Thursday, April 10, 2008

Are smart and cool mutually exclusive?

After a school assembly earlier this year, there was a beehive of activity going on around me; kids were swarming everywhere. I was signing books and also putting my autograph on tiny slips of paper that kids had ripped out of their notebooks. One little girl told me I was the first famous person she'd ever met. Other kids just stared at me with big bug eyes. This is the kind of thing children's authors live for, right? Then a cute kid caught my eye and said, "Books are for nerds."

All I could do was laugh and say, "Well, then I guess I'm a nerd."

I was struck by the dichotomy: How one kid could be so excited about getting an actual author to sign his book, while another wouldn't be caught dead with a book? How'd that happen?

Getting kids to read can be like that: a big, complicated mystery with no easy solution.

The San Jose Mercury News ran the first story in a fascinating series this week titled Smart vs. Cool. It's about the "success gap" in school, and how different races and ethnicities approach popularity and academic success. It's a MUST read.

Is reading cool? Is doing well in school cool? I sometimes hear about the issues concerning "A students" and how the kids lower down the grade scale treat them. Isn't it interesting how those who are considered "smart" are also relegated to the role of pariah? How destructive is that to the future of America? How the heck did that happen?

When I was in school I was neither smart nor cool. Nor popular. Nor a good dresser. I also had bad hair. When I was in middle school—as many of the kids in this article are—I think I was so lost in my own miserableness that I never quite registered on the popularity radar. I was just that weird, funny guy who was always scribbling cartoons in his notebook. So the pressures on the smart kid are something I've never dealt with on a firsthand basis.

In the end, I guess the question is this: How can we make being smart cool to young people? How can we make reading books the coolest thing you can do?

Talk about a tall order. Any of you smart people out there have any ideas? How about you cool people?

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