As a teacher, a parent and a writer, Jon Scieszka has learned that there are big differences between boys and girls when it comes to reading. Of course, he isn’t the first to notice—research consistently shows that girls are more successful in learning to read and far more likely to read for pleasure. Scieszka, an innovative children’s author, decided to tackle the problem head-on by launching a literacy effort to link boys and books. His program started three years ago with a website, GuysRead.com, and continues this spring with the release of a new book, Guys Write for Guys Read.
Edited by Scieszka himself, the collection includes short pieces by 90 male authors "on their memories of what it is to be a boy. I left it pretty wide open, but I told them to keep it very short so boys would actually read it," Scieszka explains. He hopes the book will function as a sampler, helping boys find writers they like so they’ll be motivated to read more. Entries range from Douglas Florian’s succinct Guide for Guys: "Don’t daze/Don’t doze/Don’t pick/Your nose," to Chris Crutcher’s memories of his humiliating (and hilarious) induction into a high school sports club. Other contributors include such popular authors as Neil Gaiman, Eoin Colfer, Dav Pilkey, Avi and Christopher Paolini. All the proceeds from the book will be used to support boys’ literacy efforts.
As the author of The Stinky Cheese Man and The Time Warp Trio series (soon to be a Saturday morning TV show on NBC), Scieszka is well-versed in what it takes to interest boys. Raised in a Flint, Michigan, household with five brothers, he says he was completely immersed in "the boy way of seeing the world." After stints in an all-male military academy, college and a graduate writing program, he became an elementary school teacher in New York. "It was such a dramatic flip because suddenly I was in this world that was almost all women. I felt like I was on another planet," he recalls. As one of the lone men at the school, Scieszka found that he could be a powerful role model for boys. "In my first years, I taught a second-grade homeroom, and some of the boys were described by their previous teachers as the biggest terrors—when I read their first-grade reports you would have thought they were ax murderers! But they came into my class and they were fine. It was almost as if they were relieved to see someone of their gender doing this stuff—reading and writing and being able to relate to them."
Scieszka thinks it’s important that boys have choices about what to read and that parents and teachers expand their ideas about what constitutes good reading. "Don’t think that they have to read Little House on the Prairie for it to be reading. Boys, a lot of them anyway, don’t really care about fiction," he notes. They prefer nonfiction, humor, graphic novels, science fiction and even computer manuals. "If we broaden our definition of what reading is, boys will feel more included."
Scieszka, who lives in Brooklyn, is the father of a son and daughter, ages 19 and 21. "I found with my own kids, when a summer reading list would come home, my daughter would see 20 books she’d like to read, while my son really had to search through the list," he says. Scieszka now speaks to teachers and librarians—groups that are still overwhelmingly female—and tells them "to look at their reading lists as if they were a boy in their own classroom and see what’s on it that might interest them."
Scieszka believes society as a whole has much to gain by helping more boys discover the wonders of reading. "If we can get boys to read, we can get them inside other people’s lives and get them to be more empathetic characters," he argues. "It’s a way for you to see someone else’s point of view, which is a huge thing. If we could do that around the world, I think we’d all be better off."