Thursday, January 31, 2008

What Boys Read and the Picky Eater Theory of Reading

In the car today I tuned into Robin Young on the Boston radio program Here and Now interviewing Innaugural Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Jon Scieszka. Scieszka was talking about his website, Guys Read, and the problem of how assigned reading in school turns boys off of reading. The example Robin Young gave was Little House on the Prairie, as it happens the very book Budza and I are reading aloud right now.

It made me think about how you have to trust the story sometimes and not fall prey to assumptions about what boys will and won't like. Budza is totally fascinated by the way of life in the 1870s in the big woods of Wisconsin and on the high prairie--making a house from logs, living among wolves, having the whole family come down with malaria and having the house nearly burn to the ground from a chimney fire. There is drama in every chapter.

Realize, too, that the story hour in our house means Budza has his pick of his own overflowing bookcase, and a stack about a foot high from the public library. His own 20 minutes of reading right now is from the Edgar and Ellen series by Charles Ogden. When I ask what he wants me to read, he considers all that, and reaches for the Laura Ingalls Wilder. Not every day. Some days he wants silly, or action, or space pirates or zombies or bug-eyed aliens. But sometimes he wants to know what it was like to live on the prairie in the 1870s. Because the best fiction, the most enduring stories, are a tardis, a time machine. They are magical, and they need no apology. The next thing I want to try Bud on is Robert Lawton's Rabbit Hill. Not a boy's book, really. But I am betting it will be my boy's book. It will be interesting to see if he will continue to enjoy books with female protagonists. I am thinking here of Island of the Blue Dolphns, Mistress Masham's Repose, Harriet the Spy.

It's sort of the picky eater theory of reading. You can give your reader the chicken nuggets, the mac and cheese, and plain cheese pizza--the Captain Underpants, if you will, or the comic books or the series books--and then just keep exposing them to the spicier and more complex flavors. It's not good or bad, just a range of flavors.

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