REVIEW: CONNECTING BOYS WITH BOOKS
Michael Sullivan. Connecting Boys with Books: What Libraries Can Do. American Library Association, 2003.0-8389-0849-7. $32. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
Unlike most other children's librarians, Michael Sullivan was once a little boy. He therefore understands better than most librarians how our collections and our policies make our libraries unwelcoming environments for normal, rambunctious, boisterous, energetic, action-oriented, mastery-seeking boys. Sullivan doesn't actually come out and say we're too prissy, but in too many libraries, we are, we are. His book is an action plan for changing that.
Why? Because we are shortchanging boys, who are slower than girls to develop communication skills and empathy, and receive less encouragement to do so. Sullivan says that unlike mass media which "tell boys to grow up to be strong, aggressive, violent, and unheeding of consequences," books have the capacity to provide a thoughtful and nuanced understanding of the causes and effects of human actions and interactions. By making them better readers, we are helping them become better men.
If that's not enough reason, our professional ethics require us to do a better job of serving boys. Our professional goals have always included cultivating a love of reading, and the Library Bill of Rights tells us it's our duty (and privilege) to provide equal service to all.
Sullivan's book serves as a how-to-do-it manual, full of proven program ideas and projects and books that appeal to boys and encourage them to be enthusiastic readers and library users.
He forces us first to look at the world through a boy's eyes. What he sees is a world run by women, who demand behavior that's easy for girls and hard for boys. That environment seems so natural to librarians that we don't even notice it, let alone see what a turn-off it is for boys. But after an entire day at school being forced to sit quietly under the often disapproving stares of female teachers, why would boys choose to spend their spare time in yet another female environment?
One quick fix would be to loosen our enforcement of rules about noise. Sullivan notes that though librarians are quick to jump on boys for loud conversations, in his experience, the noisiest people in libraries are hearing-impaired elderly people and library staff, who get a free pass. It would be better still if we created zones where group activity and noise is acceptable.
A longer term fix, that will take some effort to bring about, is getting more men into the library. More male librarians would certainly help, but in their absence, Sullivan suggests getting more dads involved by scheduling events of interest to men and boys during evening or weekend hours when men are more likely to be available. He recommends creating "Dad and me" events, and enlisting men to do programs for kids. Among the successes he points to are programs where men teach chess in libraries, for instance, and a library event in which an elderly baseball player talked about his days in the Negro Leagues.
Sullivan also thinks we should select more of the materials that appeal to boys' reading interests: nonfiction, humor (the grosser the better), sports and adventure stories, fantasy, and graphic novels. What these have in common, he suggests, is that they don't get much respect from librarians. But since what counts is developing both an interest in reading and a facility for it, we need to not only buy these kinds of materials but promote them, with displays and book talks on exciting topics like haunted houses or the Loch Ness monster. Promote books with ploys that appeal to boys, he says: point out the humor, the anti-authority aspects, the action, "the quest, and the cosmic battles of good and evil."
Sullivan offers many ideas for adapting our programs to boys' needs. Let them use their physical energy during book programs, he says. Cover the walls with paper and let kids draw their own illustrations of the story; do outdoors-related book talks while walking, or have kids act out scenes from favorite books. Give kids a chance to talk back. While such techniques will be especially effective with boys, lots of girls will enjoy them as well.
He thinks we should appeal to boys' needs to achieve, compete, excel, and lead. Let them design a web page for a favorite book. Offer chess programs, or trivia competitions or Battles of the Books. One especially interesting library program he points to, called Knights of the Ring, gave kids the chance to advance through several levels of knowledge and achievement to become a knight, and then train other kids to do the same.
Another way to encourage boys to read is to develop their overall language skills. Sullivan describes a variety of programs and games he's used to teach storytelling and listening skills.
One problem with our existing programs is that if boys aren't in the library to begin with, they're not going to see the flyers advertising programs that would appeal to them. Sullivan tells librarians it's their job to go out into the community and bring the boys in, working with schools and Boy Scouts (which do offer reading badges) and other organizations.
This is an important book that forces us to examine how we inadvertently discriminate against boys through our failure to understand their needs and natures. And if our professional ethics aren't enough to compel us to serve them better, consider this: boys will turn into men who pay taxes voluntarily only to support institutions they get value from.
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Reading to kids is to ordinary reading what jazz is to a string quartet.
Sean Wilentz. Reader's Quotation Book
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