American boys are falling behind girls in reading. Many experts believe that and, if it’s true, it is a source of deep concern. Just the fact it might be true keeps librarians awake at night. Niles, no more nor less than anywhere else, has such boy readers and needs to understand what’s at stake.
The Center on Education Policy weighed in on this in a 2010 study which analyzed 2008 achievement-test differences between U.S. boys and girls in Grades 4 and 8 plus high school. (See Why Boys Don’t Read for commentary.) Here’s an example their study cited: Sanjay, a California high school student, devoured Harry Potter and Magic Tree House in elementary school but drifted away from reading and, now, almost never reads “for pleasure.” (Videogames, basketball, and hanging out with friends won out instead.) Multiplied times several million, the study says, this scenario is “contributing to a daunting achievement gap between boys and girls.”
Then there’s librarian and speaker Michael Sullivan, a one-man campaign to save “reluctant reader” boys. According to him, data shows that “boys read, on average, a year and a half below girls throughout their school years, with a small gap from the first day of school and the widest gap later on” (taken from his website, www.talestoldtall.com). Sullivan’s conclusion is that society (unintentionally) has it in for boys, who are often just not equipped to plunge into reading at as early an age as girls — and that our expectations of boys should not be the same as for girls.
So, Sullivan is opposed to reliance on leveled reading — Lexiles, Accelerated Reader, and other systems which assign “a point value” to every book — because they make no allowance for boys’ and girls’ differing interests. He even asks whether school reading lists (drawn heavily from award-winner lists like Newbery and in Illinois, Caudill) disadvantage boys, since they tilt towards relationship-driven and character-centric stories, not the less subtle, plot-heavy, more physically oriented books many boys prefer.
If, in fact, many boys need larger-than-life characters and exotic plots to get them interested, stories about ordinary kids in realistic situations may seem, well, flat. I think of it as “the Rick Riordan Syndrome”: write about dyslexic Greek and Roman (half-god, half-human) demigods battling monsters, giants, and titans, and boys (and many girls, too) come running. (See his Lightning Thief, which begins a series of five books, and Heroes of Olympus, a series with four titles published and another in the works.)
But write about an actual dyslexic character (May B. by Caroline Starr Rose) and, alas, not so much, despite awesome literary value. (Regrettably, its featuring a girl protagonist, or using verse, may not heighten its appeal to some boys. But if you make a female protagonist deadly and put her in a futuristic society — think Hunger Games — that’s a different matter.)
Sly humor is also a factor. A girl is more likely to empathize with the earnest emotions expressed in 11 Birthdays or Speak than a boy, while boy-centric books about school, say, tilt toward the wickedly humorous (Charlie Joe Jackson or James Patterson’s Middle School series). But nuanced books win more awards and, so, end up on more reading lists…Food for thought.