The last time I was volunteering at a book giveaway, where we let each child in the school pick out a new, free book to take home, I had several middle school aged boys say to me “There’s nothing here I want.” Or “I don’t see anything I like.” It’s times like that I try not to deflate like a balloon. Maybe to some of these kids the books look like little bastions of enemy territory. Maybe some of them have never been given the opportunity to like a book. Perhaps they’ve never felt that rush of a giggle or a happy sigh listening to a story. Perhaps all they see when they look at a table full of books is a table full of drudgery and homework. Who can blame them?
These boys can be engaged by a book–it just has to be the right one. And that can be tricky if we don’t have all the tools at our fingertips. It can’t look too juvenile. And initially, at least, it needs to deeply engage their senses. Gross them out! Make them laugh! Shock them! Engage their curiosity (how does the catapult work??)!
When all else fails, non-fiction and humor are a great way to at least get them to sit down with a book–they may not actually read it cover to cover but it is a step in the right direction. Get them feeling friendly with a book, and you’re halfway there. The humor and reference sections in a library or bookstore can be a great place to start–Foxtrot, Garfield, Mad Magazine, Zits, The Darwin Awards and, don’t forget Calvin and Hobbes–these have all found their place at one time or another in our household, engaging shared laughter and shouts of “Come here, you’ve got to read this one!”
The graphic novel section of your library or bookstore contains another wealth of engaging storytelling that may not be too intimidating, and also won’t carry any age stigma with it. However, the content can get mature very quickly so make sure it is appropriate for the middle school eyes. The Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi provides the perfect balance of adventure, curious creatures, and heroic characters. The same can be said for Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which has attained cult status among many young readers because of the humor and pathos Smith writes and draws into his characters.
Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read series is another wonderful option for kids who may not be able to stick with a whole novel. Each book in the series contains stories written by wonderful authors in a particular genre–humor, sports, thriller and ‘other worlds’. There are some illustrations interspersed, and even a few stories told in graphic novel format in each book.
Another champion of children’s literacy is the adult/children’s author James Patterson. His ReadKiddoRead website contains plenty of wonderful reading suggestions, including the book list called “I-Hated-To-Read-Til-I-Read-This.” Patterson’s Maximum Ride fantasy series and also his I Funny books use all the bells and whistles to hook readers from the first page.
In 2011, the New York Times published a sobering essay by author Robert Lipsyte about the state of reading and boys called “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?” Yes, of course there is. True, for some of these reluctant readers the act of reading will never become more than simple entertainment and distraction. And that’s okay. But for a few, a book might become their saving grace, their moral compass, or their best friend. And that’s why we need to remove every possible obstacle we can to the act of opening up a book for each and every child.
Jane Knight is the children’s book buyer at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont.