Earlier this summer, my middle school colleagues and I worked on a curriculum project in our district’s comprehensive high school — a busy place during the summer. On one of those days, literally hundreds of our students lined up to participate in a teen summer job fair. As they patiently waited in line, they chatted with one another, checked their smart phones and listened to music. Only one brought a book.
Now I am not so old-fashioned that I lament the time wasted on electronic devices “these days.” Rather, I worry about what happens to our young teens, particularly our boys, if reading doesn’t make it anywhere near the top of the summer priority list. I speak from experience and legitimate concern. You see, I have two newly minted teenage boys who rarely gravitate to books. As a literacy specialist, this haunts me (probably one of the reasons for the behavior!). I know the toll a lack of summer reading can take on student achievement, and I feel challenged by the problem in my own home.
So I raised this dilemma with my peers, and my colleague Dan articulated a position that resonated with me. He suggested that boys often have to work harder to find books that meet their needs since so many of the incredible YA books we have in our classrooms seem to be better matches for girls.
My first reaction was a resounding, “No way!” There are tons of incredible YA books available for consumption — choices for all readers. But then I paused and realized Dan might be onto something. I devour YA realistic fiction. I never have a problem finding characters that speak to me, even when I venture out into fantasy or historical fiction.
But that is not the case for my sons who also generally prefer realistic fiction. As early adolescents, they often struggle to make that transformative connection to a character or a plot line. I think the same was likely true for many of the middle school boy readers in my classroom who did not gravitate to magic realism, fantasy or adventure.
So I am trying to maintain a list for boys like my sons — average readers hovering between childhood and adolescence, the tangible and the abstract — that I can draw from to encourage them to make summer reading, and reading in general, a viable priority.
A few of the titles that I have seen work well in the classroom and for my sons include:
- Sharon Draper’s Hazelwood High trilogy
- Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- Jacqueline Woodson’s From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun and Miracle’s Boys
- Andrew Clement’s Things Not Seen
- Jordan Sonnenblick’s, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie and After Ever After
Reflecting on this brief list, it seems that all the texts tackle issues relevant to adolescents — friendship, grief, loss, love, difference, to name a few. But they also have teen protagonists who learn to dig deep inside themselves to come to new understandings. They do not just wait for someone else to explain the issues to them. Perhaps this is some of what our boys are seeking: characters (mostly boy characters, though not exclusively) who succeed in finding their own voices as they inch toward the adult world.
I know there are many more books out there that speak to tween/teen boys. Which texts light a spark for your students? How are you helping them find characters that speak to them? I would love to hear from those of you out there helping our young adolescent boys make that connection!