Sometimes I feel like I can actually spot the moment when certain boys stop thinking that reading is cool. Assuming they ever loved books, which seems to be the case with most kids who are read to at home from an early age, most of them hit the wall and turn away: I usually associate it with their peers. Not always, but often.
I’ll give you an example. There was a kid in one of the branches I used to work at. I’ll call him James. James reminded me of me when I was his age, and he was 12 years old when this story occurred.
He would come in every day and quiz myself and the other librarians about what he should read next. He was insatiable and curious and I always loved to see him. He’d take a book to the desk in the corner and forget we existed. He read the way boys read before they hear that it’s a lame way to spend your time.
One day he swaggered in with two kids I’d never seen before. They each looked like they were two or three years older. When I said hi to him he didn’t even look at me, but increased his swagger by a factor of four.
He didn’t say a word to any of us that day.
The next day he came in alone and asked me if I could recommend anything with robots in it. Of course we did.
The next day he walked in with the same boys–they turned out to be his brothers–while I was out in the foyer dealing with something else. James went out of his way to bump me with his shoulder.
“Oops,” he said.
Instead of asking him what was going on, I talked to one of his brothers, just to feel it out. “Do you need help finding anything?” I asked when he was alone for a moment.
“Yeah, I need some books that aren’t all gay and sh*t. Oh wait, there aren’t any.”And he swaggered off, the swaggeriest swagger yet.
I would love to put up a sign demarcating that section of the library.
I never had a chance not to love books
My mom literally took me into the library when I was the size of a shrimp in her womb. She was always there, so I was always there. And while my dad thought fiction was a waste of time, he always read books about gruesome shark attacks and real-life adventure stories with me.
Every day. Every night. Books books books.
And then I was lucky enough that my friends were the same way, so I never really felt the pressure of needing to prove that I thought books were stupid in order to belong to any group I cared about.
So, what to do?
If you’re a librarian or a parent of a boy who you would like to reach, I have a couple of suggestions based on personal experience.
1. “Reading is not boring, boring books are boring.”
This is my go-to line whenever a boy tells me that his reason for not reading is because it bores him. Sometimes I will challenge them to let me find five books for them, and if they are bored by them all, I’ll never bug them again. (That is a lie, I keep bugging them).
Which takes us to:
2. Forget about what they “should” be reading
Graphic novel circulation is exploding in my library. If my son didn’t want to read To Kill A Mockingbird, I would rather have him anything than try to force it on him. So far, steering kids towards the graphic novels, joke books, comic books, or even Walter The Farting Dog can grab their attention for the moment.
3. Whenever possible, try to talk to each kid alone
Or if not alone, try to at least speak with them away from the peers that you suspect keep them away from the books.
4. Let them see you reading
This one is more for parents than librarians. Most kids I know copy everything their parents do. Not forever, and not at every age, but the other night I found my three year old son leafing through a copy of Plutarch’s Lives because he had seen me doing it earlier that day.
If they look up to you, productive associations may form if they associate you with reading.
5. Have books in the house
A home with books in it makes it a lot harder to pretend they don’t exist, particularly if you start filling the shelves with books that kids might like. In this instance, I do recommend hard-copies. I have an iPad that I’ve tried to read books on, and while I like the experience, I don’t finish many books on there. There are too many other options and the stupid thing is always dinging at me as emails, comments, and other messages come in, trying to lure me away from the page.
Honorable mention: The fewer electronic screens around, the better. I get distracted so easily these days by my phone, computer, and TV, and I want to read. I can’t imagine it’s easier for kids who have never known a less-wired world.
And now, over to you. Feel free to share any experiences, tips, frustrations, or ideas you would like to discuss regarding how we might get boys to read more books, and to keep them from losing the desire as they get older.
Wait. As an honorable mention option, I’m going to suggest finding some great audio books as well.