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Reading with boys

2013 Books Issue | Children’s authors work to draw boys into books in the age of distraction

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

Three male children’s authors are oddly optimistic about children’s, and specifically boys’, reading habits despite the distractions of smart phones and iPads. 

“I have no fear of the device,” said Jack Gantos, Newbery medal-winning author of Dead End in Norvelt. Gantos has been visiting schools for the last 25 years and watching children’s reading habits. “The crop of readers we have now is greater. They read more widely, more in-depth.” 

Kevin Emerson, author of The Lost Code series most recently, said the problem of technology is no different than when he was growing up: If he had been able to sneak an Atari video game console into school, he would have. But he couldn’t, so he read. 

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Jon Scieszka, perhaps best known for his children’s book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, said apps can’t replace a book: “Walking around here you see 100 great books that can only be books.” 

“If you write good books, you will have readers,” Gantos said. 

The authors appeared at BookExpo America, an annual gathering of major publishers, authors, librarians, and booksellers in Manhattan. Their bright outlook about the future of books was a sentiment that was widely (and perhaps unsurprisingly) shared at the BookExpo. 

Publishers seemed more confident about the coexistence of digital and print books. Publishers Weekly, in its daily reports on the expo, noted that “the digital business had leveled off,” and “there is a sense that print and digital can, and will, coexist.” 

Despite the optimism, boys do lag behind girls in reading, according to Scieszka’s project called Guys Read (guysread.com). The project is an effort to get boys reading regularly, eventually on their own volition. Scieszka’s website has a curated list of books that might interest boys, under categories like, “At least one explosion,” “People being turned into animals,” and “Funny.” He’s said previously that because most elementary school teachers are women, they don’t always know what books to give boys. 

A mom asked the authors how to get her son reading. Gantos said he thought it was critical for families to set the example and read in front of their children. He said his family would all go to the living room after dinner and read. “You had a general sense, if you have a spare moment, why not pick up a book?” he said.

“The role model piece is huge,” agreed Scieszka. “Get more men reading in public.”

“Use humor as a welcome mat and then, boom!” said Gantos. “There comes the theme, boom! There come the characters.” 

“Boys can be really trapped in their interior in elementary and middle school,” Emerson said. “They’re very quiet, not as verbal as girls. A lot of my characters are trying to find their way out of their shell.” 

Emerson said he reads a lot of boys’ writing to learn how to write for them. “It’s super annoying because they’re smart and they have these amazing ideas,” he said. 

“Kids are much more sophisticated [today], just from what they watch on television,” said Scieszka. “We watched Gilligan’s Island.”

Gantos concurred. “Kids don’t want just one dimension anymore.” He recalled that when he was growing up, the array of children’s literature was more limited: He read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Scieszka remembered comic books. Emerson remembered reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

“There’s so much more available now,” said Scieszka.

Listen to Jack Gantos read from the audiobook of Dead End in Norvelt courtesy of Macmillan Audio.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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