virtual children by Scott Warnock

Getting them there boys to read

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As a little boy, I had a literate environment in my house, and I myself was a big reader. I remember material literacy moments, such as when I kept sneak-reading my mom’s thrillers, like By Reason of Insanity and The Omen. I recall scaring myself stupid with those books and then coming back for more. I remember how The Lord of Rings trilogy smelled. I remember hiding the Alien “graphic novel” (I mean, that’s what it was) because of the language.

As it turns out, I was an exception, because getting boys to read has been a longstanding, well-documented issue. One of my favorite books on the topic is Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith’s Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. They quote psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in trying to dig into this problem: “If literacy is for the sake of the children, how come we so rarely bother to find out what they want to use it for?”

I’m dealing with this on the local front.

For many boys, reading is lame, a waste of time, or, as the word of choice often in my house lately, “dumb.” The results are tangible. An article in The Westerly Sun said, “A pair of reports released in 2010 — the Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading report and another from the Center on Education Policy — show that the reading lag between boys and girls exists in every state and grade and is ‘the most pressing gender-gap issue facing our schools.’”

Is this a heightened gendered side effect of what David Denby said The New York Times the “communion” of electronic devices? Because boys or girls, the Pew Research Center finds “few late teen-agers are reading many books.” Denby though, doesn’t just point a generational finger, saying, “I know perfectly well that there was never a Golden Age of Teen Reading.” Denby has nailed the situation in my house in saying: “Making the case that serious reading is one of life’s great boons—that screen-bound kids are in danger of missing something tremendous—has become awkward, square-headed, emotionally difficult.” I might add, “Dumb.”

Technology or not, boys don’t see a practical need, a connection. The Westerly Sun article reported that at Pawcatuck Middle school, in an after school program, “about a dozen fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade boys created their dream reading space, participated in speed-booking, shopped a book fair and met Sean Faye Wolfe, a recent high school graduate and author of the ‘Elementia Chronicles,’ an unofficial Minecraft-Fan adventure series.”

Certainly bending them toward things in which they are interested — Minecraft! — is viewed as a solution. “If reading would fix that Chevy…”

But I wonder, even as I write this, if for some of us old-timers the reading itself isn’t enough. I mean, these kids are reading many more words than likely we did, albeit digital words, but they still have an aversion to the idea of reading, perhaps mostly because they associate that with book reading.

Or maybe we, literate anachronists that we are, have a yearning for our children to develop not just the skill but the material memories of reading, the hard-copy past, the smells of books, that we want our children to experience. That’s not so bad either. As I write this and think of Lord of the Rings, I don’t feel “dumb,” but I’m anticipating such a critique…

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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