ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
It's a decades-old problem, boys and reading. Some just don't like it. Too many boys aren't good at it. Reading tests stretching back 30 years show boys score worse than girls in every age group. And boys are almost twice as likely to be held back a grade or to drop out of school altogether. Jon Scieszka has spent his entire adult life trying to encourage young boys to embrace the written word. He's a former teacher and author of more than 20 children's books, including "The Not-So-Jolly Roger" and "Da Wild, Da Crazy, Da Vinci." Scieszka also started Guys Read, a literacy program and Web site for boys. And now he's published a book, "Guys Write for Guys Read." It's a collection of stories, comics and advice on boyhood by best-selling authors and illustrators, a collection, Scieszka hopes, that will inspire boys to read.
Mr. JON SCIESZKA (Author, "Guys Write for Guys Read"): The more I looked into it, it's just a really amazingly kind of knotty problem. And I think we've spent the last 20 or 30 years kind of trying to be gender-neutral in a way that hasn't really worked. And I think every parent knows that, like, boys and girls are different. And we just don't take that into account in schools on those things like required reading lists. 'Cause that was my experience, say, with my son, who had to read "Little House on the Prairie" when he was in third grade. That was the required reading book, and I think he just decided, `Wow, if this is reading, it's not for me.'
NORRIS: There's one author who, actually, his story sort of speaks to the problem that you're trying to solve. It's Patrick Jones.
Mr. SCIESZKA: Oh, yeah.
NORRIS: And he writes about wrestling with reading. And he's 12 years old and goes into the local public library.
Mr. PATRICK JONES (Author; Librarian): `So I'm 12 years old, and I go to my local public library to get something for school.'
NORRIS: Author and now librarian Patrick Jones.
Mr. JONES: `I wasn't a big reader or library user. It just wasn't something I did. As I go to check out my books, I see the library has this whole shelf of different magazines. I summoned up my 12-year-old courage and asked the librarian if the library has any wrestling magazines. That's what I thought I asked. Instead, I think I asked her to show me what her face would look like if she sucked on a lemon for a hundred years. She'd look like she was about to stroke out at the mere mention of wrestling magazines in her library. She made me feel stupid, and I never went back.'
Mr. SCIESZKA: So I think in part, Patrick became a librarian just to never do that to a kid. Like, if a kid came in interested in some subject, he'd find that book for him or find that magazine, 'cause that is a big piece, I think, of what's wrong with how we're promoting literacy. We're promoting such a narrow version of literacy that we're not including what a lot of boys like.
NORRIS: Some of the submissions are downright gross.
Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah.
NORRIS: I mean, there's just no other way to put it.
Mr. SCIESZKA: There's no getting around it. It's true.
NORRIS: They're just really nasty. When you started to get that kind of thing, did you think, `OK, wait a minute. Do I really want to include this in my book?' Or on the other hand, were you thinking, `Now that's what I'm talking about. This is going to get printed'?
Mr. SCIESZKA: Oh, those are absolutely the things I wanted to include. I just read to a whole collection of second-, third- and fourth-graders, like, 600 of them packed in an auditorium. And I picked out all the grossest bits to read. I read, like, Gary Paulsen peeing on an electric fence, or the story by David Lubar, where he copies his brother's face and then he copies his own butt on the Xerox machine until they disappear. And that were just--the kids were just completely wowed. They thought--you could almost see them sit up in their chairs and think, like, `Oh, man, what did that guy just say? Can you say that in reading?'
NORRIS: And then there's the Stephen King story.
Mr. SCIESZKA: Oh, yeah. I think I started with the Stephen King story.
Mr. STEPHEN KING (Author): `When I see those hidden camera sequences where real-life baby sitters and nannies just all of a sudden wind up and clout the kids, it's my days with Eulah-Beulah I always think of.'
NORRIS: Stephen King from the audio version of his memoir, "On Writing."
Mr. KING: `Eulah-Beulah was prone to farts, the kind that are both loud and smelly. Sometimes, when she was so afflicted, she would throw me on the couch, drop her wool-skirted butt on my face and let loose. "Pow!" she'd cry in high glee. It was like being buried in marsh gas fireworks.'
Mr. SCIESZKA: `Pow!'
NORRIS: And yet, for an eight-year-old boy, it doesn't get any better than that probably.
Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah. You know what? I think it connects them. It starts to motivate them to kind of want to read and find out.
NORRIS: In some ways, this felt to me like a literary version of Mad magazine. It was a little bit subversive. And, yes, there's some knowledge in there, and there's sort of some wacky illustrations throughout the book.
Mr. SCIESZKA: Yes. Oh, that's it. Yeah. You know what? That's what I come out of. I come out of that kind of a combination of a literary background where I loved to read things like, I don't know, Cervantes and Kafka and Thomas Pynchon. But I also loved Mad magazine and Bugs Bunny, I don't know, and Bob and Ray on the radio. So I just kind of love that subversive approach to kids.
NORRIS: Jon, tell us about your story. It's about you and your brothers.
Mr. SCIESZKA: Well, I just wrote about the--I don't know. It just seemed like the classic defining moment of my family, because I grew up in the all-boy world of six boys. I have five brothers. And we were going on one of those inevitable cross-country trips with everybody crammed into the station wagon, including our family cat. We stopped at Stuckey's to have lunch and got one of those pecan nut logs, which the cat somehow got ahold of, ate all of it and then started hacking up on the bottom of the car floor there. So he hacked up the nut log on my little brother, Jeff, who then blew lunch all over Brian, when then puked on Greg, who then blew his own lunch on Tom. And then Jim and I are the only ones. We're just screaming and yelling and hollering. And then my dad finally figured out something was going on, so he just pulled off the road, and we blew out of the car.
I don't know. That just somehow seemed to sum up boy life. I'm not sure how or why.
NORRIS: There's an eight-year-old listening right now who says, `Cool.'
Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah, exactly. `Let's try that.'
NORRIS: Well, at the end, you ask, `What does it all mean? What essential guy wisdom did I learn from this?' What's the answer?
Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah. The essential guy wisdom I learned from that, I think, is stick with your brothers. Stick up for your brothers. And if you ever drop a pecan nut log in a car with your five brothers and your cat, you will probably stick to your brothers.
NORRIS: Well, Jon, it's been great talking to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. SCIESZKA: No, thanks for helping out. I think that's a big piece, just to get people thinking about what's going on with boys and reading.
NORRIS: Jon Scieszka edited "Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys' Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys." You can hear more of Scieszka's essay and find excerpts from the book at our Web site, npr.org.
NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.
SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.