Getting Boys to Read
This is not a column about how important it is to get kids to read. I’m assuming that if you’ve made it this far, you already know that. It’s not about how our kids are falling behind because many of them don’t like to read. It’s about ways to get them to read. Whenever I do a radio interview or am part of a panel, the thing that surprises my listeners the most is that for most of my early life, I didn’t like to read. And I don’t mean in my Tweens and Teens, I mean even into adulthood. Even after I had already had comic strips and articles published, I still didn’t like to read. Even though I had already started doing school visits, in which one of the most important things that I shared with the kids was how important it was– I didn’t like to read.
After years of trying to get to the root of the problem, I think I’ve discovered the reasons.
- DR. SEUSS: After my early childhood, I never remember any books picking up where Dr. Seuss left off. Books that were entertaining and fun, and made me want to read them on my own.
As I got older, Marvel comics started to fill the void. But past that, there was nothing. For years! And now as an author, I can see why. Many publishers don’t think that teen boys, especially boys of color, read. So they do not put a lot of effort into that market. But what I always ask is, "do you not make books for them because they don’t read?" OR "Is the reason that they don’t read, because you don’t make books for them?" Having published my own books for 15 years, and by also seeing the reactions that kids have with my books as well as the books by fellow authors like David Miller and Ty Jackson, I know that it’s not the case. These are authors, who, like myself, use our own money, and own distribution, in order to produce books that our boys can relate to. It’s hard work, but rewarding. But boy, is it hard!
- MARVEL COMICS: I have to say, that for folks my age, especially the men I know, nothing got us to read like Marvel Comics. Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, you name it. Each month we knew exactly which issues were coming out. And since they ranged anywhere from 25-75 cents, you could afford to buy them all. Even books like Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy (yeah, that’s a real book!), but how wrong could you go for only a quarter? Stan Lee had as much to do with my vocabulary as any teacher I have ever had. The MACABRE Man-Thing. The UNCANNY X-Men. And every issue was a potential ARMAGEDDON! I had to look those words up in an ancient book called a dictionary just to know what he was talking about.
- BUT TEACHERS HATED COMICS: So as important as comics were to my reading enjoyment, my teachers were there to play the role of Dr. Doom. Lurking in the shadows ready to pounce upon our comic-book contraband and put it in their desk drawer. The one that locked! If you were lucky, you got them back at the end of the day. For some, it was the end of the semester. Some are still waiting.
So not only did they take away our comics, the books they gave us to read were totally uninteresting. Maybe subconsciously, this was starting to shape my opinion that reading should not, or maybe could not be fun. In fact, besides Jonathon Livingston Seagull, I actually couldn’t even name a book that I read in elementary or jr. high school. Personally, I feel that anything that gets kids to read, is a good thing. As a result, I see more and more teachers embracing comics and graphic novels at both a middle-grade level as well as high school and college. People such as Chris Wilson, Michael Bitz and Dr. Katie Monin are doing amazing things.
- I NEVER SAW MY PARENTS READ BOOKS: I saw them read the daily newspapers, I saw them reading magazines, but I never remember seeing them curl up with a good book. So I never thought of doing it myself.
- WHAT I DID READ: As a result of all of this, in my mind, reading was only for information, not for enjoyment. I remember when I worked at Sports Illustrated For Kids, 100% of the books that I read were manuals on how to use computer programs such as Flash, Director and Photoshop. Strangely enough, I really enjoyed them. That was a good thing. But I didn’t read them for enjoyment, I read them to learn.
- SO WHAT CHANGED? Well funny you should ask. One day I checked my email and had a message from a guy named Eric Jerome Dickey telling me he was a fan of my Mama’s Boyz comic strip. After a few emails back and forth, I learned that he was also an author. So we decided to swap books. Having no idea who he was, I had no idea what to expect. I assumed they were small books that he had published himself. A few days later, I opened his package to find two hardcover books: Sister, Sister along with Friends & Lovers. OMG, these were real books! And now I had to read them because I’m sure he’s gonna wanna know what I thought. So I made myself do it. A few pages at a time, while riding the train back and forth to work. And I LOVED them! Go figure.
From there, I decided to start with some of the classic African-American literature that I had always heard folks talk about, but never read. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Invisible Man … The rest is history.
So, when I had kids of my own, I wanted to make sure that they were readers. I started with reading the Dr. Seuss. And we’re talking almost every single night. Voices, sound effects, the whole works. They loved it. I did, too.
But once they were older, it was important for them to have something that I didn’t have. BRIDGE BOOKS. (I think I just made that term up) What I mean is that they needed books that they wanted to read on their own, before their school started giving them books that they didn’t enjoy. It’s like graduating from a tricycle to training wheels. For my oldest son, I was a bit too late. I could see him starting to lose interest. In fact, I remember being at his school assembly and hearing the teacher ask, "so, kids, do you like to read?" "NO!" my son shouted at the top of his lungs. Much louder that the other kids. See the dad in the back of the room crawling into a little hole? That was me.
One day, I came home and saw him reading. It was a book based on the Bionicle toys. He read the entire thing. Next day, he brought home the sequel. Read that, too. He had found his Bridge Books (Can I trademark that?). From there he discovered Myth-o–Mania, a series of books about Roman and Greek myths by Kate McMullan. And he never looked back. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the whole Percy Jackson saga.
Now for my younger son, it was much easier. His Bridge Book (registered trademark Jerry Craft) was the Geronimo Stilton series. I think there were 500 of them. Plus since his older brother was now an avid reader, he had his Reading Role Model. I did most of my reading on the MetroNorth trains, so they didn’t see me read, and my wife did her reading once they were asleep. I DID still read to them at night, though, but it’s not the same as them seeing me read on my own.
Well what about comic books, you might ask. Go ahead, ask me, I’ll wait. When they were a bit older, I took them to their first comic book store, just like my Dad did for me. "Now I was the Dad," I thought while humming "the Circle of Life." "Go ahead, get what you like," I said, turning them loose. Let’s see, 10 comics each at almost 4 bucks a pop… EIGHTY DOLLARS?!!!! "Hey, let’s see what’s in the dollar bin!"
One of the books that I remember reading to them was "Holes." The coolest thing about this was that it was the first book we read that they made a movie from. So we were all very excited to go see it. It was really great to talk to them afterwards to see how they thought it compared to the book. What was different. Did they leave out parts? Were the characters how they thought they would be. Get those little brains working!
Another great opportunity is when we take our yearly family roadtrip. Sure, they bring along the DVD player and the video games, I don’t want them to feel like they have to choose, but we also take books on tape. Get them free from the library. The coolest things about books on tape is that we all get to listen at the same time AND although they are not reading it, it’s still a book. And it’s another way to add to the whole "books are fun," theme. When we drove to Texas last summer (see my first blog), we actually had two of them with us. We listened the entire way down AND the whole way back. It was great. I also had them read two of the books that I worked on out loud. Both sons and my wife took turns reading "Who Would Have Thunk It!" and "Khalil’s Way." Awesome experience.
Okay, so with that said, here is my advice for getting kids to read.
- Read to them!
- Read with them!
- Let them see YOU read!
- Help them find books that they WANT to read. Just like they can’t eat unless you keep food in the house, they can’t read unless there are books in the house.
- If there is a movie version, read the book, too!
- Listen to books on tape. Either in the car, or maybe before bed.
- Don’t just give them books and be done with it. Ask them questions about it. Talk to them. Have them read you the best part.
- Don’t judge what they read. Now obviously, you don’t want them to read something that’s inappropriate, but that’s not the same thing. Don’t be like my teachers did and talk about how comic books are stupid. I had a mom email me that her son has read my book "Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture," over and over. When she found out that this was the third one that I had published, she asked about the other two. I told her that I was sorry and that they were out of print. "You don’t understand," she told me, "my son is reading, I NEED Mama’s Boyz: Home Schoolin’!" (That’s my second book.) Fearing for my life, I went into my closet and sent her one from my secret stash. I understood how important it was to her. She didn’t look at my book and think that since it is a comic book, that it was worthless. What she did realize is that her son is a reluctant reader, and my book had broken through his barrier.
- Here’s a good one: Plug into things that they already are passionate about. For example, my boys are both avid Xbox enthusiasts. So I make sure to get them Game Informer magazine. And I make sure they read it, not just look at the pictures. I ask them questions. "Well why do you think the game will be good?""When does it come out?" "What features did they add to this version that they didn’t have in the last?"
- My youngest son is also a huge basketball fan. So I have him look up game summaries on his phone. "When is Amare’ coming back to the Knicks?" "What good trade rumors are floating around?"
- Show that you want them to read. Two years ago, I shared a booth with Sabrina Carter at Circle of Sisters. I’ve illustrated three of Sabrina’s books, so our table had those, as well as my Mama’s Boyz book and maybe 5 other books that I’ve illustrated. A nice looking family comes over, and the son (who was about 12) turns to his dad while walking towards me and says, "You’ve been buying stuff for the girls all day, can you buy me something?" The dad says, "sure, but you don’t want to go there, all they have are books!" No further comment.
- Even day to day things, like if you’re cooking, have them read the recipes out loud to you. Get it?
So that’s my story. If you have your own suggestions, please feel free to post.
Check out the books I’ve written and/or illustrated: http://www.jerrycraft.net/products.html