As an author, editor, and publisher of books for young readers, I all too frequently hear other editors and librarians, teachers, and parents complain, "Boys don't read!" But I grew up loving to read. I stayed up all night to follow Gods, Graves, & Scholars through the excavations of Troy, Mycenae, and Ur; I pored over Sports Illustrated and debated the stats of favorite players with my friends. My 3-year-old son, Sasha, seems to enjoy books on cars and trains as much as I did at his age. Yet I wonder, will Game Boys and DVDs doom him to become a nonreader later? I feel disoriented: Have boys really changed, or are adults missing something?
Sociological research suggests that boys do like to read -- they just don't like novels, particularly character-driven, emotional books meant to inspire introspection. Instead, they want to read about history, ideas, the world outside themselves. Inspired by the success of the many mother-daughter reading groups, I decided to form a father-son group -- one that would read only nonfiction. I wanted to see if, with a little adult encouragement and the right choices in books, a bunch of boys could be turned into avid readers. The result was better than I dreamed: It not only made boys passionate readers, but it also deepened relationships, giving fathers and sons a new way to connect.
I founded and led the group, which I call "The Real Thing," in September 2002. Except for a summer break, the group -- 10 fathers, their fifth-grade sons, and me -- has met faithfully every six weeks at the local library in Maplewood, NJ. At our first meeting, I asked the boys what kind of books they'd like to read. True adventure stories headed their list, so I suggested we start with two books on the British explorer Ernest Shackleton: Jennifer Armstong's engaging children's book, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, and Caroline Alexander's outstanding adult work, The Endurance.
I wanted to draw the boys and dads out. So in our second meeting, after we discussed how Shackleton was trapped with his men in the Antarctic ice and yet managed to lead every one of them to safety, I asked the boys a deliberately provocative question: Was Shackleton really a hero, and who are some modern heroes? The boys spoke up at once. Since Shackleton chose to go to the Antarctic for his (and England's) glory, they agreed, he was really more of a survivor than a hero. Interestingly, none of the boys could think of any modern heroes--no one even suggested an athlete.
The fathers immediately joined in. A few of the dads had colleagues who had died in the World Trade Center attacks; they argued that the firefighters and police officers who walked up the stairs into the inferno and sacrificed themselves to save others were true heroes, not Shackleton. Soon others were offering their own nominees and animatedly discussing choices that ranged from 1960s civil rights leaders to successful business leaders and computer game designers. "This was a conversation I found myself reflecting on long afterward," one of the dads, Bill Marke, told me.
"What about real-life mysteries?" one boy asked after another session. Neither I nor our local librarian could think of any written for 10- and 11-year-olds. We wound up braving the 400-plus pages of Cuckoo's Egg, the adult autobiography of an American astronomer who tracked down a nest of German hackers working for the KGB. The book was tough going. Many kids couldn't finish reading it, but the discussion was rich. A few of the dads worked in the computer industry and talked about how vulnerable computers are to hackers even today. The boys had their own stories. One, whose dad is a computer professional, recounted how he himself had tracked down and booted a hacker who had been using his PC to visit an odd mixture of Web sites, from a dog store to a porn site.
True, we weren't sharing our innermost emotions in our meetings, but there was no doubt: Dads and sons were bonding through books. Nonfiction was giving them a chance to learn about each other by investigating the world together. And it had turned the boys into readers. In fact, one boy had become so passionate about the group that his 8-year-old brother begged their dad to start a spin-off group for him. (The father did; the first book they read was about spiders.) As a children's book editor and writer, but especially as a father, I was enormously reassured: Boys do read -- when they can read what they like. When my own son gets tired of trucks and trains one day, I know he and I will go on reading together.
Marc Aronson is the author of Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, which in 2001 won the first Robert F. Sibert medal for the best in nonfiction for younger readers. His latest book is Witch Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials.
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