Sunday, January 3, 2010

Guys Read Book Club: Winter '09

So even though I'm only a library student and not yet an actual, for-real librarian (i.e. I don't yet have my official badge and decoder ring), I can still work every now and then at my local library, for money. Last summer, I did three sessions of a Guys Read book club, which is for boys in grades four through six. Boys tend not to read as much as girls, particularly at young ages, and peer pressure (“reading is dumb and punching is awesome”) only exacerbates this trend.

(Interesting tangent: girls score much higher on reading tests than boys, while boys tend to score higher in math tests. This trend is true in pretty much every industrialized country in the world, but here's the interesting part: in countries with greater gender equality, the gap in math scores changes, i.e. girls score as good as or better than boys, while the gap in reading scores grows. Peep this paper, people.)

My three books over the summer were:

The Seer of Shadows, by Avi
The White Mountains, by John Christopher
Bone: Out From Boneville, by Jeff Smith

And just last week I did a ‘winter break’ book, which was The Snow Spider, by Jenny Nimmo.

Saying that these book clubs have been a learning experience would be a dramatic understatement. Before doing them, I could count the number of times I’ve been in a position of authority over the under-10 set on one hand—heck, probably even on one of Nightcrawler’s hands. I talked with a couple veterans of the Guys Read program about what I should expect from the group, and I sat in on a few sessions as well, which was, again, an eye-opener. My first impression was that I would be lucky to get, in a 45-minute-long session, maybe ten minutes of actually talking about the book with these guys. Not that they hate reading and anything associated with it, and not even that they hate anything with a vaguely school-like setting, but simply that leading a discussion of ten-year-old boys—or, as the scientific community has termed them, “Nature’s perpetual motion machines”—makes herding cats look easy.

With my own guys, though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much actual talking about the book we’ve been able to do. Going in to my first session, I had a little speech planned out, about how this isn’t school, and I’m not your teacher, and you can say what you want about the book, even “this book sucks,” and how you don’t need to raise your hand or talk only to me instead of your fellow book clubbers, et cetera. I only got about halfway through the speech before one of the guys interrupted me with a comment about one of the characters.

I can’t say that I really got any of the guys into literature, or that I changed their minds about how books are “cool,” or even whether I got them to actually enjoy reading instead of, say, playing video games. But it was fun, it was a new experience, and best of all, I got fifty bucks per session!

This last session was much the same as the ones during the summer—the guys seemed to have more pent-up energy, which makes sense if they’ve been cooped up all winter. (The snow in Minnesota is a living force, actively trying to kill all humanity and freeze our corpses into statuary.) There was a fair amount of running around and an impromptu game of tag.

We did get a small amount of actual talking about the book done, during which I had another confirmation of something I learned during the summer sessions: the books I like are totally boring. The guys liked the Avi book okay, but they were bored stiff by The White Mountains, which I liked as a kid but was written in 1967, and which features only three explosions, two of which you don’t even get to see properly.

Snow Spider is much the same; there’s no explosions at all and hardly any action to speak of. I remember being fascinated by the tense family dynamics and the strange combination of mythology and magic that fuels the plot, but apparently kids these days prefer laser guns and fart jokes. Or maybe guys have always liked that kind of stuff, and I’ve just got strange tastes for a guy. Either way, most of the guys expressed dislike, although a couple mentioned that they’d already reserved the other two books in the trilogy and planned to read them next.

Once we’d finished talking about the book (which took all of about ten minutes), we got quickly sidetracked by talking about video games. I also made the possible mistake of telling the kids about the Star Wars Holiday Special, which is widely regarded as a plague upon the Earth, and the Wookie holiday of ‘Life Day,’ which led us into the possibility of Space Christmas and Space Easter, with the corresponding holiday personifications of Wookie Santa, with his spray-painted beard, and the Easter Wookie. I also learned that, of the six guys who came to this session, five of them were familiar with the works of Jeff Dunham, which made me die a little inside.

Before the session was up, though, I was able to bring them around to the book just a little bit more, thanks to the Internet: back in 1988, the BBC did a TV adaptation of The Snow Spider, and I was able to obtain a copy through slightly underhanded means. I showed the guys a bit, and we all agreed that the special effects were awful, and the actors moreso.

(My laptop has been an invaluable tool for these sessions. For Seer of Shadows, I looked up some information on William H. Mumler, the historical basis for the novel’s character; for The White Mountains, I got the BBC’s TV adaptation, which was similarly crappy; and for Bone, I…can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I found something to distract the guys for a few precious minutes.)

Overall, I think it’s fair to call this session a not unqualified success. The guys may have been bored out of their skulls by the book, but at least I got them to read it, and perhaps more importantly, to talk about it. After the session, I passed around little questionnaires for them to fill out if they wanted to tell me how badly I sucked (that’s the way I put it to them, yes); three of them gave them to the librarian at the front desk, and all three had circled the line saying that I was “Awesomely cool,” which I guess is something the kids say today?

Anyway, I’ll be doing another three sessions next summer, and hopefully doing a Teens Read book club as well, for boys and girls in grades seven through nine, i.e. the next level up. I’m really looking forward to those—they’ll be old enough to handle hanging out with people of the opposite gender, their reading skills will have improved to the point where I can give them some more difficult (i.e. interesting) books, and I will get another hundred and fifty dollars for doing very little work. Hooray for money!


  1. How about My Side of the Mountain? I read that dozens of times as a kid, and with a young male protagonist, it might appeal to this crowd.

  2. Love the blog... I love when good, smart people write things down. One teensy suggestion... as a veteran of the web-world and blogginess, I suggest you have links in your posts open in a new window. That way, if people start following a thread in that new web-page they still have your web page up on their screen, which they can easily get back to.

    Well done. I shall spread the word of your blog to the three or four other blogophiles I know and to any other well-read nerds in my social sphere.

    --Grant Dawson

  3. Dear boys,

    Punching is SO awesome.