More About Boys and Books

I had a robust discussion on Facebook about this article, which ended up being the second this week about the importance of reading and “good books” vs. “bad books.” Any time this comes up you are likely to touch a nerve.

I initially liked the article but my friends convinced me it is not that great. The author of doesn’t make a clear argument. His examples are weird and sometimes off base (Treasure Island is as violent as Goosebumps, for example).  But he does raise a point, and one I think is unpopular but true. The point is this: it’s not just reading that matters, it’s what kids read that matters.

The counter argument goes something like this: “It doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they read.” When people say that, I think they really have low-end outcomes. Sure, maybe any reading is better than no reading. But that’s a low standard. Maybe any reading can improve vocabulary skills as assessed on a vocabulary test, but that’s still a really low-reaching goal. But the fact is that not all books will be equally challenging, intellectually and emotionally, and not all books will contribute equally to the development of a child’s worldview. No, there is no objective way to measure this. That’s why we have teachers and librarians and book reviewers and lively debate.

It’s elitist and stuffy, but so be it. I don’t think all books are created equal. I know for a fact that some books resonate with me thirty years later, and some don’t. Betsy Byars helped make me into a sensitive, thoughtful adult. I can barely remember the mystery series I plowed through. I knew at the time and I know now those were different kinds of books and different kinds of reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a mix of books, and I quite like some of the books that make the lists of low-hanging fruit recommended to parents and teachers of reluctant readers. I’m glad I had that mystery series to plow through on boring summer days. Kids should have access to a variety of books and read whatever they want.

I just feel like the message becomes muddled. Are we communicating to kids why reading is important? Does it map to our own experiences as readers? Are we giving them the kinds of books that made us passionate about reading? And most importantly, are we showing that we value them as thinking people and future adults who will run the world?

3 thoughts on “More About Boys and Books

  1. I encourage my boys to read because I enjoy it so much and have since I was very small. There is nothing better than escaping into a good book. I never read with goals on improving vocabulary or worldview. Kids aren’t interested in that at all. That is something that comes in hindsight I think.

    They’re interested in a good yarn. My 9 year old reads everything from John Bellairs mysteries to Little House on the Prairie to Wimpy Kid. He likes Tales of Bunnicula and Fox Trot and Calvin and Hobbes. He also reads Field Guides to North American Mushrooms and Field Guides on Frogs and Weather and anything that interests him. He often times has the big giant book on all the secrets to the old Nintendo 64 version of Zelda.

    He has learned early about ‘bad writing’, for instance a good story idea, say Cats that form clans that fight wars, but is written in such a pace that drags or is higgledy piggeldy. The idea intrigued him,the writing never grabbed him. John Bellairs grabs him. He’ll read 200 pages in one evening.

    Henry loves going to the library every week and looking up books on the computer and finding the call numbers himself. Everything from chess strategies to Nintendo Power magazine. I don’t subscribe to the just get them to read anything so long as they’re reading motto. But I don’t push too hard to get them to read Where the Red Fern Grows or books like that, even though I loved and they stuck with me for 30 years. He’ll get there.

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