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Captain Underpants to the Rescue?

August 20, 2008 2 min read

The issue of boys’ literacy has been fueling a lot of chatter lately. It is a topic that has come to my attention a lot throughout my years of covering reading policy and practice for Ed Week. Like every time girls outperform boys on national reading assessments.

But lately the coverage has expanded beyond the test scores.

USA Today columnist Richard Whitmire has launched a blog solely dedicated to boys and their struggles in school. Why Boys Fail is not all about reading, but it’s loaded with material from research, media reports, and online discussions. (There’s some interesting guest commentary this week from Peg Tyre, author of the forthcoming book, The Trouble With Boys.) Several recent posts have hit on this topic of book choice.

This Wall Street Journal online article last month reports how Scholastic Inc. and other publishers are banking on books on topics boys might find appealing: bloody battles, bodily functions, and mischievous lads. Will the likes of Captain Underpants, Oh Yuck: The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty, and A Wicked History: Genghis Khan 13th Century Mongolian Tyrant draw them in to the wonders of reading?

The article irked some longtime proponents of classical curricula.

“Does time spent with Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger help reading comprehension?” asks Robert Pondiscio over at the Core Knowledge blog. “As a teacher, I’m all for engaging boys, but a steady diet of this fare invites the law of diminishing returns.”

Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review is aghast:

“Now that military history and any whisper of male heroism have been banished . . . only gross books for boys, to balance the vampire books for girls, are the right choices....??” he asks.

Fitzhugh argues that boys through the ages have lost themselves in well-written biographies and historical nonfiction.

Pondiscio continues: “I think we shortchange students when we simply assume kids will be disengaged by good books, and therefore don’t make the effort to engage them.”

I’m open to some suggestions for engaging my 8-year-old son in a broader array of texts. As summer vacation winds down, he and my 10-year-old daughter still need a daily reminder about the reading hour in my house (which has dwindled to a 20-minute reading block since the Olympics have kept us up late and sleeping in). His book choices: a 200-page Pokemon guide, Dorling Kindersley books on reptiles, space, and football, and Horrible Harry in Room 2B.

Now that he’s discovered the three boxes of comic books my husband has been hoarding for the last 20 years, maybe that habit will develop on its own.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.