John Coy: Girls have reading down, but boys are losing interest


July 14, 2008

On a recent bookstore visit, a sign caught my eye: "Summer Reading for Teens." As an author of young adult novels, I was curious to see what books were selected for the table.

Fashionistas, mean girls, gossip girls, island girls, it girls, a whole sisterhood of traveling pants. Had I read the sign wrong? Was this the table of summer reading for girls? I checked the sign again: Summer Reading for Teens. I scanned the table. Where were the books for boys? Among the brightly colored covers, not a single book featured a male protagonist in a contemporary setting.

What would a male teen think about this table? Probably that summer reading didn't include him.

Just then a group of high school students came in with their teacher. A store employee greeted them and stood in front of the Summer Reading for Teens table. As she began talking about the books in the store, I watched the summer school students. Most of the girls were paying attention and looking over the books on the table. The boys' eyes were wandering elsewhere and most of them looked like they wanted to be somewhere -- anywhere -- else.

What message do we send boys when we load up a table of books for teens with titles that so many of them do not connect with? Is summer reading supposed to be fun? Do we assume that boys won't read for fun? Do we assume boys don't read -- period?

Years ago, I took a workshop from Jane Yolen, the acclaimed writer of books for children. She said, "We don't have enough books that reflect the genuine interests of boys." That was true 15 years ago. It is still true now.

As a writer who visits many schools, I'm always stuck by the enthusiasm of students in a first-grade class who are learning to read. The marks on the page are a secret code: Excitement and concentration are evident as students decipher it. When they do, words and sentences appear and their world is altered forever.

Yet, if you see these same students four years later and ask them how they feel about reading, a number will say they don't like to read. Some of these fifth-graders will tell you directly that they hate reading. Of this last group, almost all are boys.

Think about this: If you tried to devise an educational system whose main goal was to change the enthusiasm of first-grade boys into a dislike of reading in four years, could you create a system more effective than the one we have now?

We have done boys a fundamental disservice by failing to publish more books that address their genuine interests. Go into any classroom and ask boys what they like to do. Make a list and then take that down to the library and see how many chapter books and novels you can find on these topics. The gap is huge.

In addition to publishing more books that address boys' genuine interests and getting them into their hands, another significant change needs to occur. Men must step up. Almost all the people telling boys about the importance of reading are female. More mothers read to their children than do fathers. More women visit libraries and buy books at bookstores. Boys hear they should read from female teachers and librarians.

Most boys struggling to become men are skeptical if they are not hearing from men that reading is important. Fathers, uncles, grandfathers, coaches, male teachers, librarians, principals, and business and community leaders need to let boys know that reading is directly connected to their future.

What job choices will be available in 10 to 20 years for men who are poor readers? What will those jobs pay? We all have an investment in everybody in our society -- female and male -- having the skills to engage in a global economy increasingly dependent on communication.

Boys and reading is a subject so important that we need everybody involved.

John Coy, Minneapolis, is a writer of picture books and young adult novels. His latest is "Box Out" (Scholastic).