Thursday, December 13, 2007

"To Read or Not To Read" Report

I've been reading over the Executive Summary of the National Endowment for the Arts' latest report, "To Read or Not to Read." Hold onto your hat: Young people are reading less. Actually grade schoolers are doing okay, but middle schoolers, high schoolers and college-age kids are really sucking wind in the reading department.

I should say this thing is not a pick-me-up. It leads off with these three factoids:

• Americans are spending less time reading
• Reading comprehension skills are eroding
• The declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications

Here are two interesting factoids I've gleaned while flipping through the Executive Summary:

Fact 1: The reported number of books in a house has a direct correlation to how well kids did in science, civics and history. If a home had more than 100 books, the scores were 161, 167 and 305 respectively. With 0-10 books in the home, the scores were 122, 123, and 265.

Lesson: A home that values books produces children who do better in school.

Fact 2: Kids in 12th grade who read for fun almost every day have an average writing score of 162, kids who never or hardly ever read scored 136.

Lesson: Read a lot and you will be a better writer.

Most interesting is a passage in the preface—written by Dana Gioia, the Chairman of the NEA— that mentions the impact reading can have on people's lives:

"Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways. All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual's academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person's social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their education level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better."

You can download the Executive Summary here.

You can order a free hardcopy by snail mail or download the full report here.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Reading's "Startling Decline" Featured on NPR

DOH! I meant to post this up when I heard it last week. But, alas, I'm getting old.

This report covers the NEA's new report on reading and the "startling declines" it indentifies. Nothing new here, but it reminds me that I have to download that report and see what's what. But I dig it when this topic gets national news coverage—enough Britney and Lindsay already! Jeez.

You can listen to the report here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Wisonsin & Pods of Potential

Last week I had a thought while flying back from a fantastic library visit in Middleton, Wisonsin and was listening to the unsteady nose whistle of the man sleeping next to me in the cranial embrace of a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones: Man, there are a lot of kids out there.

Okay, granted, that's not particularly insightful or profound. And I wasn't even referring to Wisonsin, necessarily—although they have their share of backpack sloggers!

There's just something about flying over this vast country that gets you thinking about how many people are wandering around down there. And to meet all these great, enthusiastic kids who have read your books and want you to sign them is really sort of exciting and heady and humbling. And it got me thinking about the vast sea of young people out there; each kid is like some kind of bouncing pod of potential. Some will blossom and really do amazing things, while others—too many I'd say—never quite realize their potential. They get distracted, waylaid, sidetracked and lost for a million different reasons.

Let's faced it, our kids are not struggling for survival anymore, trudging across the snowy plains in hope that Dad or Uncle Walt bags dinner for everybody with a spear. Communities aren't being swept away by hunger, disease or drought. Heck, we've got the whole survival thing pretty well figured out. So are we taking advantage of that? How many kids today reach their potential? How many get half way there? How much could this country achieve, create, cure, discover, build, invent, and figure out if we all could just get close to achieving our potential?

If you're waiting for the answer, I don't have it. But I've got a feeling that the kids with parents who enourage them to read, sign them up for summer reading programs and sacrifice an afternoon to bring them to events where they can watch a real, live author-illustrator talk about the creative process and the joy of writing and they've got a much better chance at tapping that potential.

Kudos to those moms and dads who tip the scale in their kids favor!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Facts and Myths About Reading

Last week I was the "guest author" at Renaissance Learning's West Coast Conference in Sacramento, CA. The people from Rennaissance were very supportive and treated me very well—they also had really cool Wisconsin accents! I had a blast! I signed tons of books, met lots of great teachers and librarians and spread the news about the Joe Sherlock series to people from all over California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

If you haven't heard of Renaissance, they make Accelerated Reader (and other cool products, too). Accelerated Reader is a system of software quizes students can take after reading a book to test their comprehension and reading skill as well as chart their progress as a reader. It's also a great motivational tool that gets kids motivated to read more. When my books first came out, many people asked me if my books were "AR." At that time I had no idea what they were talking about, now I do. For some teachers and librarians, it's a key part of the buying decision. (I'd really like to take some of the tests on my books and see how I do!)

One of the things I picked up at the conference was a brochure published by Renaissance entitled "Facts and Myths About The Reading Gap and How to Close It." It has tons of good little factoids that are relevant to this blog. Here are a few nuggets of Truth:

Girls read better than boys. Fact.
The 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that in all assessed grades—4th, 8th, and 12th—girls scored higher in reading achievement than boys. Girls outscored boys by 5 scale points in 4th grade, 10 points in 8th grade, and 14 points in 12 grade. (Yikes! C'mon, boys! What's up with that?)

Boys don't read. Myth.
Boys do read—they just do not read as much as girls. Girls spend more time reading books than boys at every age starting in first grade, and the difference increases over time. (I know that's the case for grown ups, so the trend starts early!)

Boys read primarily nonfiction books. Girls read primarily fiction books. Myth.
While it is true that boys read more nonfiction books than girls, the vast majority of books both girls and boys read throughout all grades is fiction. (According to the chart in the booklet, the difference is only a few percentage points, almost statistically insignificant!)

Internet reading helps to improve reading about as much as book reading. Myth.
Studies demonstrate that students tend to scan Internet sites looking at headlines and key information, versus engaging in close reading shown to be essential to buidling good reading skills. A large-scale worldwide study to children's reading habits showed that of all the kinds of reading—such as Internet, newspaper, magazine and books—book reading is the single best predictor of reading ability worldwide. (So enough with the "but Jimmy reads a lot on the Internet!" stuff!)

Anyway, that's some food for thought. And just the tip of the iceberg of all the stuff I picked up. So let me know if you've used AR and how you've seen it help kids. And do let me know if you've taken the Joe Sherlock quizes and how you think I'd do on them!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Impact of a Visiting Author

On Wednesday evening I visited Benjamin Bubb Elementary in Mountain View, CA and was the speaker at their "Reading Under the Stars" celebration. It was really fun. I drew illustrations on a big white board, read some from my books, and answered lots of good questions from both kids and adults alike. I sold almost every book I brought with me—well over 100 books. It was really fun meeting all the great kids who waited in the line to get thier books signed.

Driving home that night, I was thinking about how much impact an author visit has on kids. I've been told by so many teachers and admininstrators after I've visited a school how much the kids were inspired to create and enthused about writing. You can't put a price on stuff like that.

Hey, nobody ever visited my school when I was a kid...actually we had a guy who made balloon animals and did some card tricks visit once, but that was different. And sort of creepy.

If your child's school has a committee to bring authors to the school, do what you can to support them. If your school doesn't have a program set up for author visits, start one. It really means a lot to the kids—I know; I've seen it in their eyes. Some schools seem to be better at this than others, and they work hard to raise the money it takes to bring an author to a school. And although I run the risk of sounding self-serving, it's a great investment. Kudos to you who bring authors to schools.

You never know how many kids will become more intersted in reading, writing and books in general after an author visit. I can honestly say it sometimes feels like a visiting author can make an impact that will last a lifetime. I could be wrong—but I doubt it.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Children's Library Open Its Doors Again

I should start out by saying I did a really cool speaking/signing event this weekend. One that got me thinking.

What made it so cool was that it took place at the Grand Re-Opening of the Palo Alto Children's Library. The very idea of a community library devoted solely to books for children is a heady one. When I mentioned to a wonderful woman named Maya—who was the heart and soul and spirit behind this grand makeover—that I could not think of another library like this one, she said there are just a few others. What a shame! Imagine if every community could have one!

I must say thank you to everyone who volunteered to make the event so successful (the sizeable turnout ended up being well informed and well cupcaked!) and to Kepler's Books & Magazines for inviting me to be the guest author at such a festive community celebration.

On a more note that's a bit more bloggy...

You simply must check out the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress at Grades 4 and 8. I'll tell you, things look a little brighter in this report. There's much to be hopeful about in here. Here's one example: "Fourth graders in 2007 scored 2 points higher than in 2005 and 4 points higher than in 1992." There are oodles of interesting charts and factioids organized in a way that makes the whole thing easy to breeze through. Oh, and I did notice with some interest that girls still whup boys in reading in both age groups. DOH! You can download the report—in part or in whole—here. Let me know if anything in the report catches your eye.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

For Your Listening Pleasure

Most people have never heard of Horn Book magazine. But for those of us interested in the world of children's books, it's a biggee. One thing the magazaine has started recently is posting podcasts (easy-to-use online audio content) on their website. It a great example of how an online site can offer much richer, in-depth content than a magazine or newspaper. And it's really cool.

Check out the interview with author Jon Scieszka at their new podcast page. Best of all there's more content coming!

Now if I can get some of this kind of content on my website...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Kids Should Get Carded, Too!

Forget Visa, MasterCard and American Express, the most powerful piece of plastic you can carry in your purse, wallet, backpack or lunchbox is the library card. The free public library is truly one of the greatest, most underappreciated, most underused luxuries of modern society. Simply put, the library is a great place to hang out, explore, and be surprised.

And what do you know, this is Library Card Sign-Up Month! Learn more here.

C'mon, there are plenty of days left to treat the little ones in your life to their first "plastic." I see it every Saturday on our weekly visit. The kids I see get their first official "credit card" are thrilled. The power. The prestige. The possibilities.

Now if you get any lip about boring, fusty, dusty, stinky ol' books, don't stand for it. There's so much to do and discover at the library these days. Here's a good starter list of things you can do at your library from USA Today.

I realize in a blog like this I'm preaching to the choir, but spread the news. Encourage and remind people. And parents should do all they can to pop in with the kids at least every two weeks for 20 minutes or so—it's kind of a chore, yes, but it will have a lot more lasting value than picking up the dry cleaning. And mom and dad just might find something, too!

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Walk Between The Towers

This blog is about reluctant readers and getting kids to read more, not about me recommending books. But the idea for this post will simply not go away. It won't leave me alone. So here goes...

All the talk this week of the sixth anniversary of 9/11 got me thinking about one special book, one of my all-time favorite picture books. I pulled it off the shelf last night and read it to my son, and it's as good as ever.

My kids are really too young to remember 9/11—isn't that weird?—so they do not "get" the backstory behind The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. But they love the story.

The book's breathtaking illustrations and deceivingly simple text are a sweet and exciting retelling of a true story. It's the riveting tale of a young tightrope walker and thrill seeker named Philippe Petit who—with the help of a few friends—strings a cable between New York's almost-completed World Trade Center towers in 1974 and how he proceeds to spend one summer morning walking between them.

There's just something about that book that gets me every time. Maybe it's simply the tale of how someone took this magnificent pair of buildings and did a positive, creative, life-affirming thing with them. You can't help but consider in your mind as you read the story how others would later use these majestic structures for such a tragic, evil and destructive purpose. 9/11 is only mentioned in a very abstract way at the end, but it can be used as a way to gently introduce the story of what happened to those buildings.

So next time you're at the library or in a bookstore, pick it up and look through it. It's not just a Cadecott Medal winner, it's magical in some way that's hard to describe. Perhaps it's simply that Mr. Gerstein took a terrible, tragic event and through the creative process took some of that negative energy and—through the prism of his creativity—transformed it back into something positive again. Now that's magical.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Hey, Kids! Adults Don't Read Much Either!

I hear a lot about reluctant readers. As I've mentioned before, they tend to be stories about little boys and how they don't like to read.

I also read a lot of news stories about how big boys don't like to read much either, with adult men lagging far behind women in the book reading category—especially when it comes to fiction. This article from NPR entitled Why Women Read More Than Men is a prime example. (Although you have to ask yourself, if ESPN were to be outlawed, would this "reading gender gap" evaporate overnight?)

Then I read things that suggest that boys would read more in school if they just got assigned books with more action or stories that begin with white-knuckled chase scenes, like this USA Today editorial suggests.

There may be something to all of this; I know the Joe Sherlock series wins boys over with its over-the-top goofiness and respectful nod to the staples of third-grade humor. And I'll admit, I like to do a little gross-out humor in the first chapter because I know it's something that will catch the attention of those hard-to-hook boys.

After you noodle that for a bit, consider this story from CNN that basically says lots of adults aren't reading—that's both big boys and big girls. Almost 30%, or the spookier statistic of 1 in 4 adults, haven't read a book in the last year. And of those who have, the average is about 4 books a year. That ain't much. But of course, we expect our kids to be reading like maniacs—do as we say, not as we do!

So maybe we need to do a little more of leading by example. And maybe we need to do a little more thinking about what we assign—or encourage—our kids to read. C'mon, when most adults read fiction they're reaching for mysteries, thrillers, romance, horror and science fiction—I don't have any supporting statistics here, but who wants to argue with me? And why do adults read these type of books? Becasue they're fun to read! People will read if they're reading for pleasure; they won't read simple because it's "good" for them.

There's much to be mined here. And I'm on the case. This is something I'm going to have to look into. So stay tuned, and let's see if we can't come up with ways to get EVERYBODY reading more.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Getting Started Is The Tricky Part

A mom the other day at a signing event was telling me how hard it is to get her nine-year-old son to read a book. "I get him books and they just sit on his nightstand gathering dust," she said.

Sounds familiar. I hear this all the time. So I have her a simple piece of advice that works like a charm at our house:

Read the first few chapters aloud to him over the course of a few nights.

One of two things will likely happen: One, he'll be so intrigued by the third or fourth night that he'll take over and start reading to himself. Or two, you may become so involved in the book that you start to look forward to your reading aloud sessions; you may even find that you're enjoying the book almost as much as he does—or more.

I know it sounds too simple. And it's not always the easiest thing to do after a long day at work or dealing with everyday hustles and hassles. But it works.

Let's face it, getting started is the hardest part for any reluctant reader. Sometimes kids can be turned off simply because they can't pronounce the characters' names correctly. Or they can't quite figure out what's going on in the first two chapters; you can answer the questions, clarify the action for them, or help them grasp who the key characters are and how they fit together. Then the story takes over!

So many parents presume that once their child can read for themself, they're done with the reading aloud business. But that's just the beginning of so many hours of nestling together as you make your way through a great adventure. I read my girls the entire Gregor the Overlander series and I had a blast doing it. My wife read them all the Charlie Bone stories and they were all hooked. There's no better quality time than time spent reading together. Heck, this is when the stories get really good. It also shows your child that you value books and reading.

So if a child you know has trouble getting the ball rolling, I suggest you pick up that book and get the party started. Sometimes a little reading together time can create a whole lot of momentum.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Homework vs. Reading

Summer is over. Or just about. The kids return on Wednesday. They're excited. Frankly, we're excited. But there's one thing nobody is excited about: the homework. Even our fish are dreading it.

Let me just say before I go any further, I never had homework when I was in elementary school. Never. Not until I got to John Muir Junior High did I even start to get homework. These days? Ha! We have homework in preschool and Kindergarten. Hours and hours in third grade. Oh, my head hurts just thinking about all the hair pulling, crying, foot stamping, and pouting—and that's just me and my wife! And the kids won't like the homework any better than us.

Over the years homework has come and gone in cycles. Like any contagious disease, it goes through periods of dormancy when it's manageable and non-threatening, then, out of nowhere, it roars back to life, snatching everyone's free time in its greedy, snapping jaws. Parents and kids run screaming—but there's no escape. Heck, now there's even the summer book report! If you listen very carefully you can hear the steam coming out of my ears.

These days, we certainly seem to be in a "more is better" phase of homework philosophy. I even hear parents asking teachers for more work for thier kids. Forget play! They have to get ahead in the world! It's as if they believe you can't learn by playing and pretending, you must do stacks of worksheets if you want to be smart.

Let me state my position clearly: homework stinks. Too much homework stinks to high heaven.

First, it takes away time to play catch in the yard, run up to the park to shoot baskets, invite a friend over to build a fort, or walk the dog with the family. Second, it crushes the desire in kids—at least my kids—to read for fun. What third grader wants to read for fun after three hours of teeth-gnashing worksheets, math problems and studying for this week's spelling and vocab words? But worst of all—and I mean WORST—are those time consuming and essentially pointless projects that suck up every last moment of joy out of busy weekday evenings and sunny weekend afternoons. You know the ones I'm talking about, right? The six-foot collage, an old president's head molded out of clay, the toothpick teepee, the map of the United States made from different kinds of pasta noodles. I swear just the sight of a glue gun gives me hives now.

Perhaps this year will be different. Perhaps. Besides, we'll squeeze in our fun reading somehow. We always do. And then there's always next summer...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Why Joe Sherlock Works for Reluctant Readers

Since this blog is about getting reluctant readers to read, I thought I'd reveal the qualities that I believe make my Joe Sherlock series such a hit among the reluctant reader crowd.

Not that kids who enjoy reading for fun and entertainment don't like the series. They do. But it's harder to find books that reluctant readers will actually sit and read for an extended period of time. For some appreciative parents, it's a mystery how a Joe Sherlock mystery hooked their previosuly stubborn and committed "non-reader."

So here's why I think the series works so well for those who normally roll their eyes at the mere mention of reading for fun:

They're snot-blowing funny. Okay, I'm patting myself on the back a bit here, but I work darn hard to make every sentence, every paragraph, every page of a Joe Sherlock mystery as funny as I can. I often tell my editor, Margarget, that I aim to pack each book with maximum LPI (laughs per inch). Humor is the great equalizer for the book-averse crowd. If a book can make a reluctant reader snort, chuckle, cackle, giggle, snicker, crack up or just crack a smile, you just found a chink in his armor. And I shoehorn in all variety of humor: wordplay, slapstick, family dynamics, gross-out and just plain old silly stuff. In short, I'm hurling every weapon in the comedy arsenal at 'em.

They have illustrations on every page. For some kids, an endless jungle of text can be intimidating and just plain dull looking. But with illustrations on every page, the Joe Sherlock books look more inviting, more friendly. Kids—especially boys— are visual, and I've seen lots of boys give the books what I call the "flip test," which is performed by holding the book between your index finger and thumb and quickly fanning through the pages. "Okay," they pronounce after seeing all the illustrations. Hey, for some kids reading the first few chapters of a book is a battle fought from illustration to illustration.

They have short chapters. Adults don't like 60-page chapters, and kids even more so. But for the reluctant reader, to actually make it though a chapter can feel like a major accomplishment. If a reluctant readers can spend five minutes and say he's already dusted off the first chapter, he's achieved a genuine sense of accomplishment (and built a bit of momentum, too).

They're crammed full of cliff hangers. I try to end every single chapter with a cliff hanger. Truthfully, it's my secret weapon. And I've found that kids aren't even consciously aware that I'm using cliff hangers as a literary device. It's like an invisible headlock! This is why so many kids describe the books as mysteriously hard to put down, and why so many moms have gushed to me about their "non-readers" staying up way past bedtime to finish their Joe Sherlock book.

There's always an element of time pressure. I borrowed this technique from good thrillers, since time pressure is usually not a common trait of mysteries, where the key action has already occured and the detective comes on the scene to figure out what happened. It's just another ingredient I toss into the Joe Sherlock stew to kick it up a notch. Whether it's finding the ring before the wedding starts or the mummy head before the big museum gala begins, cranking up the time pressure keeps them hooked.

Everyone wants Joe Sherlock to succeed. Nothing goes right for Joe Sherlock. He stumbles and bumbles his way through his cases. I often say he's more Charlie Brown than Encyclopaedia Brown. It's fun to put him in embarrassing, awkward, and uncomfortable situations. But he never gives up. He just keeps on sluething. And, in the end, you're really want to see him succeed.

Now, I understand that Joe Sherlock is not the answer for every reluctant reader; every child is different. But whether it's a graphic novel or non-fiction about flesh-eating plants, the essential point is to find the right kind of book and get them reading.

And like lighting a campfire, the key is to get a spark. Then it's up to the person in charge to keep carefully adding fuel. Before you know it, you've got a hot, roaring fire that will eventually start feeding itself. Now that's a beautiful thing to behold.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Your First Love?

A great nonprofit organization called First Book recently conducted an interesting survey called What Book Got You Hooked? The study asked respondents what book made them fall in love with reading. In looking over the results, I was intrigued by the notion that one book can make a person a reader for life.

Think about it: there could be a book out there that, when matched with the right kid, would make a child fall in love with reading and books for life? That's heavy, man.

Can the right book touch us so deeply that it changes us in some lasting and profound way? Can you say the same for a movie? A TV show? A video game? Nope. Let's face it: there's something about the nature of a book that enables it to crawl into our soul and rearrange the furniture in a way in that other forms of entertainment simply can't. So...what are the books that did a feng shui number on your soul's living room?

For me, one book was Journey Cake, Ho! by Ruth Sawyer and illustrated by the great Robert McCloskey. I haven't seen that book in years, but there was a well-thumbed and slightly beat-up copy at our house when I was growing up. There was just something about that story that stuck to yer ribs. The illustrations were dark, slightly creepy and troubling—but somehow compelling and full of life at the same time. I remember the kid in that story (named Johnny) had to leave home because his family was too poor for him to stay. He chases a rolling pancake (his journey cake) for miles and ends up back home. What the Sam Hill did it all mean? I don't know, but that book captivated me as a kid like no other.

I remember, too, The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes with illustrations by Robert Nadler. Of course, this wasn't the recent movie tie-in version, this was the old version from about 1968 or so. I read it in the third grade and was blown away. I still remember reading the scene where the robot puts itself back together again after a fall. That blew my fuses. I am fascinated with robots to this day. I told my kids about that book so many times, they eventually bought it off of eBay for me for Christmas one year. And it still rocks my socks!

If anything, this study should point out the importance of getting books into the hands of kids. And who knows, that next book could be the book that wins them over for life.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Why Johnny Doesn't Read

It's been my experience—in talking with so many kids, parents, teachers and librarians—that most reluctant readers are boys. There's simply no denying it.

This fact was on my mind as I read the excellent cover story by David Von Drehle's in the current Time magazine titled "The Myth About Boys."

With some hope and a little trepidation, I read about boys making great strides in current years, that all the media hoopla about American boys going to "you-know-where" in a hand basket have been overplayed, and that boys are making a big comeback. (Sidebar: what the heck is a "hand basket" anyway?) But as I made my way through the article, I knew in the back of my mind what was coming; it was like waiting for the "you-know-what" to hit the fan. I kept reading...and then..."Pow!" right in the kisser:

"Reading is a problem. The standardized NAEP test, known as the nation's report card, indicates that by the senior year of high school, boys have fallen nearly 20 points behind their female peers."

Despite all their progress, boys still stink statistically in reading. No surprise. That's what I hear all the time. But reading it in Time still smarts.

And then this: "Too many boys are leaving school functionally illiterate." As Homer Simpson would say, "DOH!"

But just when I thought the worst was over, this one actually made me flinch: "In the late 1970s, roughly 1 in 20 boys was obese; today 1 in 5 is." Chunky boys who don't read! (My head hurts.)

So...what's to be done? The article mentions that things are getting better reading-wise for younger boys, mostly because people are now focused on it, which, in turn, means that our actions can make a difference. We need to get boys reading! As the writer states so plainly: "In an economy increasingly geared toward processing information, an inability to read becomes an inability to earn."

Bottom line: We can make a difference by working harder and smarter to get books into the hands of boys.

To read "The Myth About Boys" click here.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Keeping a List of Your Books

I am not a great list maker.

In fact, when I sit down and make a list of all the important things I need to accomplish, I often misplace the list almost immediately. I start a new list and the first thing on that list is usually something about finding the old list. So I cannot be classified as an efficient list maker.

But I do keep a list of what I've read. Not only the name of the book, but also who wrote the book and when I finished reading it. Wierd, huh? I started doing this right after I graduated from college. The last year or two I haven't been as devoted to my list of books, and I usually end up playing catch up after a few months roll by and I have to remember what I read. But I still keep a list. And I've never lost this list.

Why do I do this? I'm not sure. It seemed important when I first started reading like my life depended on it. Honestly, the list is not even that useful. Nobody has ever asked me for a list of what books I read in, say, October of 1989, or what my literary pursuits were in the last quarter of 1992. Of course, I can look it up and tell them if somebody did ask. But nobody ever has.

I have taught my kids to keep lists of the books they've read each year and the date they finished. They're pretty good at it. They like to keep count. It's fun to look back and remember your favorite books of the year. I like to brag about their lists to anyone who'll listen. I think this makes them proud of their accomplishment. If you've got young readers, get one of those little spiral binders and have them start writing down what they've read and when they finished. You'll be able to look back and count how many books they read over the summer, and how many they knocked off over the entire year. Maybe one day they'll look back and show their kids what they were reading when they were trying to fill up the long days of summer. My older daughter now uses her list to create her "Top Ten" list for each year.

I bet any kid would work a little bit harder if they know there was a list—I mean who, after all, wants to brag to Grandma that "I read almost one and a half books this summer!" Nope. They'll remember that list. And I bet they go for double digits. And that's something that everybody likes to hear about.

And I bet they never lose that list either.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Are Books Even Important Any More?

Why is reading important?

And by that I mean literary reading, as opposed to other kinds of reading, like salsa recipes, street signs and the latest juicy gossip about Britney and Lindsay.

Is literary reading more important than reading magazines? Newspapers? The Internet? That little chart of nutritional facts on your last can of Who Hash? (How's that for a literary reference!)

As I plow my way through the National Endowment for the Arts report entitled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, it's clear that Americans of every demographic group are reading less. All education levels. All ethnic groups. All age groups—but the steepest decline in literary reading is among the youngest age group studied, down 28% over the last twenty years among 18- to 24-year olds.

So what? Does it really matter any more if people are reading novels, short stories, poetry or drama? Who gives a dang? Who cares? What's that stuff have to do with today's world? In my gut I know it's important, but it's hard to explain why to someone who hasn't thumbed through a book since they had to write a book report for Mrs. Grumhipple.

I saw this quote in the report by Dana Gioia, the NEA's Chairman: "Literary reading is fading as a meaningful activity, especially among younger people. If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action." And then this: "Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century." Is this guy just a pick-me-up, or what?

So would you rather be stuck in an elevator for eight hours with someone who reads literature or someone who doesn't? Would you prefer your company to hire a reader or a non-reader? Would you prefer your daughter to marry a guy who's well-read or a guy who only uses books as doorstops? Would you prefer our next President to be an avid reader or someone who's too busy counting donations and reading polls?

If you chose the literary reader...why?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Television: The Anti-book

Some call TV the "idiot box." Others call it "the boob tube." I like "the one-eyed soul sucker." Or "crack in the box."

Let's face it, TV is addictive. And this country has a serious TV jones.

While that flickering cyclops casts its spell on us with ease, most of us wish we watched less, wish that infernal box had less power over us. Can you magine lying on your deathbed and kicking yourself for not having watched more episodes of Dukes of Hazzard?

One thing you notice when you dive into the statistics about reading and kids is that TV is the elephant in the room everyone's reluctant to point a finger at. ("But we just watch educational programs!") It's the number one enemy of the book. TV is the the anti-book.

Growing up, I probably watched television more than I should have. After school you could catch some Popeye or an episode of The Three Stooges. And, of course, there were Saturday morning cartoons, a highlight of any kid's week back in the 70s. But it's so different today; now there's children's programming available 24/7 on almost two dozen kid-friendly channels. The trough is open for business whenever little Jimmy or Janey has a spare moment.

We have not had TV at our house for about 12 years. (You should see the looks of utter horror on the faces of my children's friends when they hear that bit of news!) I jokingly tell people you really only miss it for the first eight or nine years...then you simply become numb to the outside world—did you hear Hawaii and Alaska have been added to the Union?

I'd have to say the benefits of life without TV far outweigh the disadvantages. Most importantly, we no longer have to be subjected to nerve janglers like, "What you don't know about hamsters and salmonella could be putting your family at risk! The report you can't afford to miss tonight on Action News 8!"

But I can honestly say that my kids wouldn't be such big readers and I would have never become a writer if I was spending my evenings drooling with a vacant stare in front of such important cultural milestones as Pimp My Ride and The Bachelor.

Honestly, I don't know how people find the time. But at the Keane house we always manage to fill the hours of the day. Imagine that.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Impact of Harry Potter

Since practically every muggle on the planet is buzzing about the final Harry Potter installment arriving at midnight tomorrow, I thought I'd point out an interesting subgenre of the Potter hype: what effect has the Harry Potter series had on the reading patterns and habits of children? Also, what has been the series' overall impact on children's publishing as a whole?

This topic is mulled over in this interesting article from today's Washington Post. Often mentioned in these stories is Scholastic's own study on the impact that Harry, Ron and Hermoine have had on young readers. The Post also has an intresting online discussion on this topic here. (You may need to register, but it's free!)

I found the most intriguing concept in the article to be a comment about "postive social pressure" to read the Potter books, which begs the question: is there a lot of "negative social pressure" out there regarding kids and reading? I know my 11-year-old bookworm hears it. Is reading considered cool for today's kids? My daughter anwers with an emphatic "NO!" Is it uncool to be seen reading or carrying a book? "YES!" says daughter, "IT'S CONSIDERED TOTALLY UNCOOL!" The subtle and not-so-subtle pressure that swirls around children reading for fun deserves some looking into.

Another thing: Are the 61% of boys and 41% of girls who have read the hero of Hogwarts books, but who weren't reading for fun before picking up a Harry book, actually reading anything else besides the Harry Potter tomes? Or are these kids simply 100% Harry? That's hard to say with any degree of certainty. But speaking as a children's book author, I say any talk in the popular culture about a book—any book—is a good thing . . . and anything that brings traffic into bookstores is good for EVERYBODY.

Thoughts? Has Potter cast a spell on your young readers? Doesn't a chocolate frog sound good right now?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The M Generation: Reading vs Electronic Media

I just read the executive summary of the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation study titled "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds." (They're calling this generation Generation M for all the time they spend with (electronic) media.) As a guy who writes books for children the report is sobering and, frankly, a little depressing. During school visits I sometimes have the feeling that I'm the representative for the whole book industry, trying to lobby for the paltry few minutes kids devote to reading—and I lobby with all I've got. From TVs playing in the back of the SUV or family van (forget about talking, reading, or singing campfire songs!) to kids in the second grade constantly text messaging each other, the world she is a changin'!

Are books holding their own against 300 TV channels, video game consoles, email, cell phones, text messages, digital cameras, computer games, the Internet, instant messaging, and downloading the latest must-have hit song for your iPod? Care to hazard a guess? More importantly, how is all this media exposure and multi-tasking changing American youths?
As the report asks: "What does this mean for the nature of childhood? or to interpersonal and familial connections?" Good questions.

First some interesting statistics (you might want to sit down): Young people today live media saturated lives and spend 6.5 hours a day with media, the equivalent of a full time job (44.5 hours a week). 24% of kids live in a home with more than 5 TVs and TVs are still the media seduction of choice with 8- to 18-year olds spending an average of 3 hours and 51 minutes a day watching TV. Kids in my target demographic (8- to 10-year olds) watch an average of 4 hours and 10 minutes a day. 20% of 8- to 18-year olds watch TV over 5 hours a day. 72% of boys and 64% of girls have thier own TV in their room. 63% of 8- to 18-year olds live in a house where TV is usually on during meals, while 53% live in homes with no rules about TV watching. Yikes!

Okay, so what useful statistics can be gleaned from the report regarding kids and reading? Here what the report has to say: "Some kids do read less than others. For example, those with TVs in their rooms, those in homes where the TV is left on all the time, and those whose parents don't have rules about TV watching all tend to spend less time reading than others do." (Reading, according to the report, includes books, magazines and newspapers not read for homework.) Kids who live in houses where the TV is on "most of the time" spend an average of 37 minutes a day reading while those who live in houses where the TV is on a "little" or "never" spend 55 minutes reading a day. Among 8- to 10-year olds, kids whose parents have rules about TV and enforce them "most" of the time spend 38 minutes less a day watching TV and 16 minutes more reading a day.

So what's a parent to do who's concerned about getting their children to read more? They might consider these strategies:
• Don't leave the TV on, especially when nobody is watching it (that makes a difference)
• Don't watch TV during meals
• Set rules about how much TV can be watched, and enforce them
• If it's not too late, don't put a TV in your child's room (once it's there, it will be extremely difficult to remove)

A few rules go a long way; as my sister-in-law told me the other day, she enforces a "no screen day" on Sundays and the kids end up spending a whole lot of time reading at her house on Sundays. That's pretty simple to do.

The 41-page report is well written, well designed and truly fascinating. You can read it for yourself here.

ALSO, I must thank the San Mateo Public Library for hosting my talk last night, and San Mateo's M is for Mystery bookstore for supplying the books. I met some really neat kids! I signed a lot of books! And everyone enjoyed some good belly LAUGHS!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Are Kids Reading Less Today Than Ever?

I ran across an interesting article about kids and reading over the weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle. The lead paragraph in the story focuses on the issue of teen reading, but the study mentioned in the article, Scholastic's The Kids and Family Reading Report, clearly points out that kids begin to read much less for entertainment and pleasure around the third and fourth grades—and that's what I've found emperically as well. Perhaps that's when the problem begins and it becomes more acute later on in middle school and high school.

I've ordered the NEA study mentioned in the article, which I will read with much interest.

I thought the comments by Stanford's Michael Kamil were a bit troubling. Can reading a book and all the value inherent in that endeavor be put on equal footing with text-messaging your friends, playing HALO, making new pals on MySpace, or surfing around YouTube for the latest funny video clip of a guinea pig looking into the camera with bug eyes? Can these activities really be considering "reading for information?" I think not. But perhaps I'm just an old school fuddy-duddy.

Maybe somebody would like to set me straight on this score. Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

Also, ran across this audio interview with Eric Carle today from NPR's All Things Considered program. It's moving and illuminating. And the audio slideshow of his work is also a must. The guy is a flat-out legend.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A First Dip Into The Blogosphere

Well, here goes...It's time to dip my toe into the blogosphere. First impression: It's freezing in here.

Before I get all bloggy, I should mention one caveat: I don't know what I'm doing. So if this blog looks like it's under cyberattack from an enemy of the printed word, it's probably just my learning curve showing.

In addition to blogging about being a children's book author and illustrator and all the sundry slings and arrrows that go along with that calling, I'd also like to focus on issues relating to getting kids to read more. The latest studies. Interesting articles. Tips for turning your reluctant reader into a ravenous reader. Things that have worked for your little reader. That sort of thing. To that end, I plan to post whatever "bits and pieces" come my way relating to that subject. So if you run across things that relate to this subject and you think that I ought to see/blog about it, please email me straightaway at Or just post a response.

Well, that's it for the first foray. And I don't have a scratch on me! Now if I could just get my dang photo on here.