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.