Reading by Gender

(Sorry, I know it’s the last Monday of the month and this is not a comic. I’m kind of stuck in a time warp over here and forgot how to read a calendar until far too late. I’ll have a comic for you next week, promise! Bises!)

I know I’ve mentioned it about a thousand times, but bear with me. The reading program I work with—Gals Read—is fantastic. (Probably why I can’t stop talking about it, haha.) I love the students and I love what the program brings them. Gals Read, for all the 4th grade lady-types, is a sister program to another program called Guys Read, which is tailored toward the boy end of the spectrum. But the real heart and soul of both programs is to show even the most reluctant readers that reading is fun and that libraries are awesome. Simple!

Ehhh… maybe not totally simple.

(First, a quick caveat: In the program, we speak in generalities and averages about what boys need and what girls need, and never the twain shall meet. We know that’s not true. Lots of boys eat up thoughtful literary books, and lots of girls love a good fart joke. I know. So for the rest of this post, when I talk about girls this and boys that, just be aware that I know there are always exceptions. I’m an exception. My kids are exceptions. You’re probably an exception. I’m not talking about individuals here, but a broad composite Student based on nation-wide averages. Okay, back to the show.)

Although the Guys Read and Gals Read programs are very similar—in organization, in structure, in mission—they’re made for different groups of kids with different needs. The students have more similarities than they have differences (all our students are 4th graders, live in the same region, have similar-ish socioeconomic backgrounds, etc.), but it’s the differences that help us to sharpen the focus of our programs.

For the Fellas

Although all students’ reading for pleasure starts to drop off around 4th grade, it hits boys hardest. There are lots of reasons for this, but we focus our efforts on just two. One is that boys don’t have a lot of manly reading role models; most of the folks they regularly see with books in hand (their primary caregivers, teachers, and school librarians) are predominantly women when kids are eight and younger, so it’s easy for boys to grow to view reading as a feminine pastime. The other problem that boys encounter is their own immaturity. (That’s what gets me every time, too, ugh.) Most boys just do not have the emotional maturity to enjoy long stretches of The Tale of Despereaux or Number the Stars or the majority of the kinds of books that dominate fourth grade recommended reading lists. (For the record, those are both fantastic books that you and your little person totally should read.) And so for a lot of these boys, reading becomes a chore: boring drudgery you do only when assigned.

Guys Read attempts to address these problems by bringing in an array of volunteer men who read goofball-friendly books. These books are image heavy (usually graphic novels) to keep the kids’ attention easier and are usually a bit wacky. The volunteers park the kids with their lunches and read them outrageous, silly, adventurous, out-there rollicking good stories. Fun times for all. Whee!

For the Ladies

So, girls don’t really lack for reading role models the same way that the boys do. And a glance at their reading scores will show that, while the number of girls who read for pleasure does indeed dip, it doesn’t drop as much or nearly as sharply as the boys’ do. Plus, girls at this age are maturing socially and emotionally much faster than boys, so they are more likely to handle and enjoy the more thoughtful, literary books that teachers tend to assign. So why have Gals Read at all?

To be completely honest, this question haunts me.

For nearly a decade, there was no Gals Read, because there wasn’t a perceived need. But the girls asked for it long enough that the program directors found the means to make it happen. They kept with the same format of pairs of volunteer readers going in during lunch to read to the students. The girls loved it. The volunteers and teachers and librarians all loved it. Everyone was happy.

But the question was still kind of there, floating unanswered. Why are we bothering with Gals Read? Why have it if the girls don’t need it? Was it simply outside pressure? Political correctness?

And really, maybe it was, at least at first. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think I may finally have an answer for the naysayers.

But first, just a liiiiiitle more data about the needs of girls.

Girls’ confidence plummets around this age. Despite having, yes, higher scores, they perceive themselves as being less intelligent than their peers. Despite higher social and emotional maturity, they perceive themselves as socially inept. Despite having lots of female reading role models, they don’t have a lot of female leadership role models, or female role models who are confident about their social standing at all, or their contributions to the world, or even something so inconsequential as their appearance.

Girls at this age begin to worry. They are less prone to taking risks, particularly among their peers. They are desperate for acceptance, and struggle to be perfect, in all ways, at all times. By the time they are teenagers, this will blossom into anxiety and depression, which they are three times more likely to suffer from than their male peers. They feel that they are of less value and have less to contribute to society than the average person.

It doesn’t end in their day to day lives, either. History books rarely mention more than two or three women for whole eras of history. (And the stats are significantly worse for BIPOC women.) Science, mathematics, and technology—the fields of the future—are all seen as masculine fields. Literary prizes are less likely to be awarded to books with female protagonists. And repeated studies have shown that even children’s books are dominated by male characters. If girls have prominent roles in the stories at all, it is often as supporting characters to far less capable male protagonists. (I am looking at you, Hermione Granger.)

So… yeah. *climbs off soap box, kicks it back under desk*

The girls in my program do not need help with their reading scores. But that does not mean they don’t need these stories.

Girls need to see girls and women who are heroes. They need to see that women and girls are imperfect and awesome. They need to see lady folk in tough situations who come out on top. They need to see brave girls, and flawed girls, and girls whose input and efforts matter. Through the safety of a story, students can explore what it is to be a girl in a world that often feels stacked against them, how the straightest path isn’t always the best path, and that their best is good enough and more. They need to see girls and women who overcome.

What we have to offer the girls in this program is nothing less than a portal into new possibilities: a love of books. It’s a safe way to explore life’s struggles and see the possible outcomes. And it’s darned fun too. Library cards are free and librarians are eager to help anyone who will ask.

And that is why our students need Gals Read. Maybe the reasons are different for girls than they are for boys. And maybe the approach is a little different too. But in the end, the heart of the two programs are the same: reading is fun, and libraries are awesome.

So find yourself a little person to read to (from six feet away, haha) and just imagine all the amazing adventures they’re going to have. Stay safe, keep reading, and happy writing.

The Books of My Youth

Last week wrapped up the spring session of Gals Read. It’s still a huge pain that stresses me immensely, but it’s also a fantastic cause and I believe in its value. But while I was with the kids over the last few weeks watching their little faces get absorbed in the stories we read them, it made me think about my own early brushes with literature.

If you had asked me in fourth grade, I wouldn’t have considered myself a reader. I liked stories being read to me (I have many cozy memories of my mother reading Huckleberry Finn and others to my brothers and I, all heaped together on the couch), but I didn’t really seek out books for myself very often that I can recall. My family read scriptures together most nights, but I don’t ever recall picking up a book to read to myself without an adult telling me to.

Despite that, I have always been in love with stories. I come from a long line of liars storytellers, so there were always tales to be heard. Whenever Dad came home from work, whenever we got together with extended family, whenever there was a campfire to sit around, there were stories. As well as embellishing my dreams, adventures at school, and near-death red wagon experiences, I would occasionally write down stories as well. But I still didn’t think of myself as a reader.

Three books changed that.

The first was Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. If I remember correctly, a teacher handed it to me when I complained of boredom. I just about bawled my eyes out from about halfway on and stayed up late crouched by the window to finish the story by streetlamp light. I had never had a story move me so completely, to open up an entire new world in a place I hardly realized was real up to that point. I wept all over again when I realized this was a real girl too. This book taught me the power of stories. They weren’t just for entertainment. They had meaning too.

The second book to turn me into a reader was The Green Book by Jill Patton Walsh. I probably picked it up around the same time as Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, but I don’t remember how it got it my hands. Most of the books I’d encountered before this point were historical fiction and having a future sci-fi book based on some kind of global apocalypse was preeeetty trippy. But I loved this story, just ate it up. I think I read it two or three times before finally relinquishing it back to the owner. This book also has the distinction of being the first book that made me think that maybe I could be, not just a storyteller among family and friends, but an actual author. (Also, because the author’s name is Jill and I was maybe under the vague impression that I was the only Jill in the world before this.)

As for the final book, I couldn’t even tell you which one it was. But at some point in sixth grade, someone gave me a copy of one of the Animorphs books by K.A. Applegate. If I thought The Green Book was trippy, this series was straight up madness, and I was hooked. I scoured shops and libraries for ones I hadn’t read yet, eventually gobbling up the entire series and all the little side books as well. I loved it, couldn’t read enough of it. And when I had managed to go through them all, straight through to the series’ grand finale, I was so used to reading that it was the most natural thing in the world to find a new book to read afterward.

There were other books that I loved, that impacted me deeply and never really let go—The Velvet Room, White Fang, and countless others—but Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, The Green Book, and that random Animorphs book were my gateway drugs into reading, writing, and book collecting. I blame them entirely.

It’s hard to know what books will stick. And while some of my favorite books from those early days were classics, a lot of them weren’t. A lot of them were just random stuff that struck my fancy. The Gals Read books are a lot like that too. We have a few classics on our list, but first and foremost, it’s just fun stories that we think the kids will like. That’s the whole point of the program: to make reading fun.

We want kids to pick up stories and step into new worlds. We want kids who are curious and bright and open, who can empathize with people who aren’t like them and find the common core they both share.

We want lifelong readers.

All the Recaps

Hello, friends! I’ve got about three ultra-mini posts here, so I decided to mash them all together so that I don’t have to drag any of it out for you. I’m sure you all have better things to do. So here are a few recaps of the things I’ve been working on lately, and a sneak peak of what’s to come.

Writers Conference This last weekend was the annual Alaska Writers Guild fall conference and I gleefully attended. As always, I had a great time, got great info, and chatted with great people! The speakers were all excellent, plus I got to relive my younger years by holding a friend’s sleeping two-month-old in one arm while drafting on my knee with the other. Plus, I had the luxury of flying down to Anchorage this year. (Eight hours of driving distilled into a forty-minute flight. SO LUXURIOUS.) I’ll be posting some of my conference lessons and stories in the weeks to come.

Grant Review Board Related to the conference, I was on a small board reviewing grant proposals over the last couple weeks. We had quite a few more proposals than we had in previous years. There were so many strong submissions and it was a tough time winnowing it down to just two. I hope this year’s winners can do amazing things with their funds!

Snow White Deadline This Blood and Ebony deadline has been breathing down my neck for the last few weeks and so I am pleased and relieved to let you know that I met it juuuuust in time. Therefore, I was able to get the olive oil of my homeland and not have to watch any doofy song-and-dance nonsense. Huzzah! Blood and Ebony went out to alpha readers Friday night and I’m hoping to have it out to beta readers before the end of the year. Except maybe this time, I’ll manage my time in such a way that it doesn’t arrive in their inboxes in the wee hours of morning smelling like panic and poor life choices.

Gals Read The fall session of Gals Read is officially upon me. I’ve been prepping for the last few weeks and today marked the start of training week. Hooray! After training ends, I’ll spend my days reading Space Boy and Anne of Green Gables to the fantastic fourth grade girls of Fairbanks. The program has grown again this year, and we are now in every public elementary school in the district. That is awesome! I can’t think of a better use of my time than turning impressionable children into desperate book addicts who stay up way after bedtime with flashlights. *hero pose*

Also on the radar is NaNoWriMo, which is working hard to sneak up on me, but not this year, NaNo! This week is going to be crazy, like the one before it, but once I claw my way through Gals Read and out the other side, I’ll start thinking about what I want to draft out for this session and post a project soon. As I mentioned in the halfway check-in on my annual goals, this session is basically my last chance for the year to get my one first draft in. I don’t plan to squander it (yet).

How about you fine folks? What bookish pursuits have you been up to lately? Any exciting projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Kids with Books

20minReadingHooo boy, am I stressed out this weekend. One of my hundred part-times is coordinating volunteers for a local nonprofit to go into schools and read to fourth graders. The program starts today and runs for the next few weeks and I’m still scrambling to try to get together enough volunteers for the sixteen schools we’re operating in. It is hard and I am le tired.

But! I also firmly believe that it is super important! Kids with books is as right as hot chocolate with whipped cream! There are huge benefits to a child at any age who is read aloud to (Kemp, 2015), and reading for fun has huge ramifications for a child’s future academic success as well as their success in the workforce (Taylor, 2011). But right around third or fourth grade, kids often stop reading for pleasure, especially boys (Flood, 2015).

Now, my fourth grader certainly isn’t slacking in his reading time. I can hardly get him to come to meals most nights. (Why did I give him his own book case? Whyyyy?) So why does this dip in other kids’ reading matter to me? A couple reasons.

These other kids who maybe don’t read as much at home are my son’s friends. They’re the kids he hangs out with. I’m concerned with their well being – maybe not as much as his, but still. Plus I work in their school library. (So I guess that makes being sure they have book access et cetera kind of like my job… but, my other job. Not the nonprofit job. The school job. There are so many jobs…) But anyway the point is, I know these kids and I know their families and I care about them and I want to see them do well in life. They’re a part of our community. And outside of our school, it’s not hard for me to extend that blanket of community to the rest of the school district. Maybe I don’t interact with those other kids as much as our Pearl Creek Puffins, but I can’t imagine any of them are less loved by their parents and teachers than our kids are. (And Fairbanks babies are the best babies, what can I say? :P)

And then there’s the pure selfish reason that, as a writer, I want to make sure I have as many future customers out there as possible. There. I said it.

Kids may read less for all kinds of reasons, but our program is designed to engage those low interest readers. We love the high interest readers, too, but they’re going to read anyway and they’re going to like what we read no matter what, so we’re really working on those kids who wouldn’t pick up a book on their own. We want all kids to relearn that reading is fun.

To this end, we get enthusiastic volunteers who love to read to role model reading behaviors. We pick stories that we think the kids will enjoy, regardless of whether they’re literary greats. We typically read graphic novels, and while we get some flak for it from more traditional camps, the decision is deliberate. Graphic novels are better at engaging the low interest kids than text novels are. And since so much of the story can be gleaned from images instead of just the words, they follow along better. For this same reason, graphic novels can get away with higher level vocabulary without losing kids, and still light up their little brains in nearly identical ways as straight text reading. (Morrison, 2017) And since we tend toward exciting stories with engaging art, we can emphasize to the students how fun reading is, which is really what we’re after. Because if we can convince them that reading is fun, they’re going to read.

I won’t go into the details of how the program runs. (If you’re interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts of it, you’re welcome to check out the program’s website.) But it’s been running for over a decade and the kinks are mostly worked out. I think it’s a fantastic program and my fourth grader loves hearing great stories while he eats his lunch with his friends. And maybe it stresses me out, but I’ll keep at it.

Speaking of, I still have a few more gaps to fill in the reader schedule. Wish me luck, and happy reading!

Citations

(I haven’t done this since college, haha, don’t judge my sloppy citations)

  1. Flood, Alison. Sharp Decline in Children Reading for Pleasure, Survey Finds. The Guardian, 9 Jan 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/09/decline-children-reading-pleasure-survey
  2. Kemp, Carla. MRI Shows Association Between Reading to Young Children and Brain Activity. AAP News, 25 April 2015.
  3. Morrison, Leslie. The Research Behind Graphic Novels and Young Researchers. CTD News, 14 April 2017. https://www.ctd.northwestern.edu/blog/research-behind-graphic-novels-and-young-learners
  4. Taylor, Mark. Reading at 16 Linked to Better Job Prospects. University of Oxford, 9 May 2011