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“What can I do to help my son enjoy reading more?”

Imagine you are me – the only male librarian in KidSpace – and the person asking is a harried mother (it is usually the mom who’s asking). Her son gets so-so grades and reads below his grade level; what’s more, getting him to read at all is like pulling teeth. The only incentive left is to withhold the Xbox controller until his school-assigned reading is done… And reading books for pleasure? That aren’t even on the school list? Forget it!

Anxious teachers may ask the same question, although the reading they’ve done on cognitive development gives them some perspective. So why do so many boys dislike reading? (Note: Some girls aren’t thrilled either, but it does usually seem to be boys.) Does it look nerdy to be seen with a book? Is reading just a time-consuming distraction from NBA video games and Minecraft? Not exactly…

I do what any librarian does: read the research, go to seminars on whatever vexing topic confronts me, and closely watch the patron group in question, trying to have one-on-one conversations with them. The best answer I can think of: Boys are wired differently. They are every bit as intelligent as girls, but it comes in a different flavor. Girls seem to develop an ability to read nuances of behavior and relationships earlier than boys, and interpret more broadly the “who’s who” and “what’s what” of the middle school social hierarchy. Many boys, by contrast, often prefer to just see balls slam-dunked, things destroyed, monsters/enemies blown to bits, and their competing alpha-male boys one-upped but good.

So, what to say when a mother asks, “What can I do?”  The best answer: Connect him with a book that is so entertaining he can imagine an enjoyable hour (or several!) curled up with it. Offer something very visual, as in “easy to create visual images of.” Plots involving exotic locations, high-stakes conflicts, and larger-than-life characters, rather than subtle relationships, might be preferable. Give him choices; let him decide.

At this point, it really does not matter (my opinion) if the book is a graphic novel that is long on artwork and short on text. Parents sometimes wince at this –“Aren’t graphic novels just glorified comic books?” (No, they’re not.)  – but Step 1 is to get a book, any book, in their hands, be it Amulet or Squish or another graphic novel, to create a positive boy-meets-book experience.

In the next blog post, we’ll look at how to identify progressively more challenging “high interest” books for reluctant-reader boys. That involves everything from volcanoes, fairies, and aliens to middle-school con artists, mysterious warriors, and youthful heroes who save the world. Choices range from The Lightning Thief to Charlie Joe Jackson to the world of boy-genius-turned-criminal-mastermind Artemis Fowl.

Stay tuned. In the meantime, please consider helping the library/community communications process along by posting a comment. (What have your sons read that wowed them? Boys, what have you read that wowed you?) We’d love for such blogs to become an ongoing conversation between you, the people we serve, and book-nerds like me. Thanks.

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About Paul F.

I fell in love with the library when very young and in the most unlikely of places: the library on an Army base. When I wasn't being carted around the world as my colonel-father got new assignments, I had my nose stuck in a book. That, plus having lived on 3 continents by age 8, taught me something important: people's lives are interesting, are lived very differently in different places, and provide an endless variety of stories (not to mention our amazing planet/universe, the stuff of stranger-than-fiction "nonfiction")... So no wonder I am at Niles Public Library, where books, digital media and programming team up to offer the stories, information, and community we treasure.

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