an army that is treated so well by the country it invades that it loses it’s will to conquer. This one deserves a place alongside Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book. It is the kind of well told story that parents can refer back to during difficult conversations for years. The artwork is warm and subtle and the message is timeless, love is always more fun than war.
Bone: One Volume Edition
This one is recommended without any reservation whatsoever. It is the tale of the three bone cousins, exiled from their home by angry neighbors. Everything is here, humor, mythology, brilliant artwork, and a touching story that adults and kids can enjoy. It’s a big book (over 900 pages). I gave it to a student who read it a week. His mother told me he tried to read it in a movie theater. There are monsters in the book so fourth grade on up should be about right for most kids.
Popular Science Magazine
True, many boys do not care about nuclear reactors in the former Soviet Union. But they do care about brain chips that allow you to turn the TV, remote control cars that fly and bicycles that go 60 MPH . Every month this magazine has short snippets about cool science stuff that seems more science fiction than real life. Knowing what’s possible in the world of science is a goal that is worth at least the price of one issue.
Time Warp Trio (series)
I refer to this series as the Magic Treehouse for boys who don’t like to read. As the founder of a literacy organization for boys, Scieszka wrote these books with boys in mind. They are funny, action packed and serve a teaching function very similar to other historical series. Start with Summer Reading is Killing Me.
Cirque Du Freak: A Living Nightmare
A boy who visits a weird circus, sees amazing things there, and ends up… I’m not a fan of scary books. I bought this for three boys who all read it in basically one sitting. This is a creepy book and I’m told that that’s part of it’s appeal. After reading it myself I see why it’s popular. It’s a book where you want to scream at the characters “don’t open that!” while reading the book. This is the first book in a series as well. Not for the easily scared.
The Ronin (Usagi Yojimo, Vol I)
If you’ve read the reviews on the Parents’ Choice website before you’ve seen this title mentioned. It’s a comic book about a ronin (masterless samurai) rabbit. There are not many comic books better than this one. Beautiful artwork, stories, and details about feudal Japan make this a consistent choice among librarians, teachers and reading advocates. It is about the feudal period so there are sword fights. Parents are cautioned to view the panels first, but it is a title that deserves much more attention.
The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead
Rule 1: Organize before they rise! A Zombie survival guide, because you never know. Every boy who has seen a horror film thinks he could do better than the people in the movie. Well guess no more. Brooks is a writer for Saturday Night Live so this is naturally a parody of real survival guides. It’s funny and so thorough that one wonders aloud whether some the advice might work. Because younger readers are unlikely (hopefully) to be familiar with horror film conventions this is essentially a book for boys 11 and up.
Paramilitary fairies, a twelve year criminal genius and all the fantasy and action the most turned off reader could want. This is the first in a series of four and they are all good. Because there are battles and futuristic weaponry in the book parents with strong concerns about violence may want to look at this one first. I did, and I had to hide from my son so I could finish it first. I can’t think of a better series that combines modern and ancient themes in a more entertaining fashion.
Note: There is nothing wrong with series books. Familiar themes, characters, andsettings are comforting to young readers and give them a sense of security while reading. The New York Times children’s bestsellers list is all the evidence anyone should need.
For Further Information About Boys and Reading:
Boys and books, by Jane McFann. (2004, August). Reading Today, 22(1), 20–21
Smith, Michael W. and Wilhelm, J. (2002). Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
OECD. (2001). Knowledge and skills for life: First results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2000. Paris: OECD.
(2005).Trends in Average Reading Scale Scores by Gender. National Center for Education Statistics
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