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50: BOOKS FOR BOYS / LEADING BOYS TO READING


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This article evolved over several years and now consists of four parts,

which can be read

in any order:

1) Introduction written in 2008

2) Books that most boys would like

3) Notes from 2008 grew into an article titled

“Our Schools Are Skilled at Keeping Boys From Reading" (published 2010)

4) Comments that readers posted in response to that article.

Many interesting issues swirl through these four sections:
reading instruction and functional illiteracy; questions of taste and aesthetics;
sincerity and intelligence of our educators at pushing inappropriate books on children;
and what is reading for anyway? 

     
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1) INTRODUCTION

Look at what adult humans actually read. Women tend to prefer sentimental and romantic novels; feelings and relationships are important.


Men if they read fiction at all (and many do not) prefer Tom Clancy and John Grisham. For simplicity’s sake, let us say that males prefer action and adventure,


And what is the young boy’s step to such books? Obviously things like the Hardy Boys. That’s John Grisham for 12-year-olds


It’s important not to jump ahead of the kids. Just forget the question of what’s good for them and ask this question: what will they read with enthusiasm? Once a boy is reading anything with enthusiasm, he will find other things to give the same enjoyment.


Reading is like riding a bike. The more you do it, the easier it is. If you’re riding up and down the same street, an observer might think your life is dull. But you’re still becoming more comfortable on that bicycle. Similarly, if boys are reading the same dumb books over and over, even comic books, that’s fine. When one sort of book bores us, we explore the next level. 


We really have two completely separate problems: public schools often don’t teach children to read very well (this is explained in #42). And then the same incompetent schools will recommend books that adults might think are “literary.” But that’s not a good guide unless your child is showing signs of being “literary.”


There are only two reasons a normal person reads: entertainment or information. In the case of what your children read, you have to make very sure that at least one of these motives is being fulfilled.

 

2) BOOKS FOR BOYS

This list, a work in progress, emphasizes kid-tested, time-tested favorites. It does not claim to  be complete or scientific. 


The big concern of this entire article is how do we rescue boys who are drifting away from reading altogether? First, be 100% sure they can read (see #33 if there’s doubt). Second, make sure they can select from a wide range of books that ordinary boys are known to enjoy. Our motto: a few really tasty books are better than a huge library full of boring books. 


Don’t worry about buying a book that’s too simple. Even the smartest adults, in certain moods, can sit down with pleasure to read the sports pages, Reader’s Digest, People magazine, etc. All of these are also excellent choices for kids. 

 

Some items on this list are technically out of print; but you might find them on Amazon or reissued on other websites. 

Nonfiction: start here if your boy is really reluctant to read:  Guinness Book of Records  /  Ripley’s Believe It Or Not  /  World Alamanc  /  The First Edition of the Boy Scout Handbook  /  The American Boy’s Handy Book  /  The Dangerous Book for Boys  /  Childhood of Famous Americans (many)  /  Landmark Series (biographies of famous Americans, published by Random House circa 1955; I read almost all of the Landmark books as a fourth-grader and feel they represent perfection)  /  books (or magazines) about heroes; sports; hobbies; insects; inventions; machines; popular science; oddities; riddles; jokes; puzzles

Fiction:  Classics Illustrated (comic books)  /  The American Adventure Series (the original series was actually recommended by Rudolf Flesch in 1955; many titles)  /  Great Illustrated Classics (many)  /  The Hardy Boys (many)  /  Tarzan (many)  /  Tom Swift (many)  /  Kidnapped & Treasure Island  /  Tale of Peter Rabbit  /  stories by Dr. Suess  /  The Little Engine That Could  /  The Watsons go to Birmingham  /  Lorna Doone  /  Surviving the Applewhites  /  books by Shel Silverstein  /  White Fang  /  Alice in Wonderland  /  Swiss Family Robinson  /  The Wizard of Oz  /  Adventures of Tom Sawyer  /  Winnie the Pooh  /  Black Beauty  /  Frankenstein  /  Count of Monte Cristo  /  Ivanhoe  /   War of the Worlds  /  Sherlock Holmes (many)  /  Encyclopedia Brown (many)  /  Robinson Crusoe  /  The Call of the Wild  /  White Fang

Searching the web, I found enthusiastic recommendations for these books:   Hatchet by Gary Paulsen  /  The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster  /  The Last Mission by Harry Mazer  /  books by Ronald Dahl and Van Allsburg  /  Jurassic Park (“I had no trouble reading it when I was pre-teen and loved it the whole time. A good one to encourage a healthy sci-fi habit.”)  /  Watership Down by Richard Adams  /  Heart of a Champion (“One of my all-time favorite books. I think I read it like 10 times when I was younger.”)  /  Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald  /  anything by Jules Vernes, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Edgar Rice Burroughs  /  Word To Caesar by Geoffrey Trease (“Pretty much forgotten now but I loved this tale of a boy making his way down from Roman era England to Rome, set during the reign of Emperor Trajan.”)  /  Biggles series by Capt. W.E. Johns (“About a British WW1 pilot. I loved reading them as a kid.”)

NOTE 1: ADD UP ALL THESE THESE ITEMS AND YOU HAVE 300+ BOOKS. SO THERE ARE SURELY PLENTY OF BOOKS. ALL YOU NEED TO SAVE YOUR BOY IS A DOZEN HE REALLY LIKES. 

NOTE 2: OLDER BOOKS MAY HAVE QUAINT LANGUAGE, POLITICALLY INCORRECT OPINIONS AND ALL THE REST. WIKIPEDIA ACTUALLY HAS COVERAGE OF ALMOST ALL THESE BOOKS AND SERIES, SO CHECK THEM OUT THERE; OR SEE REVIEWS ON AMAZON; OR READ THEM YOURSELF.

 

INTERESTING PERSPECTIVE (I am often in the position of mocking what our so-called experts tell us. So I'm pleased to present something from a professor that greatly impressed me.) "After years of watching and listening to male nonreaders cruise the shelves of the library looking for a book, I have learned that a tough guy utilizes certain criteria in selecting a book worthy of his attention. A cool book must possess at least some of the following characteristics: (1) a decent title, (2) a cover that will not embarrass the person carrying it around (machismo is favored, but a sophisticated-looking book is okay too), (3) medium to large typography, (4) some photos or illustrations, and (5) a sufficiently high gross quotient (that is, at least a modicum of sex, violence, and nasty incidents told in intricate, sickening detail somewhere in the story). While the number of pages in a book might play an important role in the selection processes of some slow readers, I have been surprised frequently by students who fearlessly take on enormous volumes in a subject area that interests them. In fact, there seems to be some prestige in carrying around a thick book from class to class. Perhaps the biggest boon for any book in the eyes of a tough guy is its film tie-in -- was a film going to be made about the book, had one been made, could one be made? A few years ago, one of my friends had her eleventh grade remedial and regular English classes tackle the 501 pages of The Firm (1991) while the film was in production. She insisted that it was the one book that every one of her students actually read.” Lawrence Baines


 

3) "Our Schools Are Skilled At Keeping Boys From Reading"
--this article first appeared on CanadaFreePress-- 

Not to worry. Our top educators have pretty well got this thing figured out. It’s a two-punch combination, researched-based, that almost always works. Bingo, you don’t find American boys wasting precious time inside the pages of a book.


First of all, you want to make sure they don’t hear much about the alphabet (shhh!), letters, sounds all that right-wing nonsense. They have to learn to read with sight-words, Dolch words, whole words (all the same thing). And you want a whole lot of hoopla, thousands of brightly colored books lying around, and constant chatter about literacy and being a lifelong reader. All this stuff convinces parents that their kids, if they are halfway normal, will quickly learn to read. Ditto the boys. When they can’t memorize hundreds of sight-words, they know there’s something wrong with them and they give up pronto. And they keep their mouths shut. Perfect. The silence of the lambs pretty well describes it. 


Second, you’ve got to catch those boys who figure out phonics for themselves and actually make it through the sight-word minefield. A lot of boys just barely survive; they’re on the cusp. Give them some good comic books or Sports Illustrated for Kids, and they might break through. But you never do that. Here’s the secret formula. You say, this book is perfect for you! And you give them books intended for girls. Soft, sensitive, emotional books. Boys hate this stuff. They’d rather sleep in mud than have to read books like that. So you can snuff out the last little bit of interest in reading. If some of the boys are hard-headed and keep trying to read, you up the ante. Make sure every recommended book is literarily pretentious, big time! New-Yorker-type books with soft pastel covers and delicate type. Oprah-type books with haunting relationship stories that revolve around strong women. Boys cringe in horror from this stuff. Grown men cringe in horror from this stuff; but they can defend themselves. What can twelve-year-old boys do? Other than learn to hate books and reading forever. 

 

By this simple, two-step program, the major goals of American education are achieved, everybody’s semi-illiterate and everybody’s a wimp. Look at the stats. These educators know what they’re doing.


(The program is working so well that millions of young men are not qualified to go to college or they don’t try to enter college. Women have taken over the joints, now occupying 57% of the places. Bottom line: the women won but now they’re lonely. The males are off sulking, wondering what happened to their society and why attending college doesn’t seem to be a good option anymore?)


“Wait a minute,” you protest. “What if I really do want boys to read? How do I turn this around?” Well, first of all, we have to ask, what kind of kook are you? A parent or something? You’re certainly not in education.


Okay, here’s the answer. (Don’t tell anyone else.) Just do the opposite of what the schools and elite educators recommend. This rule is always an infallible guide, throughout the curriculum. Especially so in reading. Ignore all those moving stories about girls and their feelings. Ignore almost everything endorsed by the NEA or the New York Times. Now we’re getting somewhere.


Instead, consider what real men like to read about. Adventures. Science. Machines. Sports and Athletes. War. Business. Mystery. Technology. Animals. Travel. Sci-fi. History. Famous People. Crime and Police Work. Cowboys. Soldiers. To name a few. There, wasn’t that easy? Look at all the choices! And while non-fiction might be a safer bet than fiction, fiction can work as long as it’s about the topics on this list. 


So for young males, you merely get the simpler versions of books that grown-up males enjoy. That’s what Hardy Boys novels were for millions of boys. That’s what the wonderful Landmark Books (children’s histories) were for millions of children, including me. That’s what Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and The Guinness Book of Records continue to be for millions of boys. 


Boys love to know how things happened and how things work. They like to know what people did. Events are interesting. Plans. Decisions. Victories. All you have to do is look at the covers of popular comic books, GI Joe, for example, or Superman. Or the covers of video games. What do you see?? Heroics. Guns. Action. Fights. Violence....The literary level equal to or just beyond such cover art, that’s what boys want!  


Here’s what one expert says: “Boys aren’t big fans of novels filled with sensitive, angst-filled, touchy-feely characters and flowery descriptions of scenery; they want stuff to happen, and if there are explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and bloodcurdling screams, that’s even better.” I love this woman for saying this; but let’s ask: why did she need to?? There are people in education relentlessly hostile to masculinity. That’s why. And if they have to undercut reading to undercut masculinity, that’s an acceptable deal in their eyes. 


Here’s a snapshot of the problem. I Googled “books for boys” and one site actually touted a favorite this way: “Jack has trouble paying attention or controlling his moods when his prescription meds wear off and he starts getting worked up and acting wired.” I think I just heard a hundred-thousand boys throw this book across the room. In short, you simply can’t trust what a lot of people shamelessly call “books for boys.” The easiest road might be to skip straight to a site named booksforboys.com, which actually recommends rough-and-ready books that real boys would like. 


Many boys grow up to become Civil War buffs and World War II buffs. How many girls do that? There’s a message there. And no matter where you are on the political spectrum, if you have any practicality or patriotism left in your soul, you know we need the military spirit.

 

Meanwhile, when we see The Dairy of Anne Frank forced on eighth graders, you know we’re seeing political correctness allied with literary pretentiousness ensconced on a throne and cracking the whip. This is a very serious, adult book. I don’t think the reasons for prescribing it to 14-year-old boys have anything to do with encouraging them to read.


If you worry your boy is slipping from the land of reading, find lots of magazines and websites dealing with his hobbies or interests. Discuss them. Or you might try this desperate gambit. Whisper to the boy confidentially that you personally feel most books recommended by his school seem to be garbage...stuff for girls....stuff you’d never read yourself. Then suggest: Let’s go to a big book and magazine store, and see what looks good. Take him to Barnes & Noble, wander around as long as possible, look at lots of covers, wait for him to be interested in something and buy it. At the very least, you can take home Mechanix Illustrated or sports magazines. 


But keep in mind where this article started. A lot of boys are NOT taught to read properly. So when you see them not reading, don’t always assume they are AVOIDING books. No, it’s quite possible they don’t know how to UTILIZE books. Nor do they know how to articulate what the problem actually is!

 

Here’s a very quick diagnostic you can use. Ask the boy to read any 200-words from a newspaper; say you want to hear his pronunciation of certain words; follow over his shoulder or (better) on a second copy. If he reads exactly what is on the page, even if slowly, you know he can actually read and just needs to be encouraged. But if he leaves out words, adds word, substitutes words, guesses wildly, or reads words backwards, then you know the boy can’t read. (See more details in “33: How To Help A Non-Reader to Read,” or suggestions for phonics programs in “42: Reading Resources.”)

(Postscript, June, 2010. A teacher wrote to say she was quite upset with me. I answered her, in effect: "I understand why you might think I was a little rude. But I'm quite sure you also understand why. The schools browbeat parents and kids. I wanted to create some intellectual space, where kids could be themselves and like what they liked, without some expert telling them what they should like.") 
 

4) Comments Posted on the Above Article

"What a great article, I laughed out loud (sadly) at the part where you describe the namby-pamby books they try to force boys to read. We jettisoned all the recommended booklists and I picked up as many ‘Calvin and Hobbs’ comic books as I could find. My two would keep a dictionary close by to look up the big words Calvin used. A little unorthodox, but it was a great way to get them excited about reading. I also read aloud the unabridged Tarzan, a chapter a day. The chapters always ended in a cliff hanger and for writing assignments I would sometimes have them write the next chapter... in the same style as the author. I was always amazed at how well they did this and it was so much fun to have them read their essays the next day to see where their imaginations lead them. The biggest secret about homeschooling – while it seems like a daunting task, in reality it is waaaay more fun than anyone lets on."
Posted by: Nan 

"Not just boys and not just Canada. Granddaughter Nr 2 was getting nowhere learning to read with books about John and Mary going shopping with Mummy.

They bored her rigid. So I wrote a series of short stories (1 sheet of A4) about things like Daleks invading her school, and her helping the Doctor destroy them. She read it, she laughed at the joke, where I had Miss covered with green Dalek blood and other bits of dead Dalek, and saying "I hate these Dalek's guts". She ended up learning words like decimate and defenestrate (which also helped confuse the teacher), and now she can read quite well.

She'd never have done that with 'Shopping with Mummy'. (Note John has to go shopping with Mummy because it's PC. Not sure where Daddy is.)"
Posted by: Cerddaf (in UK) 

"I don't think it is only boys who have a problem reading. I find a lot of uneducated, 4 year degreed people. I knew one woman with a chemistry degree who said she only liked books with lots of pictures!
There are girls who don't care for sissy reading material, either. I grew up reading science fiction, long before anyone thought girls read it and anyone tried to market it to girls and women. I never developed a liking for fluffy female-marketed fiction. I also grew up reading history, and contrary to the author's belief that women don't grow up to be history fans, my periods of specialty include WW1 and WW2.  And I grew up in the 1950s--and no, I am not a history major. I have a technical degree in a physical science, which I obtained in the dark ages when women did not do that.

The real problem is that education has become indoctrination. Instead of training people to have the intellectual tools to crack open new information, we fill them with PC nonsense and make weaklings of most of them, male and female alike. We spare them competition, and then are stunned to see that they cannot compete. We protect them from everything, and raise children who are fearful of dirt, and just about everything else. One should not be shocked when hothouse plants wilt in the real world."
Posted by: Qatmom

"As the mother of 3 boys and 2 girls, all grown, I have seen the vast difference in their choice of reading material. I saw very early on as my oldest who is a son and who loved to read start to get turned off books by what he was reading in school. A book called Cue for Treason was what turned the tide for him. It also made me a much wiser mom and teacher for my kids. I learned that there really was a huge difference in what appealed to a boy to read and what appealed to a girl. I realized just how much boys needed the adventure."

Posted by: Donna 

WHAT I'VE BEEN TRYING TO TELL YOU


July, 2010: I just reviewed (on Amazon) a wonderful book called “Retreat From Learning” (1955) by Joan Dunn. A sensitive and savage indictment of the inanity known as progressive education, this book deals with her years teaching in Brooklyn public schools. Think of “Grease.” Speaking of her slower students, Dunn says it all: “They were fascinated by stories of great fires, bombings, insurrections, upheavals, earthquakes, and gruesome tortures. They cared less that Lincoln was assassinated than that he was shot from behind and the murderer fled, stabbed in many places, in a trail of blood. Shakespeare was a bore, but London with its bearbaiting and its barbaric hangings quickened their pulses. If I taught them according to their interests, their spelling list would only include words like murder, robbery, and rape. Their introduction to literature and reading would number only recitals of atrocities and the overthrow of authority...”

© BRUCE DEITRICK PRICE 2010