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Gross-out topics might be key to getting boys to read

Mon., Aug. 2, 2010

When he was growing up, Todd Thompson loved two things: football and books.

His mom encouraged regular trips to the library. His dad inspired him to dig into the Chip Hilton sports novels written by legendary basketball coach Clair Bee.

Thompson, 47, of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and his wife wanted to do the same with their reading-allergic son, Hunter, 13. No go.

They’ve tried bribing him with new video games. Nope.

While they’ve never considered doling out cash for reading, other parents unabashedly do.

“It’s like pulling out fingernails. He absolutely does not want to read,” Thompson says.

“I read constantly growing up. So did his mother. So does his 8-year-old sister, but he’s a go-go kid. To him, books are a waste of time.”

Says Hunter, a good student who reads what he has to for school: “Some books can be pretty boring and I just don’t feel like reading them. I think a lot of boys feel like that.”

Boys have lagged behind girls in reading achievement for more than 20 years, but the gender gap now exists in nearly every state and has widened to mammoth proportions – as much as 10 percentage points in some, according to the Center on Education Policy.

“It certainly should set off alarm bells,” says the center’s director, Jack Jennings.

Parents of reluctant readers complain that boys are forced to stick to stuffy required school lists that exclude nonfiction or silly subjects, or have teachers who cater to higher achievers and girls.

They’re hoping books that exploit boys’ love of bodily functions and gross-out humor can close the gap.

Amelia Yunker, a children’s librarian in Farmington Hills, Mich., hosted a grossology party with slime and an armpit noise demonstration.

“Just get ’em reading,” she says. “Worry about what they’re reading later.”

Some authors add online tie-ins or packaged prizes, like the steady-selling “39 Clues” series.

Walla Walla author Patrick Carman has gone a step further with his wicked creepy “Skeleton Creek” series from Scholastic.

The upper-grade books use password-protected websites to alternate book text and quick fixes of shaky, hand-held video. To follow the story, reading and watching online are both required.

“We’re meeting them halfway,” Carman says. “It’s the idea that these books understand where they’re at.”

Farts are Ray Sabini’s halfway point for younger kids. The fourth-grade teacher from Miller Place, outside New York City, heard from dozens of grateful parents, teachers and librarians after he self-published his “SweetFarts” in 2008 under the name Raymond Bean.

The book chronicles a 9-year-old boy’s multimillion-dollar science fair invention of tablets that can change foul-smelling gas into the culprit’s scent of choice: summer rose, cotton candy, grape – even pickles, as requested by his little sister.

It climbed to No. 3 on Amazon in children’s humor last fall on little more than word of mouth and prompted a sequel, “Sweet Farts: Rippin’ it Old-School,” to be released Tuesday.

“Reaching those reluctant boys, it’s a challenge I take very, very seriously and this is what they think is funny,” Sabini says.

“There’s also history in there. There’s science in there, the problem of bullying, but it’s the humor that gets their attention.”

Jon Scieszka, a former teacher and Library of Congress literary ambassador for young people’s lit, has been writing kids’ books for 20 years. He started to better connect boys with appealing text and begins his “Spaceheadz” series about TV-saturated aliens in September (Simon & Schuster), complete with websites that offer more.

“We have to meet them where they are,” Scieszka says. “We need to engage kids in this 21st-century world but it doesn’t have to be either-or, the digital world or a book.”

He’s not convinced educators know how to hook boys, especially when it comes to required reading.

“Boys will read a wide variety of stuff, not just gross-out humor, but stuff they enjoy in large part is stuff that’s not seen as legitimate reading in some schools, so they’re already feeling they’re not part of the system,” Scieszka says.

Grossology shouldn’t be underestimated in boy land. Scholastic’s poop fiction star, Dav Pilkey, and his “Captain Underpants” graphic series remains immensely popular among both genders.

Pilkey is bringing back his fourth-grade narrators, minus their superhero, on Aug. 10 in “The Adventures of Ook and Gluk,” about two kung-fu-lovin’ cave boys sucked into the future.

Cathy Walker, who teaches fourth grade in Raleigh, N.C., is always looking for ways to engage hard-to-reach boys. She stumbled on Sabini’s “SweetFarts” on Amazon, read it for herself and knew it would be a hit all around.

“It’s a topic most teachers and parents don’t openly discuss,” she says. “It’s a great way for boys to engage in topics that are ‘taboo’ and because of that, they enjoy them even more.”

Barrington, Ill., mom Jennifer Lucas says reading is tough for her 10-year-old son, Sean. She thinks teachers in the lower grades don’t fully understand boy energy in the classroom.

“It’s hard for first- and second-grade boys to sit still and learn things the way girls do, like through songs,” she says. “I think they want so much out of boys when it comes to reading, and they’re not ready.”

Best-selling author James Patterson knows from personal experience how hard it can be. Son Jack is a great reader now, at age 12, but that wasn’t true when he was younger.

“He wouldn’t sit down with a book, beyond what he had to do in school,” Patterson says.

He hunted down quality reads for a user-friendly website,, and began writing for young people, including the “Daniel X” alien hunter series that had a new installment out last week.

“I think it can turn around for a lot of kids,” Patterson says.

“Parents have to take the responsibility seriously. Schools need to be more practical, meaning they need to understand that reading lists are tremendously important but you have to put books on it that the kids are going to respond to.

“Reading is such a necessary thing to take you through life.”

Tags: literacy

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