September 30th, 2011

How to get a boy to read

Last year, my son and I saw Jeff Kinney at his book tour stop here in Birmingham. The show was terrific, including the actors who play the main characters in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies. Mr. Kinney was such a wonderful public speaker that I grew very, very jealous and decided that I would like to be him when I grow up (though he is two years younger than me).

In his talk, he said that teachers and librarians tell him how grateful they are to him for writing books that excite reluctant readers. It took him a long time to realize that by “reluctant readers,” they meant “boys.” The crowd laughed uproariously.

My son and I just looked at each other. At the time, he was a 9-year-old in the 4th grade. In most ways, he is a typical boy. He plays football and soccer, and he’s on the swim team (not all at the same time!). Violin lessons didn’t work out, but now he’s taking drum lessons. He regularly gets in trouble at school for talking and for not turning in his homework (even though I make sure he has done it). He can tell you the name and year of introduction of any plane or helicopter flying overhead. He would probably play Wii for 8 hours a day if I let him. His favorite TV shows are Phineas & Ferb and Mythbusters. His favorite show would be Sons of Guns if I let him watch it, and his new hobby is making models of grenade launchers out of PVC pipe.

He is not, however, a reluctant reader. I would estimate that he read over 100 books last year--not counting what he read at school.

This is largely my doing. I knew from the beginning that this kid was not going to be a reader unless I did something. From infancy he has been too extroverted and too fascinated with electronics and contraptions. But does anyone become an avid reader in the absence of encouragement...or incarceration? I would hold up my brother as a male who is naturally an avid reader, except that my mom encouraged him in many of the ways I have encouraged my son. I don’t know the answer to that question.

I do know that a lot of people are frustrated that their boy-children don’t want to read. What I offer here is a catalog of methods I have used to make sure my son reads, with terrific results. He is now 10 years old, in the 5th grade, and reading at a 12th-grade level. All of these steps could work on reluctant girl-children too.

1. Make them read every day. That way, they get used to it, and they stop resisting. My son’s schools have been making him read every day and log the results since he was two years old. They have offered bonus points for reading on the weekend, and I have made him do it. In the summers when he has been out of school, I have made him read 30 minutes to an hour every day.

2. Log the results. Every season, tape a piece of paper to the refrigerator, and write down every book they read. That way, they can see their progress.

3. Pay them. They will learn that you value reading. I got this idea from my grandmother, who used to pay me 10¢ per book. I have given my son a raise--I pay him 50¢ per book. It’s still not much, but it’s the same as his weekly allowance. I write what he’s earned on the reading log.

4. Read with them. Admittedly, lots of days I’m stuck at my computer, writing or editing, and my reading has to wait until after my son has gone to bed. If I can manage it, though, I read at the same time he is reading, so I’m modeling this behavior and showing him that I find it worthwhile. I also write what I’ve read on the reading log.

5. If you are a chick and your child is a boy, make sure he sees men reading. This might be the most important step. No matter how we try to make little feminists out of them, boys look up to men, specifically to their fathers or father figures.

My husband is not a reader. I stressed to him how important it was for our son to see him reading, but for years I had to settle for the newspaper. Then one glorious day, my husband happened to thumb through my copy of Little House in the Big Woods that I’d been trying for the third time to get my son interested in. My husband was hooked. My son saw this, and then he was hooked. Then we had a problem because they were reading the same books at the same time and fighting over Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’m not going to post them because I don’t show my son on the internet, but I have a great series of photos of the two of them having a wrestling match over On the Banks of Plum Creek.

6. Let them have snacks and build a pillow fort to read in. We don’t have to do this anymore, but a few years ago I had to allow 30 minutes of pillow fort preparation for every 30 minutes of reading. I put up with it because of the good result.

7. Buy them books and put them in their room. This shows them that you value books. They own them and re-read them and grow to love them so much more than if these books were borrowed for a few weeks from the library.

8. Turn a blind eye to surreptitious reading. Enable it, even. If the worst thing my kid ever does is read under the covers with a headlamp until two hours after his bedtime, I think we are in good shape.

9. Let them read what and how they want. There are limits to this. I don’t want my kid reading books that aren’t advanced enough for him. He can read them all he wants, but they don’t count toward his daily reading time. I also don’t force him to read classics with archaic language. Usually he does not get into books narrated by girls, and though this makes me sad, I don’t argue. Largely he sticks with middle grade adventure series, and that is okay with me.

He also reads four books at a time. I do not understand this at all. I don’t know if it’s a short attention span or what. I do know that he’s actually reading and understanding them, because whenever he takes an AR (Advanced Reading) test on one at school, he makes 100%. If it works for him, it works for me.

10. Never discount toy and movie tie-ins. My son has made huge progress as a self-starting reader because his interest was piqued by popular culture. A couple of years ago, faced with a long drive on vacation and a dead DVD battery, I bought my son a book to occupy him and crossed my fingers. I was reluctant to buy the anthology of three Star Wars novels about Boba Fett, but that’s all that interested him in the tiny mall bookstore we had available. This was the first time we had to yell at him to stop reading. Whenever we pulled over at a scenic overlook or a restaurant, he was so engrossed in this story that he refused to get out of the car.

And then, of course, there’s Harry Potter. I refused to let him see the movies until he read the books, but somehow he got hold of the strangely derivative Harry Potter Lego Wii game, and that’s when he finally said he wanted to read the first book. That was August of last year, when he was 9, about to enter 4th grade. Six weeks later he had read all seven Harry Potter novels.

He was a reader before, but Harry Potter really propelled him into reading voraciously--possibly because he’s not afraid now of a 700-pager. He knows he can read anything. His teachers and I worried that once he finished the series, he would not find anything else that measured up. As you can see from the list below, he has found plenty. He has read all of these books in the past year, and the quotation after each listing is his commentary.

* * *


“If you really like football, then you would be totally into these books. The FOOTBALL HERO and FOOTBALL GENIUS series come together in Deep Zone.”

There are maybe 5 of these books. My son has read all of them but Deep Zone, which he is reading now.

SEEMS series by John Hulme and Michael Wexler

“It’s just really interesting. If you like Harry Potter, you’re going to like it. And if you wonder about life, death, the universe, whatever, because it has this whole other world about how things are created, like gravity and your thoughts.”

There are 3 of these and my son has read all of them. We got the last one the other day and when he saw it he jumped up and down. When he was five pages in he said, “MOM. I am five pages in and it is SO GOOD.”


“If you’re a really genius reader, this book is not for you, but if you like a little silliness, this book is just right. This is a true quote from a review.”

Me: “I don’t understand. You’re quoting somebody else’s review from memory? I want you to review it yourself.”

Kid: “Yes, but the review is true. There is a hairless dog and a guy named Ethan Cheeseman.”

Me: “Whatevs.”

SECRET series by Pseudonymous Bosch

“It’s mystery-slash-adventure. If you like A Whole Nother Story, then you’ll probably like this.”

There are 5 of these, and my son has read the first 2.

ALEX RIDER series by Anthony Horowitz

I meant to get a quote from my son about these and I forgot. They are James Bond-ish. He found one that he hadn’t read in his room the other day and started reading it right where he found it on the floor. An hour later he was still in the same place on the floor, still reading.

There are lots of these books. My son thinks he has read 6.

PERCY JACKSON series by Rick Riordan

“If you like Harry Potter, then you’ll probably like Percy Jackson just because it’s still a fantasy but it’s more adventurous. It’s a real page turner. You just can’t wait to read the next chapter, and you read it every chance you can.”

There are 5 of these. My son has read all of them.

THE LOST HERO series by Rick Riordan

“If you really loved the Percy Jackson series, you will love this, because they have much the same setting, and much the same things happen.”

I am actually not clear on these books. My son also loved The Red Pyramid. Riordan may be writing two new series at once, and my son has read the first book and eagerly awaits the publication of the second of each series. I think it is pretty cool that he has acquired his own reading life that I can’t keep up with.

* * *

I hope this post helps someone nudge their child into the rewarding world of reading. My book Endless Summer seems to be popular with female reluctant readers, possibly because there is absolutely no pretense of anybody learning anything by reading it. I am so gratified when readers tell me they hated reading until Endless Summer, and now they read all the time. I have turned them! Sometimes all it takes is finding one book that speaks to you, and you’re hooked.
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