John Martin of Seattle is a writer, teacher, parent and intensely passionate advocate for literacy. He’s the founder of Boys Read (www.boysread.org), an organization that encourages young men to embrace reading and learning.
He’s frustrated by statistics that show low literacy rates, high dropout rates and high incarceration rates, especially among children of color. I spoke with Martin by phone this week about why boys, in general, struggle with reading, why we should care and what we can do. Here are excerpts.
Why did you start Boys Read?
Frustration. I was frustrated that many great authors and books that appeal to boys were overlooked. Hearing people say, “My son is not a reader, and he’s not interested in reading.” The fact that my books that appeal to boys were often being passed up by traditional publishers. They wanted me to weed out violence. One of my books is set in the Civil War. Publishers would say, “Can you take out all the fighting?” That’s what appeals to boys.
We got in this environment of everything being so politically sensitive. For a while it was all blockbuster fantasy. A lot of boys are intimidated by Harry Potter — the size, length of the stories, it’s too complex.
We’re trying to reach reluctant male readers. It’s that large segment that stops reading at about fourth grade. All that they are being served is what parents and teachers see in the mass media. Publishers want something that can be made into a movie with merchandising and international appeal.
These kids want a book that’s small enough and thin enough that it fits in your back pocket. They don’t want to be seen riding the bus with a Harry Potter novel on their lap. They want fast pace.
Then they get a huge amount of confidence. “Hey, I read a book. I finished it.”
Why do boys struggle to read more than girls?
Typically boys and girls like the same books until about fourth grade. Boys are not being served voices and subject matter they identify with. They want books with action. They love stories about wars and battles.
We’re not basing things on their energy and attention span. It’s hugely different with boys. For example, when kids get out of the classroom, just stand in the hall and observe. Boys are bopping each other, hanging on each other, moving around. They look like puppies let out of a cage. Girls just get their books and move on.
Why is it important that boys read more than they do now?
It’s a fundamental building block of all learning.
How in the world are we going to compete with all the kids from India and China in math and sciences? If you don’t have the basic building blocks of reading, then these other things fall to the side.
In the U.S., all we do is measure it: There’s a huge reading gap. Then we cut teacher pay and increase classroom size.
What can parents do to encourage more reading?
Read often and read early. You can start when the baby is in utero. We started reading to our daughter before she was born. She knew my voice when she was born. You can create that bond with a child before they ever take the first breath.
Read every night. Have them see men and women who are passionate about reading, who model reading. Limit screen time.
You propose that adults facilitate reading tribes, kind of like book clubs, for reluctant young readers. How do they work?
Have a tribe reader read the story to them. The members don’t have to read. The member of the tribe listens. They don’t have to stumble publicly. If they can learn an appreciation for the story, then we can get them to read. Their reading level should be private, not public.
You want them to enjoy it. They can discuss the story if they want to, no pressure if they don’t want to.
Let them draw. They all love to draw. I wouldn’t come to any tribe without a whole bunch of colored pencils and paper. Most of them are more than willing to show their artwork, but they’re not willing to read.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Martin recommends these books for male readers:
Hatchet, The Car by Gary Paulsen
Swords: An Artist’s Devotion by Ben Boos
Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond
Touching Bear Spirit by Ben Mikaelsen
Holes by Louis Sachar
The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Chess Rumble by G. Neri
Brothers of War and The Bird by J. Marshall Martin (himself)