Tuesday, May 27, 2008

the experiment

I'm going to step back for a moment from this week's BEA blogging and revisit some important ideas about boys and reading, and increasing literacy among boys.

For as much as has been debated about the questionable effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, the results of NCLB have actually had a more profoundly negative effect on boys. Although NCLB data is routinely NOT desegregated by genders, we know that today, boys in grades 4 - 8 are typically 2 - 3 years behind girls when it comes to reading level.

We also know that no children of either gender consider themselves to be "non readers" in early grades, but by high school, a little more than half of all boys consider themselves to be non readers.

Sounds like we're leaving a few children behind.

We can fix this. Remember, this was not the case 30 years ago, but now statistics show us that boys are underrepresented in all High School level Advance Placement courses with one exception: Physics.

I warn you now, I am going to repeat those preceding paragraphs in next week's posts (after BEA). They are too important to forget.

In future posts, I'll be talking about some more of the philosophical ideas presented by thinkers such as Michael Gurian and William Brozo, but, for now I'd like to talk about a little experiment (well, not so little, really) that will be conducted this summer in the (Santa Clarita, CA) William S. Hart High School District's Intensive Literacy Program (ILP).

Among the strategies suggested by Teacher Librarian Magazine to increase boy readership are to purchase boy-friendly lists of Young Adult literature, and to do such things as display posters from ALA and YALSA that depict male writers in the classroom. What the Hart School District is going to do in their literacy program this summer is pretty radical: they are going to hold boy-only literacy classes and the book they are planning on using for the very important "Read Aloud" component and follow-up activities will be Ghost Medicine. So, I'll have a chance to visit these classrooms and talk with these boys as they go through the summer program, which I am very excited about.

Also, we'll be keeping very close track of successes and challenges in this program (thanks to the people who coordinate the ILP program), and we'll talk about those findings right here as the classes progress.

This is really cool. Ultra cool.

So, after the next couple of BEA posts, I'm going to climb right back onto my soapbox about getting boys to be more positive about themselves when it comes to reading and writing. I want to talk about the benefits (and challenges) of boy-only classes, why certain educational activities turn boys off to reading and writing (and what kinds excite them), and about plans to get a group of boys next fall and turn them into authors.


But for now, the focus is on Book Expo America.

Little note: The photo on this post (and ALL of these photos are my original work) is for Lewis Buzbee. I had the very distinct pleasure of receiving an advance copy of Lewis' forthcoming Steinbeck's Ghost. I could not put that novel down. I tore through it in one day, and I loved it. I am truly looking forward to meeting Lewis (who will be signing galley copies of Steinbeck's Ghost) at BEA this weekend.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

this week's posts

Lots of stuff is going on this week. I have a meeting with an educational specialist on Tuesday. We're going to have a talk about boys, reading, and writing. Should be good, and, of course I'll report on it.

I got some cover proofs for the jacket for Ghost Medicine, and they are beautiful. I'm even going to frame some of them. Everything I heard from the folks back in NYC was right... this is an amazing-looking cover.

But, the most exciting news of all is that this week is Book Expo America, which I will be attending. So, there will be lots of BEA blog posts this week, starting with Thursday (I'll be attending a special BEA dinner with some incredible people on Thursday evening). Then, I'll be blogging about the expo and everything I get to see there, too.

I'll be signing galley copies of Ghost Medicine at the Feiwel & Friends booth (1508) on Saturday at BEA from 2 - 3, and I am very anxious about that, because, knowing me, I'll probably show up with hay in my hair (got to feed the horses before I leave) and a cup of coffee spilled on my crotch. Yes... that has happened to me before. Note to self: wear black, possibly a black rain coat.

Most thrilling of all is getting to see Jean Feiwel, Elizabeth Fithian, Rich Deas, and Liz Szabla (the best editor in the UNIVERSE) again; getting to finally meet Liz Noland... and-- most of all -- getting to kick it with the incredible writers in attendance on the Feiwel list... Wow!

More to follow on Tuesday.

Friday, May 16, 2008

doesn't look good for your boys

"What's the money favoring so far?" I said.

"Doesn't look good for your boys."

... That's a little exchange from Ghost Medicine (I won't reveal the context) that I think is an appropriate way to get this going.

In reading and writing, girls outperformed boys by "significant amounts" in all industrialized countries.

... That's data presented from a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2003, cited in Michael Gurian's The Minds of Boys. It's a terrific book, and I highly recommend it for any teacher, and, especially, any parent of sons... because we're losing our boys in school, and we need to get them back.

So that's why I've been experimenting with average- and under-achieving male readers with my book. I've been testing a theory about getting them motivated to read again, and I think I'm on the right track. At least... so far, so good.

Without going into too much detail on state-approved curriculum, what's been happening in education since the late 1970s is that reading and writing curricula have changed in order to reduce the gender gap that showed girls scoring much lower than boys in reading and writing. As a result, language arts shifted toward content that worked better with girls' brains and tested for mastery by using the ways that girls process information.

As the boys in my limited and anecdotal study pointed out, they were not encouraged to read, or even presented with, books that appeal to boys' brains. Gurian points out that much of this is physiological and hormonal.

Because boys' brains are being constantly machine-gunned by testosterone, they often experience great difficulty enduring some of the great works of fiction we require them to read in high school (no matter how great these books are, and I'm not going to name names). As a result, a lot of boys get turned off to reading, and everything falls apart after that.

What do boys' brains need in books? Well, obviously, they need male characters (and I have a theory that a LOT of male characters in fiction today are not really male, but I'll save that for another post), they need spatial-kinesthetic action, technical and mechanical content, and graphic and visual (Gurian) stimulation. This is exactly how I focused the content of Ghost Medicine... because I wanted boys to read again... like we used to when I was a boy.

So far, as I said, the boys have been really enjoying the novel... and the girls like it, too (see my previous posts).

I've spent a lot of time talking with my dear friend Kelly Milner Halls about this subject, and she feels passionately about this as well. In fact, I wish I'd said it about my own reasons for writing Ghost Medicine but she summed it up far more eloquently than I could. To quote Kelly:

"There are kids dying out there -- inside. They feel isolated and alone and hopeless because everyone else loves what's typical, but they can't find a literary connection. I do what I do because I was one of those kids, and someone has to look out for them."

So I'm on a mission, as a member of a fairly quiet minority: a male author. Look at the lists... there are not too many of us out there, and we've got to do something to give boys back the literary connection they once had. Thanks for putting that so well, Kelly.

By the way, I'm lucky enough to have a son and a daughter. Both of them are young, still in public school. And I celebrate their differences, the unique "girlness" and "boyness" of each of them. If my daughter ever wanted to box, I'd find her the best trainer. And if my son ever wanted to knit, I'd encourage him to learn that, too, because it's not about me, it's about their ownership of their learning. And I am very happy to say that my ten-year-old daughter knits, my thirteen-year-old boy does not... and both of them pack a pretty dang good punch.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

my three readers

Maybe it's just me, but I feel awkward giving out galley copies of Ghost Medicine.

I guess I got over it as capably as I can, because I've given out plenty of them to librarians, teachers, and, most importantly, kids.

Remember... I've been doing a lot of talking and research about getting boys to read, about bringing them back into the curriculum of reading and writing. After all (and my good friend Kelly, a fellow author who went to high school with me will agree) reading and writing were not considered girly pastimes when we were in high school, but they largely are today.

Hmm... I have some thoughts on why that is, but I'll get to that part in a future blog. But let me digress momentarily and say this: a couple posts ago, I put a link to a Publishers Weekly blurb about "hotly anticipated" YA debut novels. There were seven listed at the top of the article, and I notice a few striking things about that group of debuts... but I'll talk about that later.

For now, let me tell you about three kids who read Ghost Medicine:

1. Boy, Age 16: This kid told me that he never read anything on his own unless he had to for school. He is bright and intelligent, but he has never picked up a book and read it unless there was a carrot on some stick somewhere. I honestly did not want to give him Ghost Medicine, but he asked for a copy... ugh! ... so I did. He finished it in three days. And during that time, he came to visit me a couple times to tell me about where he was in the story, what he liked in the book, and to ask me questions about where I got certain elements of the story. I was surprised. This kid was excited about reading (and it's a pretty long book, too). The day he finished the book, he came to see me and he told me, in a very shy and reserved way, "I really liked that book." Then he asked if he could keep the galley and loan it out to some of his friends (guys). And he loaned it to...

2. Boy, Age 17: I REALLY did not want this kid to try to read the book. I'm embarrassed to say I just didn't think this guy could get through it. He is an absolute non-reader. He does not read books, and finds clever ways of not reading them even if they're required in school. But, he picked up Ghost Medicine and started reading it. He finished it in about 10 days. And... when he finished, he told me exactly what he liked about the story and he asked if my other books would be like it. He said he would read anything I wrote if I kept writing stories about being outside and having adventures and getting into trouble. Of course, all these are "boy" things, but he told me he'd never had any reading at school that offered him that kind of content.

So, my target audience "gets it." But... during the past few weeks I had been bugged -- asked almost every day -- by reader number three if I would PLEASE let this reader have a copy. I finally gave in to Reader Number...

3. Girl, Age 17: OK... here's the problem. This girl is super smart. She reads constantly... probably a book every couple days. I've seen her tear through everything ever written by Stephanie Meyer and Jodi Picoult... so, yeah, she's a girl. Oh... and she also just got a Congressional appointment to begin West Point in the fall.

Needless to say, she is one intimidating reader.

I gave her an ARC on Friday. On Monday morning, she read the last few pages in front of me. I didn't say anything. I tried to pretend like I wasn't really looking for any kind of reaction or expression from her (but, of course, I was).

Then she said, "This is my favorite book I have ever read."

Now that was huge. I said, "Thank you very much. I loved writing it."

I asked her, "Did it make you cry?"

And she put her hands on her face and her eyes welled up with tears... and she began talking about particular parts where she cried (and I won't reveal). Then she asked me if she could keep the galley and if I would please sign it for her.

Okay. I'm pretty happy with the girl-boy reaction so far.

Monday, May 5, 2008

small fish

Hey, I know I'm a small fish. But I want to get my book into the hands of kids, so they'll read... and librarians, so they'll read something different.

So I've got a few ARCs left and I looked up some libraries on the web and contacted their librarians. I chose them because their librarians seemed to be particularly interested in Young Adult Fiction. Anyway... the only two I contacted (I'm still looking for a few more) were very happy about my offer to send them an ARC of Ghost Medicine. So, I've wrapped them up and tomorrow I will be UPSing some galleys to the Teen Center at the Seattle Public Library and to Spring Lake Park High School in Spring Lake, Minnesota.

I've never been to either place, even though I did, at one time, live across the Puget Sound from Seattle... and I've changed more than a few planes in Minnesota. So, librarians... just get them into the hands of a kid.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


This is cool... or hot. Whatever. So, yeah... I was bored and I did a Google search on me. And I found the following report (from Publishers Weekly) that described Ghost Medicine as being "hotly anticipated" at BEA this year.

Hot Galleys

I could live with that. (Hoping I develop carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive signing).

That's pretty cool stuff... and I'll be back to the boys and reading topic in a couple days.

Friday, May 2, 2008

cats, dogs, boys, girls (part 2)

You read sometimes about the one girl who goes out for the high school football team, and if she’s lucky, or can put up with all the abuse, she might make a kicker position.

Somewhere beneath it all is probably a valuable lesson about feeling like a minority, or, harsher still, an outsider. But I asked a group of high school seniors (just weeks away from graduation) why they thought that girls were now more likely than boys to graduate college, and much more likely to go on to seek advanced degrees at graduate school.

And this was by no means a slouchy group of kids... among them were students who have been accepted to next year's incoming classes at Stanford, MIT, West Point, UCLA, and Berkeley, just to name a few of their schools. Ultimately, our discussion turned toward reading and writing, and why boys' scores are dropping so dramatically in those categories on testing.

**Side-note: These kids know I'm an author, and many of them have asked for a galley copy of Ghost Medicine, but the only kids I've given it to so far have been boys who are labeled as "reluctant" (or non) readers -- more of that to follow.**

What was amazing to me is that the boys and the girls in the group all had very thoughtful answers that seemed to agree that:

1. Boys are being forced to read things that are not very "boy-friendly."
2. In writing assignments (especially creative writing), sometimes the boys are not allowed to write about certain things, specifically things that might have... let's just say... too much action or energy. In evaluative writing, the boys complain that they are forced to be too introspective... to reflect on things when they'd rather just get straight down to the facts.

One boy told me that he really loved reading, but the kinds of post-reading assignments that were given in school (the reflective, role-playing, "pretend-you're-Calpurnia-and-write-a-diary-entry" kind) made him resent reading.

Anyway, this is all anecdotal observation. I'm not trying to write a research paper here. I'm just talking to the kids.

But I have some strong feelings about boys and reading and how boys are being outpaced in college admissions, scholarships, and graduation. And I think those things have everything to do with why boys aren’t reading when they’re in their teens... because they've been pushed away from it. Because they're dogs who are expected to purr and meow, or vice-versa... you get my drift.

One of the reasons boys don’t read is that the content that is aimed at them generally misses the target. Boys aren’t stupid, though. But they are a potential market that is overlooked in fiction, which is heavily lopsided toward girls. There are so many books about girls and series about girls and books that come with free companion necklaces or earrings or dolls for girls.

But I don’t think it would go over well socially if I gave out free chewing tobacco or tattoos with Ghost Medicine, even though the boys chew tobacco and get tattooed in the book. Well... maybe I could give out the tattoos if they’re the wash-off kind. And they’d be real cool too... snakes and horses and guns and nooses... the kinds of things boys would think are cool.

But, what do I know? I’m just a guy.

I wrote Ghost Medicine because I wanted boys (my son, in particular) to have a book about boys who actually ACT like boys. They pick on each other and tease, they fight, they shoot at things, they sneak away and chew tobacco and drink alcohol... but they're still good boys, and they do some heroic and noble things for each other. It's honest, funny, and it's sad, too.

Coming up, I'll be writing about a little experiment we have planned at high school. It involves reading Ghost Medicine and a segregated boy-only group of very reluctant teen readers.