Jon Scieszka, an author (and former second-grade teacher) whose goal has always been to "reach the guys in the back of the room," goes to the head of the class, as it were, speaking out on how to encourage boys to read. On April 30, appropriately enough during the International Reading Association convention, Scieszka outlined the philosophy and strategies of his new literacy initiative for boys called Guys Read, a project enthusiastically supported by his publisher, Penguin Putnam, as well as the Association of Booksellers for Children. Scieszka recently spoke with PW about the campaign.
"I think the whole thing crystallized when I was talking with my editor, Regina Hayes [president and publisher of Viking Children's Books]," Scieszka explained. "We were discussing some projects and talking about how I've always tried to write books that will reach those guys we seem to miss. Regina said, 'You should tell people about that.' "
Hayes had a similar recollection. "It really grew out of our work on the Time Warp Trio books," she said. "Jon really understands those boys he's trying to reach. He's one of six brothers, he's a father, a former teacher and an avid reader himself. He's always had the philosophy that if you find the right stories to hook them, boys will read. The Time Warp Trio books have humor, short chapters and cliffhanger endings, and some of those funny or slightly gross things that make boys feel that what they're reading is a bit subversive. It's similar to the way many kids feel about Roald Dahl's books." In Hayes's estimation, "It seemed to me that Jon was the perfect spokesman for Guys Read. He feels so strongly about this issue, he knows the educational rationales, he has practical experience and he's a natural speaker."
Scieszka's and Hayes's focus dovetailed with recent efforts of the ABC. "We've been realizing in the past couple of years that we needed to create some sort of campaign for kids ages 8 to 12," said ABC executive director Caron Chapman. The organization's longstanding and successful "Most Important 20 Minutes of Your Day" campaign, which encourages adults to make a daily habit of reading to a child, is primarily aimed at preschoolers.
As ABC officers and members formulated the beginnings of a Hey Girls! campaign for girls, according to Chapman, "we thought, now what about the boys?" The group discussed commissioning artwork for the boys' reading initiative and illustrator Lane Smith's name came up (Smith is Scieszka's long-time collaborator, having illustrated nearly all of his books). After the ABC spoke with Scieszka and learned of their common purpose, ABC, Penguin Putnam and Scieszka pooled their efforts to create the formal concept of Guys Read.
Getting the Word Out
Scieszka has written a Guys Read brochure that highlights the reasons a literacy program for boys is long overdue, and offers concrete suggestions on how parents, teachers, booksellers, librarians and others can participate in and promote the cause. Much of the advice centers on providing boys with role models. "We need more men standing up as reading role models for guys," Scieszka said. "When I was a teacher, I was pretty much the only guy teaching in the lower elementary grades. Most teachers, librarians and even booksellers in kids' lives are women; this gives boys the idea that reading is not a masculine activity." He cites one of his neighbors as a shining example of connecting boys with books. "My neighbor started a father-son reading group," he explained. "They call it Books and Balls. The sons choose the books. Then, once a month or so, the dads and sons meet at a local indoor soccer place where they have pizza, discuss the books and then play ball. It's terrific—the kids, mostly third and fourth graders, and the dads all love it."
The Guys Read brochure goes on to list Scieszka's personal book list, called "A Few of My Favorite Books for Guys," which he hopes will inspire adults who work with children and books to be more conscious of the titles they assign and recommend. "I saw my son struggle through Little House on the Prairie in fourth grade," said Scieszka. "He and his friends just hated it. But it wasn't because it's a bad book, it's because girls are much quicker to develop an emotional connection to fiction. We have to remember that guys are different and they need special attention when it comes to reading. They want to read books that will titillate or electrify them first. Then we can move them into something more sophisticated, with an emotional palette that helps them become more well-rounded people."
Not recommending specific titles is where Scieszka believes some other literacy initiatives fail. "The 'Get Caught Reading' campaign is a great idea, but they don't take the next step and recommend specific titles. And in a recent ad, they show [baseball star] Sammy Sosa reading Green Eggs and Ham. What kind of message does that send to guys?" he remarked.
In addition to the brochure, Lane Smith has designed (along with his wife, Molly Leech) and illustrated a poster and button featuring what Scieszka calls a "cool, every-guy logo" to promote the campaign. Penguin Putnam will underwrite the cost of these materials, as well as Scieszka's conference appearances, for the first year/tier of Guys Read (2001—2002), and the ABC will distribute promotional items to member stores (free, save for shipping costs). Nonmember booksellers may also request materials from the ABC office (800-421-1665), but will be required to pay a fee, which has not yet been determined.
Scieszka will also spread the word as he presents the Guys Read initiative to booksellers at BEA during the ABC breakfast on May 31, promotes it at the ALA annual convention in San Francisco this June, and on the June bookstore tour for his new picture book, Baloney (Henry P.), illustrated by Smith (Viking).
Going forward, Scieszka hopes that the campaign will serve as a starting point for many more people to get involved. On May 1 GuysRead.com officially launched, designed as a true electronic community where "people can connect and share ideas" about the program. He mentioned as future goals posting celebrity reading lists, obtaining corporate partners/sponsors, and giving guys themselves a stronger voice.
He also hopes that the forthcoming Time Warp Trio animated television series (launching next year on PBS) will provide other opportunities to promote Guys Read. "I never really saw myself in this role, talking to crowds of people as a spokesguy," Scieszka said. "I'd rather just make the guys laugh."
"We're not trying to be something for everyone," he added. "But the response to this idea has been phenomenal. People have a visceral reaction to it. I hope we can channel all that interest and really help get guys through the struggle they have with reading."