Thursday, February 26, 2009

Boys and Reading

What happens to those boys and girls once enthralled with The Little Engine That Could?

What happens to those boys and girls whose dog-eared copy of Where the Wild Things Are seemed to magically appear in their hand each night at bedtime?

What happens to those boys and girls once they reach middle school? high school?

While I claim to be no expert, my 20 years of experience teaching these types of boys and girls in the high school classroom and being a parent of a boy and a girl has given me many insights.

In most homes, as in ours, raising children including fostering their interest in reading. An avid reader myself, this was enjoyable. Our children loved storybooks and stories. School book fairs and class library days were among the favorite activities. We even did summer reading programs through the local library.

Our daughter read animal stories, fantasy, and in middle school discovered Christopher Pike. At that point, she became a life-long reader.

Our son loved the "Choose your own adventure" stories. These were packed with action and characters around his own age. Plots ranged from mysteries to space travel. However, the greatest quality of these books was that readers were free to reread the books many times, each time picking a different ending.

Somewhere between the 6th grade and high school, his reading stopped. No more books from the library and no more book fairs. His interests had changed and there were few or no books that appealed to him. Also, technology had hit. He played Nintendo at every opportunity as did most boys at that time. In high school, he read only one book and that was written by Stephen King. Nothing else. His teachers referred to him as a non-reader.

So what happened? We, parents and teachers, didn't know then. It was only when years had passed and I begin encountering similar students in class that I began to understand.

I began to investigate how to get my high school students interested in reading. Eventually I had to change my philosophy on reading. I also began to question education's definition of reading and came to this conclusion: Reading could not continue to revolve around materials determined to be "literature." Reading had to encompass all materials read for enjoyment and/or information.

Remember Nintendo? I swear our son subscribed to or bought every Nintendo guide published. And, he read them from cover to cover, several times! He also poured over the Sports section of the daily newspaper, every day! In college, he started reading financial publications and textbooks. He read research on investment strategies and the financial pages of the newspaper were added to his sports page reading. Today, his reading is done online, and he doesn't miss a day. Now, I don't consider any of this as reading enjoyment, but he does! And he reads. As does nearly everyone. We all just read differently.

But what about literature? Our son and many others like him may not read literature, but they do know the classics of literature. They know the Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo, Odysseus, the Trojan War and Achilles, and King Arthur. He, and they, just prefer watching instead of reading, the opposite of me.

These boys are readers, and they need to be referred to as readers, their choice of reading materials valued.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why I Write Middle Grade Fiction

A high school English teacher for 20 years, I repeatedly became frustrated when students, most often but not always boys, would not be interested in reading, not even when given a choice of what to read. At first, I decided that I was not using the right avenue to reach them. Many years later, I came to the conclusion that by the time these students reached me, there was little I could do to change them into readers. Mind you, some did change and thanked me later, but the majority of them just did not like to read, not even non-fiction.

That's when I decided to write for reluctant readers. These students can read, but along the way have made the choice, for whatever reason, not to. I knew that I would have to focus on the lower grades (4-6) and find some topic that would interest them at that grade level and maybe, just maybe, keep them reading beyond elementary school.

I chose the world of King Arthur because I am passionate about everything in that world. In my 9th grade English classes, I taught "The Once and Future King" by T.H. White. The students explored the ideals presented and eagerly searched to find those ideals in their worlds. They (boys and girls) loved the adventures of Merlyn and Wart. The ones who didn't read the whole book listened to their peers talk about the book and became involved that way. So, I knew that this would be where I would start my writing. My subject for this first book evolved when students did not know anything of Guinevere, or only knew that she cheated on King Arthur and caused the fall of Camelot.

I set about to write a story that would acquaint elementary students with Guinevere and show them what she was like at their age. The story leaves students understanding that Guinevere was not the sole or even main cause of King Arthur's failure. It teaches a lesson that I must have had buried in my subconscious and never realized.