By Ellen Bari
We’re all born psycho-sexual neutral. Isn’t that what we were taught in Developmental Psychology classes in college? How many times did you think back to those days while watching your baby boy or girl, and think: that teacher DEFINITELY did not have kids! No matter how hard we try to avoid buying into stereotypes for our children, at some point, most of them inevitably express gender-typical behavior. Unfortunately, reading has become one those behaviors where the gender differences are clear.
For Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca), author of the Stinky Cheese Man and other hilarious, ground-breaking children’s books, the disparity in reading levels between boys and girls has become a kind of cause celebre. Recently, I had the good fortune to spend an intimate evening at a Women in Children’s Media (WICM) Writer’s Workshop with the wildly funny and charming Scieszka. For the past ten years, he has been studying gender differences in reading. He has learned the following: for the last 30 years, the U.S. Department of Education reading tests show that boys score lower than girls in every age group; eighth grade boys are 50 percent more likely to be held back than girls, and college enrollment is higher for girls than boys (60/40 ratio). Instead of simply sounding the alarm, Scieszka has devoted his creative efforts to addressing this issue, including developing a website resource to catch ‘em young, called Guys Read.
Scieszka grew up in Flint, Michigan, one of six boys. His father was a school principal and his mother, a nurse. The brothers’ preferred method of communication was wrestling, although Scieszka learned early that, “if you could tell a story at the dinner table that made people laugh, you got more food.” Growing up, he did not know anyone who was a writer, but was lucky that his father was a reader and a great literacy role model. It was only when Scieszka became a teacher in NYC, the lone male surrounded by females, that he saw boys avoiding reading. One of the problems appeared to be that all the book choices are made by women.
“Boys don’t like fiction,” he said, “and schools are all about literary fiction.” According to Scieszka, in order to get boys interested in reading we have to expand our definition of reading, to include boy-friendly nonfiction, humor, comics, graphic novels, action-adventure, magazines, websites, etc. We also have to help motivate boys by allowing them to choose texts they enjoy. And, very importantly, the men in their lives have to step up as role models of literacy. Guys Read includes a wealth of resources with recommendations for ‘guy’ books, with categories such as: ‘outer space but without aliens, robots, cars, trucks,’ etc. The site also included books recommended by little guy readers themselves.
Scieszka started his career with an M.F.A. from Columbia University in fiction, writing for adults. After graduating, he became an elementary school teacher and quickly found his calling. As he says, the little ones “…are the best audience because of their ability to suspend disbelief.” He took a year off from teaching to try his hand at writing for kids but was not welcomed into the children’s literary world easily. With his wacky sense of humor and unique approach to tearing down well-established literary formats, Scieszka’s manuscripts were rejected countless times before he got his first break (important information for aspiring writers to keep in mind). The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, his first book, has since been translated into 14 languages, and sold 3 million copies worldwide.
Despite a recent article in the New York Times that was all but a eulogy to the picture book, spending a few hours with Jon Scieszka is a great reminder to the contrary. There is nothing like sharing a good picture book with a child. Children who develop a love for reading at a young age have a better chance of becoming lifelong readers. Boys need more reading male role models. Sciezska believes our brains were never meant to read and that it’s important to let boys know that it is hard work, though well- worth the effort. So the next time you are about to read to your son at bedtime, see if there’s an adult male around who can do it instead. Tell the boys you have to run out for a quick and urgent errand, and get yourself a massage or a glass of wine at a nearby bar. That way everyone wins!