The following blog post is my response to the article How to Raise Boys who Read by Thomas Spence published in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section. In this article, Spence comments on the tendency of publishers to promote “gross-out” books in an effort to get boys to read more. He argues against this current trend to “meet boys where they are” stating that these books do not support a valuable education of manners and taste and that ultimately “if you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far”.
Anyone who knows me is well aware of my huge passion for Children’s Literature. Before returning to McGill’s School of Information Studies, I was the educational representative for the only English bookstore in eastern Quebec and was often invited to give presentations to teachers on how to integrate literature into the ESL classroom. It was my job to know all the new titles from different publishing companies and anticipate which books would be
a) able to capture a student’s interest
b) appropriate for a wide range of different ESL reading levels
Through my meetings with teachers across the province of Quebec, I encountered all sorts of opinions on what kids should be reading. The challenge of getting certain kids to read book is doubled when that book is written in the child’s second language. Most educators were of the opinion that if a student could read a particular book in English then he/she should be reading that book. Popular titles were Captain Underpants, Garfield comics and the high interest/low reading level Stone Arch books from Capstone Publishing.
Once I even had a high school teacher ask me to recommend a book for hersecondary 3 (grade 10) class that had sex in it. This teacher told me that the year before for individual reading one girl’s book with a sex scene chapter had been passed around because everyone was so curious to read that particular chapter. She thought if they were interested in reading about sex, then that would be what she would give them. I recommended Noughts and Crosses by Marjorie Blackman, an extremely well-written story of passion using the typical literary motif of star-crossed lovers. In this case, I guess I was sharing Thomas Spence’s perspective in that I was careful not to recommend just any book with a sex scene. I felt Noughts and Crosses would contribute to the students’ education because in addition to having the hot and steamy forbidden sex it also touches on interesting themes for high school students such as loyalty, racism, and terrorism.
Now that I am the director of a public library, I am truly happy to see young people checking out whatever books will make them happy. One series of comics that is extremely popular at my library is Kidpaddle, the latest title in this collection is “Le retour de la momie qui pue qui tue” (The Return of the mummy who stinks and kills), definitely the type of book that Spence would categorize as a “gross-out book” but the other day a boy around 10 years old came into the library and was so incredibly excited when I showed him that there was a new Kidpaddle book. His face lit up into a huge smile and he exclaimed to his mom “I haven’t read this one yet, I want to borrow this book!” The boy’s excitement to read this comic was the most wonderful reaction to a book I’d ever seen. It completely made my day!
So in conclusion, I’m still on the fence about Thomas Spence’s article. I understand and respect his opinion but at the same time, I really do not think that reading always has to be about learning. I am not convinced that boys would be better off if they were all reading Treasure Island as he suggests. I am an advocate of reading and books and so I will continue to be happy to provide boys with whatever reading they might want.