Reading & Literacy

Authors Share Tips on Getting Boys to Read

Humor, war, and even emotion, if handled the right way, can all lure boys into a good book, writers advise teachers
By Mary Ann Zehr — July 02, 2009 6 min read
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Boys like to read books about trucks, boys who get into trouble, sports, animals, and war. More than girls, they lean toward nonfiction. And don’t forget the humor or action in stories.

Those are some of the insights that well-acclaimed children’s authors and illustrators—most of them men—conveyed to about 300 teachers and librarians—most of them women—at a recent conference here. Hosted by Shenandoah University, the meeting focused on how to get boys hooked on reading.

At the same time, a couple of authors and an illustrator stressed that boys are drawn as well to books with a strong emotional quality.


Popular Books Among Boys

Some teachers find that they encounter more boys in their classrooms than girls who are reluctant readers.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos


Robot Zot by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon


Under a War-Torn Sky by by Laura Malone Elliott



Books Appealing to Girls

For more than three decades, girls have shown on standardized tests they are better readers than boys.

Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas


Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer


Remember: The Journey to School Integration‎ by Toni Morrison


For an illustration in a book to be effective, “there has to be some emotional appeal,” said Jerry Pinkney, who is known for illustrations that show a strong connection between people and animals. “What’s important in my work is not just the action but what’s around the action,” the artist said, showing the audience one of his illustrations from the picture book, Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, in which a cowboy is feeding his horse an apple.

Mr. Pinkney explained that he created a feeling of intimacy in the scene by having the cowboy give his horse the apple after he’s taken the time to remove the bridle and reins.

Boys, said Jack Gantos, who writes books about bad boys, “like the emotional stuff as much as the physical stuff.” The author of the Rotten Ralph and Joey Pigza series says that half the content in his books is about what happens on the outside of the character, including lots of action, and half is about what happens inside the character. A theme in his books is that the characters are loved unconditionally, even if they mess up a lot, which he said is something that children can identify with.

Mr. Gantos’ books are popular among boys. When children read about characters with feelings, he said, it helps them recognize the feelings they have themselves.”

Not all authors who attract the interest of young male readers are men, though the boys may not be aware of that.

Laura Malone Elliott, an author who spoke at the June 29-July 3 conference, has reached a lot of male readers with her book Under a War-Torn Sky, a fictionalized account of a boy flying a B-24 in World War II. The story is based on her father’s experiences in the war.

Ms. Elliott followed her editor’s suggestion to use only her first initials, L.M., rather than her first name “Laura,” on the book cover to keep boys and their parents from detecting that she was a woman and possibly deciding not to buy the book for that reason.

Boys seem to like Henry, the central character in the story, Ms. Elliott speculated, because he’s not a typical hero. “He’s an average, ordinary farm boy who is surprised by everything that happens.”

“Boys,” Ms. Elliott said, “want the gore, the smell, the bugs. But they are vulnerable. Boys in war are afraid. If you are a writer and are going to write about war, you need to be responsible and write about how they cried and were scared,” she added.

Gap in NAEP Scores

Karen Huff, an education professor at Shenandoah University and the conference organizer, referred to the gender gap in reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a rationale for the conference theme on how to get boys to read.

Nine-year-old girls score 7 points higher than boys of the same age in reading, according to long-term trend data for NAEP. For 13-year-olds, the gender gap is 8 points. For 17-year-olds, the gender gap is even wider, 11 points, and has remained about the same since 1971, when the test was first given. In 1971, 17-year-old girls scored 12 points higher than boys that age in reading on NAEP.

University officials attest to those deficiencies sticking to many young men as they age. “Overall, our female students coming in [to the university] are better readers [than male students],” Tracy Fitzsimmons, the president of the university, told conference attendees. “They are better writers.”

Children’s book author Jon Scieszka, who wrote The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs and Knucklehead and is about to come out with a picture book, Robot Zot!, gave teachers suggestions on how to engage boys more in reading. He laced his talk with stories and jokes about his own children, a boy and a girl, who are now adults.

“My son will never read another book by Toni Morrison,” he noted, explaining that his son had been assigned to read one of that best-selling author’s books in high school and hated it. “When was the last time a funny book was assigned in reading?” he asked.

Mr. Scieszka urged teachers to look at their classroom libraries and make sure they contain books that boys like. “Boys enjoy things like nonfiction, comics, graphic novels, and texts they are interested in,” he said.

He encouraged female teachers to “find some guys” who might be able to be role models for boys in reading. The author half-joked that when boys don’t have reading role models who are male, they may worry that they’ll turn into girls if they show too much interest in reading.

Mr. Scieszka, who once was a 2nd grade teacher, runs the Guys Read Web site that provides “Guys’ Picks,” a list of recommended books. He suggested that teachers use a low-key approach in recommending books to boys. They might say, “Another guy read this book and liked it.” He observed that it’s easier for boys to navigate a small selection of books than a really large selection.

In addition, Mr. Scieszka said, teachers should embrace technology in the classroom because boys are drawn to technology and that may be another way to get them reading.

Matthew Brodie, a librarian for Lowes Island Elementary School in Sterling, Va., and one of the few men at the conference who wasn’t a presenter, said he wishes he had had a male teacher like Mr. Scieszka who was energetic and funny. “He seems to be like a larger version of what you have in an elementary classroom. Just a 3rd grader who is grown up and still acts like a 3rd grader,” he said.

Stretching Outside Gender

Mr. Brodie said he signed up for the conference because he has a “strong interest in reaching out to boys” and wanted to meet some of the authors of children’s books he admires. He said he believes female teachers and librarians need to stretch to take note of boys’ interests in the same way he has to stretch to notice girls’ interests, such as by buying books about fairies for his school library.

“For women to reach out to boys, they have to show an interest in what boys like,” he said. Even if they don’t watch the Washington Redskins, for instance, they can keep track of whether the pro football team won or lost its most recent game and talk with boys about it, he said.

Janet Pankau, the mother of four boys and a 3rd grade teacher at Rolling Ridge Elementary School in Sterling, Va., said she came to the conference scouting for books that might interest her male students. She was happy to learn, for example, about a series of sports fiction, including Touchdown Trouble and Winners Take All, written by Fred Bowen, who gave a presentation here.

Finding books that boys will like is somewhat like shopping for clothes that boys will wear, she said. “There are 10 times more for girls than boys.”

Students in Ms. Pankau’s class participate in independent reading a half hour daily.

If boys can’t find a book that interests them, they “fake reading,” she said. “They’ll sit there during silent reading time and turn the pages,” she said, “but you don’t know if they are reading.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week


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