Janet Hutchinson is a colleague and kindred spirit when it comes to children's literature. She also works a day and half in the library in the school which her children have or are attending here in Calgary. Her experiences there provide her (and me by extension) the opportunity to see what teachers and kids do with the books we promote.
As with any passion, when you find someone that you connect with or 'convert' your heart sings. When you hear the stories of kids who aren't connecting with literature for whatever reason your heart sinks. I can certainly understand Janet's pleasure and pain when confronting the reading habits of grade 4 boys.
Boys will be boys – or will they?
I have a particular fondness for Grade 4 boys. In the school where I work in the library, this is the first grade where the gender split policy comes into play. (The boys and girls are separated and taught in boy and girl only classes until Grade 10. I know there is controversy about gender separation and I don’t intend to defend or debunk it. It is what it is in this particular school.) And I see an increased maturity – a new stage of being , that I really like interacting with.
The teacher of the Grade 4 boys has been at the school for a number of years – he loves reading and we are always trading titles of books - he gives me titles that I have not heard of or that he has tried with the class and thinks they were successful and I give him suggestions back, so it is a fabulously symbiotic relationship.
The reading tastes and skills are varied at this age and stage. I often find that their tastes lean strongly towards World Wars, natural (and man-made) disasters, criminal forensics and hockey (I make them declare for their favourite teams – it helps when I am trying to pick players for the school hockey pool.) And they still like picture books – sort of, although they don’t always like to admit it.
But it is in the area of fiction where I find it most difficult to direct them to books that they “might” like – or even be willing to try. And this is one of the hardest parts of the job – but the one with the greatest appeal. When I find a book that sticks – it really sticks. Several years ago, I recommended the first book in the 39 Clues series - “A Maze of Bones” by Rick Riordan to one of the grade 4 boys. If you haven’t heard of the series, it’s written by different authors (Gordon Korman, Linda Sue Park, Margaret Peterson Haddix and more) and involves family members in a race to find an inheritance. But it is also a game. And there is an on-line site incorporated into it. I found the story to be so-so. But I am not a 9 year old – and I am particularly not a 9 year old boy. So while I didn’t love the book – he did. And he went on to read the rest in the series. And then he devoured Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. And even now, in Grade 7, he tracks me down to tell me what he is reading. I consider that one a success.
Other recommendations fall flat. And that’s OK. Developing a sense of what they like and what they want to try are important parts of growing into discerning adults who love to read. Some of the other titles that have gone over really well are Frank Boyce Cottrell’s books (Millions, Framed and Cosmic). I gave Cosmic to one student for a book report. He came back and asked for more by the same author. He loved Framed, but found Millions to be so-so. Another important lesson learned – you don’t always like everything that the author has written. And just because I loved Millions (I really did) he doesn’t have to. And he was not afraid to tell me.
Other titles that have had particular success? One is the series “I am Canada”. These are along the lines of the Dear Canada diary series that appeal to girls. These stories involve young men in various aspects of Canadian history. The first one that I read dealt with World War I, so a clear fit with these boys – one in particular who has now moved on to reading anything he can put his hands on about war, soldiers, weapons, etc. (Heads up - I have not read all of the titles and some reviewers have cautioned regarding the details of death highlighted in another of the series Shot at dawn .)
Along the same theme is the book The two generals by Scott Chantler. This is a story of friendship during the Second World War – two young men who, as friends, enlist and go overseas. It is a true story that shows the reader war through the eyes of the soldiers at the front. The graphics are particularly well done and the overall tone of the book is just right.
Another author that these boys like is Jon Scieszka – most particularly for his Time Warp Trio books . And his autobiography Knucklehead has made a few boys snort at some of the antics he and his brothers were involved in.
Another author that they like, and who appears to have stood the test of time is Roald Dahl – at one time this year, the shelf with his books on it was empty – and the boys were madly trading the titles back and forth and declaring for their favorites. In the lead is The BFG – but close behind are Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.
Do these boys continue to love reading as they become teenagers? I would have said yes, based on some of my experiences. But this week I had a conversation with the LA teacher for Junior High, who came to me to find some titles that her grade 9 boys would not dismiss out of hand. In the course of our conversation, she told me that they could give her very few titles that they had read and loved. And I found that really sad. I don’t know how to engage them from that point of reluctance back to the enthusiasm they had in Grade 4. My son (one of the grade 9 boys she was referring to) has morphed from a child who LOVED reading to one who rejects my suggestions out of hand. I keep trying, in hopes that it is a phase – that, shortly, a book that he picks up completely engages him – and he remembers the particular appeal of getting lost in a good book.