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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

School is out, summer's here, and kids everywhere are ready for long, lazy days spent reading? Well, in many cases, probably not. After a year of homework assignments and required reading, it's not surprising that the last thing some kids want to do is pick up a book. A common complaint from parents is that the older their children get, the less interest they seem to have in reading for pleasure. It could be due to busy schedules, a preference for television or the computer, or perhaps they just haven't found material that's captured their imagination.

Today we'll talk with a group of authors and experts about why some kids are unengaged when it comes to the written word and how to get them interested in bringing books into their lives. But first, do you have a reluctant reader at home? Have you found strategies that work to get them reading or were you a reluctant reader growing up? How did you make the transition from a non-reader to a ravenous one? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address, totn@npr.org.

Joining us now is Paul Kropp. He's the author of "How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life." He's also written many books for reluctant readers, and he joins us from the CBC studios in Toronto, Canada. Thanks for being with us, Paul.

Mr. PAUL KROPP (Author, "How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life"): Hello, Lynn. A pleasure.

NEARY: And I'm sure many of those books were written for not to reluctant readers as well.

Mr. KROPP: Well, there's a kind of general popularity. A book that works for reluctant readers will work for a whole bunch of other readers, including gifted ones at another time in their life, so...

NEARY: Let's define our terms. What do we mean when we're talking about a reluctant reader? Is it a child who never wants to read or does it also include the kid who picks up a book every now and then, but often has to be urged to read by a parent?

Mr. KROPP: There are many different varieties of reluctant reader. I'm going to simply. Let's break it into two. Let's talk about the `I can't read it' kids, and that's a very real group. Maybe 10, 15 percent of the student population are kids who really can't read books at their level. They're working a grade or two below where their classmates would be, and they're struggling. So I'll call those the struggling readers.

And then we've got the `don't want to' readers, and that could be half the student population, especially when the kids get older. They could read perfectly well if they felt like it, but they don't want to, and they don't.

NEARY: Yeah. If a child's not having any problems with their reading ability and is doing well in school, well, what difference does it make if he or she doesn't like reading for pleasure?

Mr. KROPP: Well, the problem with not reading for pleasure is that you won't do it when it isn't assigned, for instance, through the summer, and since we're here approaching the summer or almost halfway in it, let's talk about how important summer reading is. So long as your child is still reading for fun or maybe because you or I encourage it, then a child will continue to keep at least the level of reading proficiency he or she had in June. But as soon as that reading falls off, the kids start to fall backwards, and my friend, Richard Ellington, has done work in Florida. What he finds is that kids will lose about a third of the--if they don't read, they'll lose a third of a grade level in reading ability through the summer months.

NEARY: If...

Mr. KROPP: So they start the fall backwards.

NEARY: Are we talking about younger kids now, let's say third graders, for instance, who may just have really solidified their reading skills, or are we also talking about seventh and eighth graders who have been reading for many, many years?

Mr. KROPP: He found it consistently up until sixth grade. And when you look at that cumulative reading loss statistic, it would tell you, you know, if you're losing a third of a grade every summer for six grade levels, that's almost two years behind. This affects mostly disadvantaged kids, kids who don't have a lot of availability. They don't have print at hand in the summer. They're not encouraged to read. It's not so much a middle-class, upper middle-class issue. Nonetheless, we have more and more kids who would prefer to play video games, computer games, a game of baseball, and won't read, and those kids are not holding even on their skills and pay a price.

NEARY: You said earlier a couple of--a moment ago that kids might not be reading unless the parent encourages it, which can easily slip over into nagging, I would say. Does nagging become counterproductive or...

Mr. KROPP: No. I think nagging is...

NEARY: ...should you nag your kids to do it?

Mr. KROPP: Yeah, nagging is a good thing. Better than nagging is simply setting some rules. I've talked about this. I did a book, somewhat controversial, called "I'll Be the Parent, You Be the Child," which simply talked about the importance of parental rules, and if one of your rules is that we're going to read for half an hour before dinner or half an hour before bed, then that reading is going to happen. In families where there are no rules, then you have to nag an awful lot, and that becomes a problem.

NEARY: But even if you have that rule, you might have to nag to get that rule obeyed, I think.

Mr. KROPP: Oh, sure, you do. Sure, you do. Actually, you can buy a disk these days. It's got 20 standard nags on it. One of those could be, you know, `Turn off the TV and read a book.' But that's a good thing.

NEARY: So you think it's OK to nag the kid into reading. It's not going to turn them off from reading.

Mr. KROPP: Oh, absolu--no. I believe--I mean, parenting is a very important--those consistent aspects of rule setting are what makes for good parenting. Now you and I have to look after the long-term benefit of our children. You know, a 10-year-old is far more concerned about whether Joey next door wants him on his baseball team, but you and I have to worry about whether our child is going to be a successful student at 16 or 18 or 25 or 32. Those concerns for us continue. Their concerns are temporary. And that means you set rules, so that means I say--and I've said again and again in my book, "How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life," and other people have said so, too--you need 20 or 30 minutes of reading every day to stay up, to keep the skills going and building.

NEARY: Let's talk about for kids who are reluctant readers. What kinds of books can you use sometimes to entice a child, or is it impossible to generalize in that way? But what are some of the elements that might hook a child into a book, a child who's not reading too much?

Mr. KROPP: It's hard to generalize. I can give you some elements, Lynn. I mean, one is that the book should be a couple grade levels easier than the books that would be assigned in school. That's pretty basic. A reluctant reader, we can assume, is going to be comfortable reading two grade levels below where he actually is, so your sixth grade kid should be reading fourth grade books, which is really just a beginning chapter book, but that's comfort. So that would be number one.

Number two is that those kids should be re-reading books they like a lot, and they should be reading those books over and over again. There's nothing wrong with a hundred or 200 times through the same book, providing, of course, there are a few other books in between. But that is really important for consolidating the skills that they've been building. And I'm not just talking about decoding skills.

One of the things that we forget is that reading skills continue on probably up until grade 10, grade 12, at which point they become literary or textual analysis skills. We keep on becoming better and more intelligent readers, but in different kinds of ways, so the reading job isn't done at the end of the third grade. The job of learning keeps on going, and parental support is very important along the way.

NEARY: Esme Raji Codell is going to join our discussion now. She runs the popular children's literature Web site PlanetEsme.com. She's been a teacher, librarian, children's book seller and book salon owner. She joins us from our bureau in Chicago. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ESME RAJI CODELL (PlanetEsme.com): Thanks for doing this segment, Lynn.

NEARY: Do you think there's such a thing as a reading?

Ms. CODELL: Oh, certainly. Reluctant reader is a child who can read, but doesn't. And I think the question of whether it's really important whether reluctant readers read is sort of like asking if it's important that kids exercise. They probably won't die from missing a few jumping jacks or a few chapters, but it doesn't do them any good either, right? And this is kind of a sticky wicket for me personally, because I really believe with all my heart that children's books are so much more than bunnies and puppies and lap time. It's really our best chance for equal education in this country. A book in the hands of a rich child is the same book in the hands of a poor child, and for many kids, exposure to children's book illustration is the only art education they're ever going to receive.

Now in cultures that are more agricultural, they might have different kinds of oral traditions, but in our culture, I think a lot of information is still based on the written word, so children need to read a fair amount just in order to participate fully as citizens here. And great children's books are a step in that direction. That's why I started...

Mr. KROPP: Well, Esme, as you know, children's books these days are frequently aimed at miniature adults, at their parents and at older kids, too. You can read "Paper Bag Princess" when you're five or when you're 50 and get a lot out of that book.

NEARY: Yeah. I want to get into a discussion about the books that are out there, but I would like to also get a caller involved here, so let me take a call from Andavalo(ph), I think is the name, in Arizona. Hi.

ANDAVALO (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ANDAVALO: My stepgrandchild could read, wouldn't read, and he was about--I don't know--12 or 13. This was a long time ago. And my daughter, who was his same age, suggested that I give him a subscription to the magazine Hot Rod, and he's been a good reader ever since for about 35 years.

NEARY: So you found something that interested him.

ANDAVALO: Absolutely.

NEARY: And did that get him interested in other kinds of reading as well, you're saying?

ANDAVALO: Oh, he reads everything.

NEARY: And it started with a magazine subscription.

ANDAVALO: Right.

NEARY: Well, that's a good trick. Interesting to hear.

ANDAVALO: The one that got his interest.

NEARY: Well, thanks so much for your call. Esme, maybe--that's interesting--you just really need to key into what a child might be interested in and that can be the trick.

Ms. CODELL: Yes. And I also think this caller brings up an important point, that we need to celebrate readers of non-fiction as real readers. We usually think of people who are sort of lost in a story as the real readers, and while there is a certain magic to that, kids who read cookbooks and how-to manuals and magazines are real readers, too. And when we dismiss readers of non-fiction, we're often making it very hard for boys to identify themselves as readers, and it also dissuades a lot of girl readers from exploring the wealth of non-fiction in arenas of their special interest.

NEARY: What about comics? When I was growing up, that was discouraged, but sometimes now you hear people say, `No, let them read whatever they're interested in. I mean, let them read comics.'

Ms. CODELL: Well, I was a huge Little Lulu fan myself, and I...

NEARY: Well, I snuck the comics, by the way. I was a comic book reader myself, but my parents didn't approve of it.

Ms. CODELL: Well, I think there are different agendas when it comes to parents and when it comes to children, and sometimes those are at odds in terms of creating lifelong readers. But as far as comic books and also picture books, we're so into book levels, and this can--even though there are academic reasons we do it, it can really level a child's love of reading. We suffer from a sort of baby book syndrome, and there's really no such thing as a baby book. Every book has an adult behind it who's trying to communicate something, and a book can be appreciated on a lot of different levels.

And these picture cues for reluctant and struggling readers, they really make it enjoyable, and there's also narrative, figurative language, characterization, everything the thicker books have but in smaller doses. You know, Lynn, there's between five and 10,000 children's books released every year. That's very daunting for parents and teachers, and it's overwhelming.

NEARY: We're going to talk about some of those titles when we come back. We're going to continue our discussion about what it takes to turn kids into readers. We want to hear from you. Give us a call, (800) 989-TALK.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

We're talking about what it takes to get kids to read. Parents, teachers, what are your strategies to get your reluctant young readers diving into books? Does it take bribery, threats or just changing your standards for literature? Give us a call. The number's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address, totn@npr.org.

Our guests are Paul Kropp, author of "How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life," and Esme Raji Codell, author of "How to Get Your Child to Love Reading."

We're going to take a call now from Terry. She's calling from Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Terry.

TERRY (Caller): Yeah. I have a quick story that might run counter to what at least the prevailing thought is. We read to our children every night for years and years and years, and they never picked up a book. I don't think my son ever read anything that wasn't required reading. He's 19 now. He's on a full scholarship at ASU. He lives in the honors dorm over there. He's on a full academic scholarship and mostly based on his math skills, but he writes very, very well. If not reading has hurt him, it's--I don't see it.

NEARY: So he just didn't want to read? I mean, it's interesting you said you read to them all the time, but they just didn't want to read themselves. So...

TERRY: That's right. We read to them every night. I read novels to him and, you know, good novels. I read "Mice and Men" to him when he was like six and some Jack London stuff, call...

NEARY: And he never had any reading problems in school either, it seems like you're saying. He didn't...

TERRY: No, no. He's fine.

NEARY: OK. So you think this is sort of a non-issue then, at least in terms of your own child.

TERRY: I'm sure that my child is an isolated incident, but just some anecdotal evidence.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks very much for your call, Terry.

TERRY: You bet.

NEARY: Let me ask you, Esme, first of all, about--well, what's your reaction to that caller's take on things, first of all?

Ms. CODELL: Well, that parent, even though he was being a little self-deprecating, I think did a very--the most important thing he could have done, which is read aloud to his child. Read aloud was found by the National Commission on Reading to be the most important thing you can do to create a lifelong reader and read aloud is something that should continue throughout the grade levels. That's what this parent did, and that's what really needs to happen in order to create not just a child who achieves well on tests, but who achieves well on life. And books on tape are another great option, and research suggests both books on tape and read aloud strengthen and lengthen attention spans for all areas of life.

NEARY: Paul Kropp, what about this idea of reading to your children? And also the other point that this parent raised that I thought was interesting, is he said his son is doing very well in school, mostly based on his math skills. I mean, maybe kids have different ways of learning, different things that they're interested in. The child that is very good at math, do they need to be readers?

Mr. KROPP: Well, I would never criticize any parent who read regularly to his or her children, which is, as we know, just a wonderful thing to do and has long-term benefits. I will, however, wonder why you read "Of Mice and Men" to a six-year-old...

NEARY: I was wondering the same thing.

Mr. KROPP: ...and what exactly is a child to get from this? I mean, the whole point about reading with--to children or with children--I like the phrase `with children,' because you spend a lot of time--you know, you can only read to children for so long, at which point they want to do it for themselves or they say, `Go away, Mom and Dad.' But you can read with your child forever. So then you have to choose what you want to read with, and there are times when a parent might want to tackle something that's really tough.

You know, maybe you want to do Tolkien early because you love it and you want to share your love of that particular book, but I don't think we should pretend that that's going to make your child a better reader. It might help them understand the story. It might help them appreciate character, but actual reading involves physically reading. You get better at something because you do it, and I can listen to my piano teacher play Chopin, but it doesn't help me play better until I do it. And we have to remember that about reading. Because there are lots of ways to shortchange the reading process. Oh, if I read every night or if I play tapes to the child or if they're watching specials on TV that are educational, then, in fact, they don't have to read--and I'm sorry, that's not true. We know it's not true.

NEARY: Well...

Mr. KROPP: Physically, you have to spend time.

NEARY: ...as we talk about getting kids to read, there are a few contrarians out there who might say, `Why bother?' and they might have an advocate in Steven Johnson, the author of "Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter." And he joins us now from his home in New York. Thanks for being with us, Steven Johnson.

Mr. STEVEN JOHNSON (Author, "Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter"): Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Now a lot of parents might feel that if their child would spend as much time with a book as they do on a computer, they'd be better off. What do you say to that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think that, you know, computer is the right thing to say here, because I think one of the most important things that we have to do--and this is one of the things I tried to talk about in this book--is really differentiate between the two different kinds of screen time, and that we're too quick to kind of assume that time spent in front of any screen is not nearly as good as time spent in front of a page and holding a book in your hand. And it seems to me that there are a lot of very powerful and important rewards that you can get from working with interactive screens, including games, but also just dealing with computers and with software that, in fact, are intellectual challenges that you, frankly, can't get from books. And books offer a whole host of kind of intellectual rewards that you can't really present on a computer in the same way.

And so both those two types of experiences, I think, are really valuable for kids growing up. Television, because it's passive--you know, I think television has gotten better over the last 30 years, but it's still basically a passive experience, and kids can get kind of hooked on it in a way that, you know, really can deter them from these other more important experiences. But computers and books, I think, are the most, you know, kind of powerful cocktail for parents to encourage.

NEARY: So TV's not making us smarter, you're saying.

Mr. JOHNSON: I think TV's getting smarter, basically, is the argument that I would make, and there is some wonderful television that's out there, but not for little kids, in general. You know, I mean, I think watching, you know, a Pixar DVD is perfectly appropriate for, you know, a six-year-old kid, and there's a lot of narrative complexity there and lots of interesting humor and lots of good values and has something to do--some of the time, I think that's fine, but certainly, I would discourage parents from putting, you know, TVs in their little kids' rooms and things like that.

NEARY: So you seem...

Mr. KROPP: If I can jump in...

NEARY: OK, go ahead.

Mr. KROPP: Steven, when I did the first edition of my book back in '91, I said--at that time, I said I thought computers are going to be a great thing for reading, and when I redid the book in 1996, I had to admit that I was wrong. I'd spent five years in between working on computer projects that would help kids read better. Meanwhile, the various kinds of data was coming back at me, and it kept on saying that kids who spend a lot of time looking computers are not doing wonderful interactive things. They're staring, and their real ability scores are going down. Since the year 2000, we've had study after study, starting with the Hebrew University study that has just been hammering educators saying, `Hey, computers aren't doing what you think they're supposed to be doing.'

Ms. CODELL: Lynn, may I chime in as well?

NEARY: All right. Then let's go ahead...

Ms. CODELL: I have to still agree with Steven a little bit. My own book, "Diary of A Fairy Godmother," which is for children, has an online promotion going on, where children blog or write diary entries, as well as read the book in conjunction. I think it can be a positive thing, and I also think that technology's not going to go away, and so I don't necessarily want it to. I think that we really need to create wonderful marriages between technology and the printed word. In countries like Scandinavia, the use of subtitles or using the closed captioning option on your television is widely used, and this creates exposure to print.

And there's also a number of wonderful children's books that deal specifically with technology: "City of Ember" by Jeanne DuPrau, "Shredderman" by Wendelin Van Draunen, "Eager" by Helen Fox. If children are interested in technology, we need to focus in on it as a theme that can inspire children to read as well.

NEARY: And, Steven Johnson, just one last question for you. I mean, if you're a parent and you see that your kid is spending too much time on the computer and none at reading, I mean, it does seem to me that you're advocating a balance, so would you say there's an area of concern when a child seems to be just focusing entirely, let's say, on computer skills?

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think what you want is a balanced media diet. But I'm not simply saying that computers can be good for teaching reading. I'm saying actually that computers are good for teaching other kinds of skills.

NEARY: Which skills are they? What kinds of skills?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, problem-solving, visual intelligence skills. Some of the games are amazing in looking at very kind of complicated multivariable systems, where there's lots going on and trying to figure out laws of cause and effect between all these different interacting components when you play a game like Sim City, where you have to run a city. And that kind of analysis of a growing, evolving kind of life form that you get to kind of get your hands dirty with and mess around with and affect in various different ways is very different from the experience of following a narrative, for instance, in a book. And they're both very rewarding, but, you know, I would want my kids to have both those experiences and not just limit exclusively them to reading.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today, Steven.

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, my pleasure.

NEARY: Steven Johnson is the author of "Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter."

If you would like to join our discussion about helping reluctant readers to get involved with reading, give us a call at 1 (800) 989-8255. And we're going to take a call now from Michael, and he is calling from Oregon. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes.

NEARY: Go ahead.

MICHAEL: This is Michael, and I'm a fourth-grade teacher--or actually, I taught first year fifth grade--and I'm a reluctant reader. And I think I still am. I struggled with reading growing up. I was a non-reader till about fourth grade. And I do read now, quite a bit, but I read to get information. And I liked the comment earlier about non-fiction and people encouraging kids who might not get into a story to read non-fiction. And that's--I--one of the ways that I try to reach my students, is by finding things that they will read. And my point, I guess, is that by teaching kids to love reading, which is what I hear all the time as a teacher--`Oh, we need to teach them to love reading'--that we're missing a lot of kids who will never love reading. They may see the value of reading and understand the value that they can get from reading, and will read because of that, but I think there are people, myself included, who really will never love reading.

NEARY: Hmm. Interesting. Paul Kropp?

Mr. KROPP: Well, that's a pretty sad thing, but, in fact, not everybody can love everything. So, you know, I find it hard to disagree with that. Nonetheless, the value of reading is so important, the importance of spending time on it is so vital, that I--you know, we just can't bypass that. I agree non-fiction's a great way to go, but it's a different kind of reading. These days in schools and elsewhere, kids have tremendous amounts of non-fiction that they can read: things written at their grade level, at their readability level that they can actually handle, beautifully illustrated books that didn't exist 10, 15 years ago, and I think that's wonderful, especially for the boy readers who are craving real, solid information on various kinds of things.

Nonetheless, as we were talking about different kinds of reading, computer reading, doing a screen of 130 words, is different from reading an extended narrative of 30,000 words, is different from dealing with a non-fiction text that's broken into chunks. There's different kinds; kids should be able to do them all.

NEARY: All right. Michael, thank you so much for your call.

MICHAEL: Could I say one more thing?

NEARY: Sure.

MICHAEL: I still think that, even in our school systems now, even though there are those great resources available, there is not the value put in non-fiction reading. A non-fiction reader is not as good a reader as a fiction reader, and that's my experience in schools in California, Washington and Oregon.

NEARY: That's interesting, Michael, because as you get older...

Mr. KROPP: Yes, but that's changing.

NEARY: ...I think more value is placed on non-fiction reading than on fiction reading.

Mr. KROPP: Yes, that is changing, even as we sit here. The PISA Study that's done in 15-year-olds very heavily emphasizes non-fiction reading, where, in fact, American and Canadian kids don't do that well because we emphasize fiction so much in the elementary grades, whereas in Europe, the balance is more even. I think it will change; it's just a matter of time.

NEARY: Thanks for your call, Michael.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In 2001, children's book writer Jon Scieszka founded Guys Read, a non-profit Web-based initiative created to attract more boys to reading. He how joins us from our New York bureau to talk about this program and to clue us in on the real story with guys and books.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JON SCIESZKA (Founder, Guys Read; Children's Author): Oh, thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: Now what are the gender differences in terms of reading? Is it really true that boys are maybe more reluctant readers than girls?

Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah. I think it's--the national statistics show that. I mean, we've been testing boys and girls for 25 years, and in every year, at every grade level, boys have been performing worse. And we haven't done much about it, either.

NEARY: And do they have different preferences? Is that the issue? Or...

Mr. SCIESZKA: Well, you know what? That's the problem. We've been just testing kids, and for years no one really did much to really look into what was going on here. And I love it that your callers, I think, really zeroed in on what was missing, and a big piece is that non-fiction, information reading that boys prefer--humor is another thing, too. And those things aren't really seen as legitimate reading in school.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, tell us about your Guys Read initiative. What is the approach you've taken to try and get boys more involved in reading?

Mr. SCIESZKA: Well, I put that together realizing, like, a lot of boys enjoyed things I liked, 'cause I grew up with five brothers, so I just kind of naturally understood what guys were missing. And I was an elementary teacher for 10 years, and I just thought, first of all, we need to call people's attention to the fact that boys are having trouble reading, and then I thought most simply what we could do is collect the books that boys really like to read and get those titles out to them.

NEARY: Yeah. Paul and Esme, I just wanted to ask you, both of you, to join in on this part of the discussion--first of all, Paul--about the gender differences.

Mr. KROPP: Well, I say `Amen.' We certainly have got a problem with boys and reading, not just how well they read, which is significantly below the level of girls in every country on Earth now--Japan used to be the exception, but now they've joined the rest of us. So boys are down for the count everywhere around the world. But also, the attitudes that many boys have towards books and reading is very negative. You know, they don't want to go to bookstores. The idea of picking up a book isn't fun. And some of that is what we have done to them in school. On behalf of teachers everywhere, I apologize. I think we've had far too much emphasis on fiction and enjoying the beautiful, sensitive story, and not nearly enough on, say, Jon's books, which are great fun reads that guys really enjoy.

NEARY: Esme?

Ms. CODELL: Well, I'm still kind of itching about that other call with the guy who said that some kids are just not going to love reading. And, I mean, I think this still pertains to the gender discussion, but I think no child is a lost cause when it comes to reading, any more than a child's a lost cause when it comes to falling in love. It's about making this connection, and I think a lot of this connection, as we were discussing a little bit earlier, has to do with the fact that so many children's books, thousands and thousands, are published every year. And we were talking about technology, and another great resource that technology lends to reading is it helps parents and teachers navigate through these thousands and thousands of books. That's why I started PlanetEsme.com, which helps people find out what books are going to meet their particular child's needs. We can talk about statistics, and there are all sorts of findings, but when it all boils down, there's this person who--and there's this other person who's the author, who's trying to speak to the child. How are you going to connect those two?

NEARY: Esme, thank you so much for joining us today.

We're going to take a short break now. I want to thank Esme Raji Codell and Paul Kropp for joining us, and we'll be back in a moment with Jon Scieszka. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Tomorrow, with the housing market booming around the country, some renters might believe they almost can't afford not to buy right now. But in a hot housing market, the decision is far from simple. Buy or rent?--that's the question tomorrow on our show.

Today we're talking about reluctant readers, and you can find more about summer reading at NPR's Web site, where you'll find the best novels, kids' books, cookbooks and more. That's at npr.org.

Right now I'm joined by Jon Scieszka. He's the founder of Guys Read, a non-profit Web-based initiative created to attract more boys to reading.

Jon, you--as well as having founded Guys Read, you're also an author of such high literature as "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales."

Mr. SCIESZKA: I like the way you say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Was that written specifically to attract little boys?

Mr. SCIESZKA: No. You know what? It was just written to entertain me. And I don't know; it just--boys flock to it and kids everywhere. 'Cause that's my theory. I think rather than nagging kids into reading, we should be engaging them. Like I want them to pick up that first page and read the first opening line, like `There's a little man made out of cheese,' and then just have them not be able to put the book down to find out what happened next.

NEARY: Yeah. Yeah. But why do boys seem to like things like, well, "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales"?

Mr. SCIESZKA: You can say it: gross and disgusting writing, like I do.

NEARY: Comic books, "Captain Underpants," you know...

Mr. SCIESZKA: I know. It is the weirdest thing.

NEARY: ...and maybe even non-fiction, too.

Mr. SCIESZKA: Yep. I don't know; it's just--it still kind of stuns me, but I think they honestly do really enjoy that different kind of gross and informational stuff all mixed together.

NEARY: So does that mean parents should be a little bit non-judgmental, not be saying, `Listen, you need to be reading, you know, the classics'?

Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah, I think that's exactly right to start out with, and really loosen up on what we consider reading. And definitely I would include comic books and graphic novels these days. I mean, that's sophisticated storytelling--Simpsons comics, which are really just interesting storytelling, and--even though everyone's yellow and kind of goofy-looking.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take a call now from Jim. He's in Syracuse, New York. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I learned to--I was encouraged to read comic books--or I was encouraged to read with comic books and stuff. Hello?

NEARY: Yes. Here. Go ahead.

JIM: Yeah. I was encouraged to read with comic books. I mean, I can think of a lot of times when I, you know, had to run to the dictionary because I didn't understand, you know, a word or something. And, like your guest was saying, they were pretty sophisticated. That's my comment.

NEARY: So comic books were something that helped you to get into reading?

JIM: Well, you know, I was already into reading. I mean, it just--it was something that was, like--I don't know; I guess, like, a dessert or something, you know, after, like, you know, the--like, eating your vegetables or something. It was, you know, just something you could read and then kind of just toss aside--like read real quick and then just kind of toss aside. It was...

NEARY: That's one way to encourage kids. Thanks so much for your call, Jim.

JIM: All right. Thanks.

NEARY: OK.

Mr. SCIESZKA: You...

NEARY: Now we're going to go to--oh, go ahead.

Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah. I think there's a piece of that there that--what boys think of as reading is they see that as just schoolwork, which I think that's what we need to get beyond, too, is--'cause I have a son, too, who's just a confirmed anti-reader, I think, 'cause he tells me, like, `No, anything I read I'm going to have to write a paper for or answer some questions. Why would I do that?' So that's his take on even some kind of summer entertainment reading. He's afraid someone's going to pop a pop quiz on him.

NEARY: What did you like to read as a kid?

Mr. SCIESZKA: Oh, I read all across the board, though I was fortunate enough to be a good reader. I started out with, like, Dr. Seuss' "Go, Dog. Go!" I just thought that stuff was so darn funny, 'cause it was mixed with--what I was reading at school was "Dick and Jane," which was so bizarre...

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. SCIESZKA: ...and kind of psycho writing. So the combination of those two--then I just started finding things on my own.

NEARY: Yeah. We're going to try and get one more call in here now. Dee is in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Hi, Dee.

DEE (Caller): Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DEE: I had a comment that related to your previous guest, when he talked about how reading is so important that you shouldn't nag your children to do that.

NEARY: Uh-huh.

DEE: And I'm just concerned that that can backfire. It backfired in my husband's case. His mom made him read for a half an hour every day during the summer, and now he just--he looked at that as a chore. He hated it because they were making him do it, and now he'll say to me if I pick up a book in the evening, `Gee, I wish I could read, but I just can't do it.'

NEARY: Do you think that he didn't like reading in the first place?

DEE: No, I don't think that was it. I think it--what he says to me, anyway, is just that, you know, `Because my mother made me do it, it was a chore,' and it was like a rebellion thing.

NEARY: Interesting. So--because we heard Paul Kropp, who was our earlier guest, say that it's OK to nag your kids. What is your take on it?

DEE: I don't know. I guess I would...

NEARY: I was going to ask Jon that.

Jon, what is your take on that?

Mr. SCIESZKA: Oh, yeah, I think I agree with Dee. That's just, like--I think that's a way you could really kill a kid's interest in reading. So there's something to setting up maybe a structure where you encourage kids, so you could give them a pile of books and make it an option, but yeah, not make it a chore.

NEARY: Yeah?

Mr. SCIESZKA: I think that really could backfire on you.

NEARY: OK. Thanks very much for your call, Dee.

DEE: Oh, you're welcome.

NEARY: All right. And let's go to Juliet in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Juliet.

JULIET (Caller): Hi there. I just had a brief comment. I wanted to talk a little bit about the gender thing you're talking about. I have two girls who began as reluctant readers, and they both read "The Stinky Cheese Man" and "Captain Underpants" and non-fiction, and I just--I think it's how we socialize our kids. I really have a problem with kind of gender polarizing, 'cause my kids like all kinds of stuff. They didn't start out that way, but just provided them lots of opportunities; I took them to a really great bookstore we have in town, which is Powell's. You know, they got to look around. And they like all the "boys' stuff," quote. So that's all I wanted to say.

NEARY: OK. That's--thanks for that call.

What do you think about that, Jon, that we're just...

Mr. SCIESZKA: Yes.

NEARY: ...socializing kids to read in a certain kind of way?

Mr. SCIESZKA: No, that's a great point. And it's--the socializing piece is huge, and that's a tough thing to overcome. And the other piece of that is, in elementary schools, the models that kids see for reading are, like, 80 percent women, even higher. Women are the librarians in elementary schools; it's probably 90 percent women. So we're telling kids reading's important, but I think they look around and they think, `Oh, I don't know; looks like a girl thing to me.'

NEARY: OK. Well, Jon, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for helping spread the world about guys and reading.

NEARY: Yeah. Jon Scieszka is the creator of the reading initiative Guys Read, but perhaps better known as the author of "The Stinky Cheese Man" and "The Time Warp Trio" series for kids.

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