17 December 2007

A Question for the Audience

I had parent-teacher conferences the other day, and the most common statement-then-question from parents was, "My child doesn't really like to read, and I don't know how to turn him/her/it onto the pleasures of reading. What can I do?" My stock response was, "If I had an easy answer to that, I'd be a millionaire." I didn't want to say that I think most of the time we English teachers are an impediment to students' enjoyment of books (though I do think I slipped and said that to one parent), and that suggesting to an adolescent that anything is good for them is the surest way to make them avoid it at all costs. I didn't want to tell them, either, how little I feel like I understand adolescents anymore, how far I am from their frames of mind, how much they seem to have changed (or I have changed, or not changed enough) since I began teaching ten years ago.

Many of the parents who said, despairingly, that their child doesn't like to read were parents of boys. The parents of girls most often were concerned that their daughter didn't read the right books -- that instead of challenging herself, building her vocabulary, expanding her mind, etc., she goes to the library or bookstore and finds "junk".

I wished I had easy answers. I wished I had any answers.

A couple of parents asked me for recommendations of places where their kids could find out about books they might like. No answer came to mind, because I've never looked at the sorts of websites or resources that kids might look at, and I honestly wouldn't even know where to begin. But I know some of you out there are interested in such things as YA books, and so I thought you might have some good pointers. I'd particularly love to know if there are any teen-oriented blogs out there that ever talk about books, particularly blogs by teens themselves. If you were (or are) a teenager, what sorts of resources would help you discover books you might like?


  1. Do the parents who ask these questions, themselves, like to read?

  2. I grew up in a house where no one read fiction. I have never seen either my mother or father ever pick up a novel or a collection of short stories. There were text books in the house, encyclopaedias (yes, more than one set), dictionaries, bibles but that was about it. Even to this day, having written four novels of my own, I still find reading a bit of a chore, something I make myself do because it's good for me. And that bothers me. I made sure my daughter was surrounded by books. Before she was born she had 100 books ready for her and I am pleased to say she has grown up into the bibliophile I would have wanted to see her become.

    Enthusiasm is contagious and kids love to copy. If your kids don't have the kind of appreciation for books you might expect is the fault theirs alone?

  3. Some of the parents are readers, some are not, and they're all from a background and community that values scholarship and literacy, which may be why this question came up so repeatedly. The kids are 14-17. (Unfortunately, I'd be fired in a second if I recommended lesbian sex scenes at this particular school.)

  4. I think there is a difference between kids who like to read now, and kids who grow up to be life long readers.

    It wasn't until after college that I really started to read for pleasure again after much of high school and college when it was required.

    I would agree with David and Jim that parents modeling reading was a strong factor to me. My mother insisted on reading to us every night long after I thought it was cool.

  5. You can't entice them to read SF/F/Horror? Boys tend to like that stuff. But I imagine the parents only want to read Respectable Literature.

  6. I work for Barnes and Noble. What I tell parents is that find a magazine that the child likes and buy it for them.. A magazine is something and it might lead to something else. Also comic books. Most parents turn away from comics because it's not "real reading" but really, the stories are sophisticated and hey, they are reading. It will surely turn them on to something else.

  7. I was lucky to have a son who likes to read. I do give credit to the fact that I read to him from an early age. Reading early and fun books, taking on the characters or making up voices as you read is a great night time activity and helps spur them on to read on their own later.

    In lieu of that make rewards for reading. Pick a book in a category that they like and for a reward perhaps offer a comic book or sticker book as a prize for finishing a book. I own and operate 4 used bookstores and talk to alot of parents who use this type of idea. Bringing your children to the bookstores and browsing around with them is a fun activity, make a fun lunch stop afterward part of the goal for them.

    I am also an author of science fiction, The Charon Covenant and was fortunate that my son also loves science fiction. When he was younger we picked a book and had family night to read and discuss the book together. Pick a night each week as family night, it was alot of fun and he still remembers those nights.

  8. in my experience, getting boys to read is not so much a question of YA books, but trashy books about zombies, military shit, and alla that stuff. the trashier, the more violent, the more gross out, the less 'kiddie' it seems (never mind that a lot of these books are aimed at a teen audience and skip really foul language) the better off you are.

    BATTLE ROYALE, for example, is very popular amongst the 14 to 17 group, i've found.

  9. The Halo videogame's tie-in novels, Darren Shan, Alex Horowitz and someone else I'm forgetting are good gateway drugs.

    M. T. Anderson, Nick Hornsby and Sherman Alexie all have teen lit that is supposedly actually good.

  10. When my sister was teaching high school English, she used to give an assignment that consisted of sending the kids into a bookstore, buying a work of fiction they've never read before, and then doing a short report on it. (I think she offered to buy books for anyone who couldn't afford one, but this was in a fairly affluent area.) She said she regularly got responses from kids saying, "I didn't know you could read just for fun!"

    Paolo Bacigalupi, whose wife teaches middle school (I think), has a lot of thoughts on this subject. I think some are on his blog. As I recall, he's very high on Conn Iggulden's DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS.

    ---Gordon V.G.

  11. I have heard the sentence "I hate reading" dozens of times over a 33-year-career in education, but a lot more in the last decade.

    As an academic support director at a law school, I'd meet with students on academic probation and ask them about stuff and "I hate reading" would come up a lot. I learned not to ask, "Did you ever think that hating reading would make going to law school -- a place that requires hundreds of pages of reading a night -- kind of hard?"

    First-year college students routinely say "I hate to read." A lot of times it is that reading is such a chore for them because they never mastered it. Most of us hate activities we're bad at.

    There's always a minority who adore reading and can't get enough -- like my friend's 13yo daughter whom I saw buy the new Harry Potter and finish it off within 24 hours. She had to interrupt reading 3 other books to do it.

    I'm convinced that in a visual culture, reading is becoming less important. Certainly serious literature has been marginal in our culture for years and will only get more so.

    You might try getting them to read graphic novels. Public library stats show the vast majority of borrowings from their YA collections are graphic novels.

    Back in the late 50s and early 60s, I devoured lots of books but also everything from DC, Marvel and other comics publishers I could get my hands on.

  12. This may be a bit optimistic but I think that kids who don't like to read usually just haven't found the right kind of book yet.

    Most of what I read throughout school was horrible sadistic crap like Ethan Frome. I was very lucky to get to read Inivible Man with an excellent teacher in 11th grade. But it wasn't until I read Slaughter House Five on my own a year later that I fell in love with reading.

  13. My column every month at Bookslut is all about YA and MG recommendations. ("Bookslut in Training") I also know a ton of sites that review great books for teens and could send them to you via email. Contact me at colleenatchasingraydotcom if you want to know more.

    Colleen Mondor

  14. If you haven't seen it, THE NEW YORKER has an article on reading habits vs. visual media: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2007/12/24/071224crat_atlarge_crain

    ---Gordon V.G.

  15. Bookburger.com is "a site for hungry readers ages 14 to 24" that I quite like. There's also Spinebreakers.co.uk, created by and for "a bunch of 13-18 year olds who love books."

  16. I think these parents have lost the battle before they've begun to fight. If their children are not already readers, they are unlikely to cultivate the habit of reading in children who are already adolescents. Given the portability and ubiquity of other media today--the mp3 players, the portable electronic games, video on iPods and so on--not to mention their music, video, and game players at home--kids who do not already enjoy reading are unlikely to learn to find appealing the slow going of running their eyes over plain black text on white paper in order to have to translate for themselves the symbols into mental images, no matter what the material.

    My love of reading came naturally...my father was an inveterate reader of newspapers, magazines, and books, and his love of the weekly trips to the newstand or bookstore quickly communicated to my twin brother and me, (my younger brother, not so much). Additionally, he and my mother did read to us at night, until we were able to begin reading for ourselves. Among our earliest reading material were comic books, because my father was a fan of comic books, comic strips, and science fiction, and so there was never a snobbish attitude in our house that such material was unsuitable for us. I think comic books introduced at the right age--well before adolescence--are the perfect "gateway drug" to reading as a lifelong habit; from comics and Dr. Seuss I moved on to the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, then on to Robert Heinlein juveniles and other material aimed at older children and young adolescents, then onto Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard. By the time I graduated from college I had a desire for meatier stuff, and I began reading "serious literature" out of a natural growth of my own sensibilities.

    Perhaps some adolescents may be encouraged to develop a reading habit at such an advanced age, but I would be very surprised if their numbers would be greater than infinitesimal.

  17. i think there needs to be a carrot and a stick for kids who don't like to read. i've been spending a lot of time on yahoo answers, where someone can go and post a question and random people come and answer it.

    there are TONS of teens on yahoo answers asking for book recommendations because they're required to either read a book that matches a certain description (contemporary, american, over 200 pages) or pick a book from a list.

    the school requirement is the stick, but the community at yahoo answers can provide the carrot. teens who love to read patrol the books section of yahoo answers, proselytizing for their favorite books. and they get discussions going, although the format isn't fluid enough to allow for blog or board-like discussions, there's definitely a community there.

    as long as kids have frequent "choose a book" assignments, or their parents require them to read to get their allowance or something, the kids can go find a community that will help them choose books they like.

  18. As a preface, I've been a Kelly Link fan since 9th grade, so I'm certainly not a typical student. I've always been a bit of a book nerd, but what really focused me was a 7th grade English teacher who recommended G.R.R. Martin to me, and who always let me wander into her office and talk about whatever I was reading. She helped me find my niche in the genre (not Martin, as it turned out) by just letting me bounce ideas off her.

    One of the really great things she did with her classes is she used popular stories. Obviously Martin wouldn't fly, but we did (7th grade) Ella Enchanted for starters, and went on to Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, and The Golden Compass (at a Catholic school, actually). She never treated it like reading was hard or something to decode. We always had fun just talking about the books and getting off topic. We never hammered on the 'right' way to understand things. We just talked about the interesting ideas, the characters we liked, where we enjoyed the story and where it didn't work for us. So she ended up creating a very positive atmosphere for reading instead of trying to teach us. In doing so, she certainly changed me, and others as well. I don't come from the 'I've never read' category, but I do come from the 'didn't have a niche' group. And the most important thing for me was having that teacher who talked with me about my interests and didn't go 'Genre? You're better than that!', the response I get from all other English teachers. She focused on informally helping me find what I already enjoyed, and then finding ways to explore those books more fully.

    A lot of the time, kids read popular trash because they don't know what else to read. As a student, the most helpful thing my teacher did was find out exactly what I clicked with in the random bland stuff I was reading, and then get me into a place where I could find good stuff with the same elements I enjoyed. For me, that was speculative fiction, where I came for the epics and ended up staying for the random artsy pieces. I know that most students wouldn't come and hang out with a teacher and discuss that...but if you're really serious about 'getting kids to read,' that's the way to do it. You can just take a class and come up with a list of books and discuss them. The other big thing: never, ever try to pick from YA only. It's such a stupid thing to do. I never enjoyed YA, and my teacher saw that and pulled me straight into the genre even if, by most people's standards, it was extremely age-inappropriate material. Some kids will go straight for the top authors, some won't. But for the sorts who are frustrated with YA, there's nothing more annoying than someone trying to stuff Tamora Pierce down their throats in hopes that they'll 'enjoy' it. Not all students are brilliant, but also, not all of them are immature and dumb. At the same time, sometimes going back to stuff for younger audiences works for other kids. When teachers feel like they're imposing the 'this is good literature, this is trash' thing, no one reads. And in class, don't lecture. Point things out. It feels much more open, and kids are always more likely to discuss.

    The biggest thing is that while there is truly bad writing out there, within each genre or whatever, there is genuinely good writing too. And if you can get kids to find what's good in what they already like, they'll thrive. It takes time to get to know them, and some trust. But the payoffs are immense.

  19. Hi Matt--

    There are sites that reach beyond the books that are pushed by publishers, like the "Curled Up With a Good Book" section for children and Hilary Williamson's "BookLoons."

    It is perilously easy to fall away from the basic task of reading aloud to children. Parents are tired, sleepy beings; put them on the edge of a warm bed, and they collapse. It's easy for them to convince themselves that they're reading aloud "often enough" when they're really not. But the key thing is to not lose steam on reading to children--read until they want to read on their own, at whatever age that might be. And pay attention to what allures them; try to find books that feel kindred to what a child likes.

  20. Ah, I see Rose Fox already beat me to that wonderful link.

    Clearly what you need is an undercover agent who can make those recommendations on your behalf...