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.