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Turning Boys on to Reading

When it comes to instilling a love of reading, husband and I have done everything right -- or so we thought. We read together with the boys during the day and at bedtime. We go to the library regularly as a family. And through the years, the boys have shown their love of books by falling asleep with piles of children's page turners on their beds.

But when it comes to getting 6-year-old to actually read by himself, well, that's another matter entirely. Early reading books simply aren't engaging him. We've tried "Little Bear" books with some success. "Frog and Toad" are stories he likes, but not if he has to go it solo. "Amelia Bedelia" makes him laugh, but again ... he's got no desire to pick it up like his Legos, for instance.

And so, we've lowered our expectations. A few paragraphs in a Star Wars sticker book ... great! Signs on roads and buildings ... sure. The Lego catalogue ... um, is he actually looking at any of the words? Do the instructions on math worksheets count?

Jon Scieszka

According to Jon Scieszka, I'm not alone in having a boy who is not finding reading material that truly engages him. Scieszka, who spent years teaching, is the author of "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" and is the Library of Congress' first national ambassador for children's books. He'll be in Washington this Saturday for the National Book Festival on the mall from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

"We've had this problem with boys not achieving and reading for a long time," Scieszka says, noting that although we're generalizing about boys, there are always exceptions. "For the longest time, you couldn't even say boys and girls were different. It was taboo in the educational world." But different they are, biologically and socially, he asserts. Boys need "move time," which they're getting less and less of in school these days. "That's how they're built," he says.

The biggest change we can all make in giving boys a love of reading is to expand our definition of reading beyond fiction, Scieszka says. Research shows that boys will read with their friends and want to be readers, but they want it on their terms. "They'd rather read nonfiction or humor, graphic novels, science fiction, action adventure, audio books, or online reading and magazines," Scieszka says. Much of this reading, boys don't even think of as reading, he notes. Also key: Include boys in choosing their reading material. Often books that were favorites of mom or teachers (who are mostly female) and librarians (also, mostly female) will feel like "going to the dentist" for boys, Scieszka asserts.

Great new titles are coming out every year, Scieszka says. He recommends Sterling Point Books' redone autobiographies for older kids and Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggy for younger ones. Other winners in his book: Tony DiTerlizzi's "Kenny and the Dragon", "Fog Mound Chronicles" by Susan Schade and Jon Buller, Eoin Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" books; Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's "Neverland", Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book" and Corey Doctorow's "Little Brother".

In the graphic novel realm, the publisher First Second has a whole range of graphic novels that appeal to younger guys and older ones. Particularly good is the Robot series for younger readers, Scieszka says. For middle readers, try Jeff Smith's BONE series. And some boys really like Captain Underpants. Finding graphic novels can be a challenge, Scieszka says, because teachers, librarians and parents need to read through them rather than scan them for age appropriateness. Some publishers are starting to recognize this, though, and are putting age recommendations on the books.

And for nonfiction, Scieszka recommends Timothy Bradley's "Paleo Bugs" and "Paleo Sharks".

What reading material -- particularly alternative reading -- engages your sons?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  September 26, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers
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Jon Scieszka looks like he just pooped his pants!

Posted by: Great photo! | September 26, 2008 7:12 AM | Report abuse

DS loved the "Captain Underpants" books. Also, lots of historical fiction and non-fiction - almost anything related to the Civil War (or "War of Northern Aggression" as it was called in La. History :-).

But he read mostly because we made him read for 30 minutes a day, until I brought him the first three "Harry Potter" books from a trip to London. There were only three out at the time; they were popular there and a British colleague suggested them. I picked them up at a Heathrow bookshop, figuring it was worth a shot. Once he started, we had to pry the books out of his fingers to get him to go to sleep.

(In fairness, the girls all read them and liked them, too, but they were the first things that DS really wanted to read over and over and over... With the girls, that was the "Babysitters' Club" books.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat | September 26, 2008 7:45 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad to hear that educators are now recognizing differences in the way boys and girls learn and are accomodating them with the learning material that suits them best without considering it sexist.

When I learned to read back in the day, the reading material was extremely sexists. The boys in the books did all the activities, while the girls stood around and watched. Other things were much more subtle, for instance, there were passages in the book that read like:

See Sally.
See Dick.
See Tom.

See Sally, Dick, Tom.

See Tom.
See Dick.
See Sally.

See Tom dick Sally.


Posted by: Whacky Weasel | September 26, 2008 7:56 AM | Report abuse

When I learned to read back in the day, the reading material was extremely sexists. The boys in the books did all the activities, while the girls stood around and watched.

Posted by: Whacky Weasel | September 26, 2008 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Right, Whacky. Same for Puff and Spot. And what was up with that Zeke guy?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 26, 2008 7:59 AM | Report abuse

My son likes the Magic Treehouse series alot. Also "The Mouse and the Motorcycle".

Laughing at "The War of Northern Aggression", AB. My former roommate married a guy who started his bachelor party at a statue of Robert E. Lee, whom they toasted as the best of the good ole' boys. That's the last time I heard that phrase. Yankee that I am, I didn't even know what he was talking about. I thought he was referring to a war I'd somehow missed in school.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | September 26, 2008 8:09 AM | Report abuse

My son is just starting to read. DH got him the magic treehouse, he's read a few chapters, and since it's difficult for him, he's ratcheted down to some easier books. He's getting better with the reading though.
Part of his homework is to read for 15 minutes every night. So he's getting better, it's tough to fit that time in, but we're getting to it. He'll be great by the end of first grade, I'm sure, and then we'll try to look for some books for him to read.

I'm looking for some good suggestions!

And, yes, boys and girls are different. In the last decade or so, with curriculum being pushed to earlier grades, I think more focus was put on girls. So boys don't seem to be getting the things they need (as was mentioned, more exercise). I try to take them to the park after school - we'll see what we can do when the weather gets colder.

Posted by: atlmom | September 26, 2008 8:28 AM | Report abuse

The Geronimo Stilton books are supposed to be very engaging for younger readers. They have varied fonts and fun artwork. The stories are about a mouse who is a detective and there are maybe 30 books in the series now.
My little guy is too little for this now, but we are giving some of these books as Christmas presents for our young nephew.
We read bedtime stories to our little guy, but he rarely sits through a whole rendition of "Guess how much I love you." He does love to play with the books and turn the pages and look at the pictures. I am hoping that this means that he will enjoy reading the words when he is older. Does anyone know whether playing with books is any kinds of prediction of future reading of books?

Posted by: VaLGaL | September 26, 2008 8:50 AM | Report abuse

The War of Northern Aggression

aka, The recent pleasantries

Posted by: Fred | September 26, 2008 8:51 AM | Report abuse

The War of Northern Aggression

aka, The recent pleasantries

Sorry, too early in the morning

The recent unpleasantries

Posted by: Fred | September 26, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse

On their own, my second and third grade boys read:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Captain Underpants
Encyclopedia Brown (this series is making a comeback!)
Junie B. Jones (suprisingly!)

They enjoy me reading these books to them:

The Great Brain
Harry Potter
The Lightening Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians)

Third grader is now starting to read the other Percy Jackson books on his own....

Posted by: Liz | September 26, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse

My oldest son lost interest in most fiction for a while around first grade. There's some great stuff in the nonfiction shelves, including many accurate and beautifully illustrated early readers on science, history and nature by Allan Fowler.

Posted by: A mom of two boys | September 26, 2008 9:01 AM | Report abuse

The War of Northern Aggression

aka, The recent pleasantries

Sorry, too early in the morning

The recent unpleasantries

Posted by: Fred | September 26, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse


Stop looking at your wife's Breastfeeding Manuals!

Posted by: Different drummer | September 26, 2008 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Both my cousin's 6 year old boys will read independently - one more willingly than the other. Reading chapter books aloud (some on their part, some an adult) seems to engage them the most. They get a couple of age appropriate kid's magazines. I love the Cricket series of magazines - they even have one geared to toddlers.

Posted by: TNTKate | September 26, 2008 9:32 AM | Report abuse

There are some young Choose your own Adventure books, including "Your very own robot" that might be fun.

Posted by: sheryl2251 | September 26, 2008 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Geez -- we have more trouble stopping ours from reading. Two boys, 6 and 11. Our oldest was getting up cranky every morning. It turned out he had a flashlight and was reading and up too late. We took away the flashlight (repeatedly) and then he made his own out of a battery, wires and a light bulb. Both read independently at 4, the younger one not as early in the fourth year. He then discovered comics and was off to the races. Here are some favs: classic myths, Harry Potter, Wimpy Kid, Alex Rider, Mysterious Benedict Society. BUT, either will read anything!

Posted by: bcarlton | September 26, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

haha, bcarlton. My parents would let us stay up 30 minutes later if we were in our room and reading. Then we had to turn off our lights. My sisters had a jack and jill setup, and the light to the bathroom was on at night. So my sister would turn off the light in her room, then go and sit in the bathroom and read - following the letter of the law. My parents didn't know whether to laugh, or how to punish her for this 'transgression.' It was quite amusing.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 26, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Captain Underpants, Harry Potter, Eragon. Dragon War and others by Laurence Yep. The My Fathers Dragon trilogy by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

Get him a subscription to Shonen Jump,

Finally, the Brady game manuals can absorb him for hours.

Expand your attitude about what reading is "good" and get away from the boring moralistic stuff like The Magic Tree House or Magic Schoolbus.

Posted by: Jocelyn2 | September 26, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

bcarlton and atlmom, I once burned the bedcovers as a kid reading with a light hidden under the blanket. Smelled something funny and found I'd burned through the sheet and left brown marks on the blanket. Had to fess up to the parents. Couldn't figure out why they weren't furious but understand now, they could hardly keep from laughing.

Posted by: annenh | September 26, 2008 10:43 AM | Report abuse

I think it's an overly high expectation that a six year old would pick up a book and be totally engaged (tho of course there are always exceptions) and really Amelia Bedelia isn't that funny when read alone. A few paragraphs in a Star Wars sticker book is totally the next year or two, that will bloom into reading DK Readers Star Wars series, etc. I think what the article said about changing one's perception of what constitutes reading was a good point. Personally I love fiction, but my sons all love non-fiction. Literacy tudies have shown that boys on the whole are more interested in non-fiction - the Eyewitness series is great because they have a book on almost any topic a boy would be interested in and while a six year might not be able to read all the captions nor most of the text, just looking at the pics is still okay for a six year.

Posted by: mlc2 | September 26, 2008 10:43 AM | Report abuse

I was pleased to read your article, "Turning Boys on to Reading." This has been a passion of mine since early 2001, and I’ve followed John’s efforts for some time.

I grew up hating to read, and now write action-adventures & mysteries especially for tween boys.

It is so important to recognize that boys learn differently. We must find ways to push the right buttons in order for them to become interested in reading, which is the foundation to learning, and success in this world.

My blog, Books for Boys is devoted to this mission:

Max Elliot Anderson

Posted by: marketpl | September 26, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

"When it comes to instilling a love of reading, husband and I have done everything right -- or so we thought...Blah Blah Blah...Early reading books simply aren't engaging him."

OMG, Perfect Mom, Perfect Child, Perfect Family, Perfect Parenting Techniques. It must be the books.

Posted by: kenman57 | September 26, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Hi everyone. I'm a Post reporter working on a story about kids and housework. I am searching for parents to interview about strategies to get kids of various ages to do housework, whether you tie it to an allowance, if so, how much do you pay them for which tasks and how do you decide what they do for money and what they do without pay (some folks draw the line at anything they pay other people to do), and if gender ever informs what chores you assign (some people believe it is important for boys to learn to do housework to ensure they grow up to be egalitarian spouses).

Please contact me at shina AT
Looking forward to hearing from you!

Posted by: shina1 | September 26, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Getting boys to read can be tricky, but I'm glad to see graphic novels mentioned. Some kids are more "visual" learners, and graphic novels give them the opportunity to read, but also have a lot of visual information. I think that as long as boys are reading something, it's a good thing -- finding material will be something that keeps changing as their interests change, but the key is to keep them reading, whether it's a magazine, or a book, or a sticker book. And remember --- your local library is a great place to find stuff (and try before you buy). In this economy, it's nice to grab an entire bag of books for free -- and there are magazines, graphic novels, and a whole lot more. Many libraries also offer online sources, like TumbleBooks, which is an interactive reading thing for kids, and is actually very cool!

Posted by: Maalik | September 26, 2008 12:14 PM | Report abuse

As the mother of two boys (who love books), I think parents should not expect too much independent reading of a six year. At this age, many kids are still much more comfortable reading aloud. With my six-year old we take turns reading pages of harder books (such as Magic Tree House). He reads very little on his own. This was true of my nine-year old too, at that age. And now he reads at a 9th-grade level. It just depends on when their brains are ready.

That said there are lots of great books for young boys--we steer away from many of the classics, since they are too slow-paced for the boys (I read those aloud to them). My younger son loves the Adam Sharp series, the Droon series, as well as some others listed in other posts. In addition to Jon Scieska, my older son loves everything by Dan Gutman, and has just started reading a series of biographies call Dead Famous that is making him laugh out loud.

Posted by: pamelastedman | September 26, 2008 1:03 PM | Report abuse

My son loves to read books about firefighters and ice skating. Which reminds me!

Who is John McCain?

Tonya Harding.

John McCain is Tonya Harding.

Stay with me!

"I can't go to the debate-- look! My laces broke!"

Yes, Senator, your laces have broken. You secured your footing in domestic policy, with the theory that deregulation and tax breaks to the wealthy would sustain and nurture the country's economy. And lo and behold, the theory has snapped like a cheap shoelace. I'm really just as disappointed and surprized as you are!

And those bad, bad boys on Wall Street-- those "Galloolies", if you will-- I know you really didn't know they were capable of such greed and violence towards the innocent! It's like they took an iron bar and started whacking at the kneecaps of Lady Liberty. It's insanity! Yes, you have been supported by those Galloolies and of course you've shown them love in the past, but you really knew nothing about this whole mess they've made.

But don't worry Sen. McCain. America is strong. Americans have elected their best and brightest to Congress-- these people could have been making much more money on Wall Street (I mean, WOW!) but out of public service and a belief that they can make the country great for their fellow Americans, I am confident that they will come together to make sure that this gets fixed up. That the next time a Galloolie comes running up on Lady Liberty, she'll at least have some notice to plant a strong kick in the tuckus on the goon.

Now I know you want to stay in Washington to help fix the mess. You feel responsible. That's understandible.

But if you just can't find it in yourself to relace up those skates and get out there and campaign again like the great presidential candidate you most certainly are, maybe you can hand off your skates to Gov. Palin. Let her get into that debate. When you are President, she will need to fill in for you repeatedly in this crazy, topsy-turvey world, and America needs to know that if you are unavailable, Vice President Palin will be strong, secure and savvy to protect America and America's allies. The debate tonight will mostly be about foriegn policy-- an area that America is most hesitant regarding Gov. Palin (and Sen Obama), so this will be a perfect opportunity for her to really shine in that one area of uncertainty.

Plus, she can ask Senator Obama why he isn't doing his job back in Washington (oops, never mind, seems like he has been in Washington whenever the President or other members of Congress think his presence is needed, but he is otherwise delegating/ respecting/leaving it to the experts to work on the bail-out. That actually sounds pretty reasonable, rather Presidential, even).

Anyway, I hear the music starting up and the Zamboni has cleared the ice. America awaits your performance with baited breath . . . .

Posted by: captiolhillmom | September 26, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I really appreciate all the suggestions for good books for boys. Can't wait to go to the library. Forgot to add two great books (for boys and girls of all ages): "The Way Things Work" and "Castle". We will certainly read more of his work. (We've asked for "Cathedral" and "City" for Christmas.)

Posted by: WorkingMomX | September 26, 2008 1:45 PM | Report abuse

my son is not a reader. we are slowly working on it. husband is not a reader so some of it may a genetic component.

atlmom, since my son is so pokemon crazed i thought he would love pokemon books so i bought a series. he hasn't touched them. all i do is pick out some books from the library & keep trying to pique his interest. he may never turn out to be a reader but i keep on trying.

i love the percy jackson series.

Posted by: quark2 | September 26, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse


Stop looking at your wife's Breastfeeding Manuals!

Posted by: Different drummer | September 26, 2008 9:05 AM

(Gee, I went away and registration sneaked in!)

Hey BF manuals are reading!

Posted by: Fred_F | September 26, 2008 1:58 PM | Report abuse


"Yes, you have been supported by those Galloolies and of course you've shown them love in the past, but you really knew nothing about this whole mess they've made."

Um, check out to whom those Galloolies are giving money.

(Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sector)

Obama, Barack $24,860,257
McCain, John $22,108,926
Clinton, Hillary $21,697,347

overall, 52.3% of Wall Street's money goes to Democrats - at least partially because they look like winners in this election cycle and the "smart money" always donates to the winners.

Hedge funds give 59% to Democrats, 41% to Republicans, with Obama and Clinton the biggest benefactors:

Barack Obama (D) $1,979,162
Hillary Clinton (D) $1,683,250
John McCain (R) $1,380,765

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 26, 2008 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Back on topic: I'd like to second what TNTKate said earlier about the "Cricket" magazines. There are a whole series of them and the kids always got a subscription from Grandma every year to the most appropriate one. We've been through Ladybug, Cricket, Cicada, Muse and probably others. Even the college student daughter still likes Cicada.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 26, 2008 2:25 PM | Report abuse

As some of you have already noted, registration has now been turned on for On Parenting. This should cut down on troll comments.

As always, we welcome your thoughts, debate and banter.

Posted by: StaceyGarfinkle | September 26, 2008 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Just checking out how it works now that we have registration.
Thanks Stacey!

Posted by: VaLGaL | September 26, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I am surprised to see only one or two comments on asking a SIX year old to read alone.

I think your expectatations are way too high.

I know in this hyper area that there are probably six year olds who've read all the Harry Potter books and are moving onto War & Peace, but let's not consider those miracle children.

A six year old may read a little, but he'll be happier being read to.

At that age you are still working on folding him into the magic of stories.

Leave the reading by yourself stuff for the miracle kids and school times. A little of that goes a long way with a six year old boy, who is more interested in doing than in sitting. There is already too much sitting in their lives.

Read to him and with him so he stays enthusastic. The more words those kids hear and the more they like to hear words the more they'll read, but recognize that those little brains can only do so much at a given level of physical development.

Posted by: RedBird27 | September 26, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

No one has mentioned "The Dangerous Book for Boys", and my guys loved it! Of course, they're five and ten years past that sixth birthday, so the book is too challenging for beginning readers.

And I'm still Sue, but the WAPO won't let me have a three-letter ID.

Posted by: SueMc | September 26, 2008 6:28 PM | Report abuse

I read to my 5-year-old son at bedtime every night, but I will frequently pretend to have trouble reading a word, and ask him to read it for me instead. Sometimes I pick words he already knows how to read, and sometimes I pick words he doesn't so he has to sound them out.

We also play short spelling games; for example, he knows how to read "day," so I'll ask him "What does S-A-Y spell?" "What does Y-A-Y spell?" His favorite word to spell is "UP" (sound it out, and you'll understand why it appeals to a 5-year-old boy).

Sometimes I'll also deliberately misread a word in a story; if the word should have been "day," I'll misread it as "bay" or "pay" or whatever. He'll correct me, and I'll ask, "Are you sure? Show me the letters!" And he will.

In terms of books, it doesn't seem to really matter what I read, but his favorite books lately are Judith Viorst's "Alexander" books (my son's first name is Alexander) and Mercer Mayer's "Little Critter" books. (I'm sure he's identifying with the main characters....)

Another thing that my son enjoys is poems, the sillier the better. The rhyming, alliteration, etc. seem to help him pick up "word families," too.

My son also watches a number of reading-based shows on TV such as "Word World," "Super Why," and "Between the Lions." I occasionally watch these with him, and when I see a familiar word I'll point it out to him and remind him of the show in which he saw it.

Posted by: pegysus | September 29, 2008 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I was also surprised more people did not comment on expecting a six-year-old to read independently because they are "required" to. If a six-year-old is required to read for 15 minutes per night, it can become so much of a "chore" they "have to" do, it turns them off to reading for fun. Even my second daughter (not so much the first one) only read books too easy for her and for exactly as long as she "had to" at that age. She was at least eight before she started just picking up books and reading for the fun of it, and choosing ones that actually made her grow. She reads very well for her age (9 now, and reads like about a 12-year-old in terms of abilities, but is still very sensitive on topics for kids much older than she is!). Even now though, she will have days where she sets a timer for the 20 minutes she "has to" read and will read picture books ("everybody books", as their school librarian calls them) on her own. These books are not designed to be read by children really, but usually TOO children, so they can have very challenging words and word-picture connections that are inspiring. She also reads chapter books on other days, and won't put a book down after less than an hour.
We don't really know when our son learned to read. He just always could, way before we stopped offering to read aloud to him regularly. We read aloud to all of them regularly until they were at least 7 (and by association, the older ones until they were 9 or 10!). Our kids were ready to read books on their own in terms of ability far before they ready to read them in relation to their content for violence, fear, abandonment themes, etc.
Our son has had changing fascinations with various fiction and non-fiction themes to a much greater degree than our daughter, and it shows in his reading choices. He would read a whole series of very challenging books about the "science" of raising dragons for weeks, and then suddenly switch to reading only Captain Underpants, when he was 10. Now he reads sci fi and fantasy fiction, but otherwise mainly non-fiction having to do with wild (and domesticated, I guess) animals. Definitely different topics and different degrees of hyper-focus on one set of interests at once. Our older daughter reads almost anything, at any time.

Posted by: Millie4 | October 1, 2008 5:26 PM | Report abuse

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