Picking the right book for a boy means finding 'the right level of reading and the right level of interest'
Saturday, June 23, 2007
When British writer Val Wilding got the idea for her Toby Tucker books, about a boy who becomes his ancestors, she wanted to make them attractive to boys, especially those who are reluctant to read. She wrote the main part of the story in very short sections, in the first person, so it would be less daunting. And she considered factors like typeface and line spacing.
She understood that the low-tech printed word now has to compete for boys' attention with a myriad of contraptions like PlayStation and computer games.
So when Fabienne Goulet, who taught my son, Cuan, in Grade 2 this year, stressed the importance of readers connecting with the books they read, I kept that in mind as I surveyed a promising summer's worth of reading for boys.
Goulet, an experienced French-immersion teacher and literacy mentor, explains that "conversation is an important activity before, during and after any reading activity" and that "picking the right book means both the right level of reading and the right level of interest."
Fortunately, book publishers have responded with great material designed to attract and sustain young male interest this summer.
BOYS 12 AND UNDER
Among the more cutting-edge visual offerings this season is a beautiful and unique novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. Described as a novel in words and pictures, it contains 287 pages of charcoal line drawings to enrich the text. The story, a mystery, concerns Hugo, an orphan, clock keeper and thief who lives in the wall of a Paris train station. The book offers reluctant readers a chance to conquer a 500-page novel.
Non-fiction titles can be a boon to parents seeking to entice reluctant readers. Boys' fascination with battle can be explored through fiction and non-fiction. The My Story series titles -- Battle of Britain and Flying Ace -- are engaging, accurately researched first-person fictional narratives of fighter pilots, while the indispensable Eyewitness: World War I and World War II offer a pictorial and factual approach. At Vimy Ridge, by Hugh Brewster, documents the Canadian soldiers' experience in 1917.
Pick Me Up: Stuff You Need to Know is a funky encyclopedia with the most reluctant reader in mind. Bright and snazzy, it whets a child's appetite without being overwhelming. It succeeds at mirroring the click and zip of the online experience.
It's funny what you find when you dig for treasure and a most unlikely-sounding book rises up out of the pile. The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden, is dangerously engaging. As Shelley Fralic wrote recently in The Sun, the Igguldens document the stuff that matters to boys. There are instructions on everything from how to build a go-cart to the essentials of soccer, navigation, skimming stones and maps. The Dangerous Book is easily my favourite pick for parents and boys this summer.
Information-rich books with a practical or interactive approach really hold my son's interest. Secret Agent Y.O.U.: The Official Guide to Secret Codes, Disguises, Surveillance and More, by Helaine Becker, is one that surprised me. Although it's shaped and designed like a picture book, it keeps him riveted with the thoroughness of its concept -- i.e., quizzes and challenges to one's suitability to be a spy.
Espionage led me to forensics, so I paired it with Crimebusters: How Science Fights Crime, by Clive Gifford. Again, the format is manageable chunks of text with sharp, engaging photography and graphics.
To my astonishment, two small books in Dorling Kindersley's Nature Activities series on birdwatching (Bird Watcher) and the weather (Weather Watcher) were huge hits. Perhaps it helped that we could step outside the door and experience the birds and clouds firsthand.
In the interests of blasting away stereotypes, pick up I Love Ponies, by Louise Pritchard. It's colourful and gentle in tone, and the text is manageable for emerging readers. Boys can love ponies, too.
TRIED AND TESTED
It's foolish to overlook the potential in reliable series-type books, such as Geronimo Stilton. David Copperfield they're not, but with their brightly coloured words and other graphic tricks, boys respond to them when they're placed in their mitts. They're an important steppingstone in building vocabulary, and beause you can immediately hand a child the next one in the series, they encourage the act of consistent reading.
Boys who respond well to their fellow Vikings can laugh through July and August with Cressida Cowell's Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III's hilarious fourth epic memoir, How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse. I held a copy in a Vancouver playground recently and three boys rushed up to express their delight in all things Hiccup, Toothless and Snotlaut.
Cornelia Funke's fourth Ghosthunters book, Ghosthunters and the Muddy Monster of Doom will keep Hetty Hyssop, Tom and Hugo fans busy as the Ghosthunters negotiate the delightfully named ASGs (Averagely Spooky Ghosts) and IRGs (Incredibly Revolting Ghosts).
For more reluctant readers, adventures like Horrid Henry, by Francesca Simon; Jake Cake, by Michael Broad, or Toby Tucker, by Val Wilding, are accessible choices.
PRETEENS AND TEENAGERS
For visual learners, the graphic novel is a good solution. In stores July 15 will be Bone 6: Old Man's Cave. The humour of Jeff Smith's unlikely hero, Fone Bone, who, with his cousins, is trying to save an idyllic valley from the forces of evil, has delivered readers through five earlier books to this instalment.
First-time author Gareth Hinds's graphic version of Beowulf offers a decent history and classics fix. And bear in mind that the Vancouver Public Library has a wide range of graphic novels in its collection these days, well worth a gander at the downtown shelves.
For soccer fans, David Beckham's Soccer Skills has practical tips, though it's a bit overloaded with snaps of Becks.
No such problem exists in Jeff Rud's more interesting biography, Steve Nash: The Making of an MVP. My two 15-year-old test readers, Corey and Bradley, loved it, especially the description of Nash's early life.
Also, I highly recommend Keeper, by Mal Peet. It's a rich, poetic novel about a World Cup-winning South American goalkeeper telling his life story to a journalist.
For teen readers looking for edgy, thoughtful stories, Deborah Ellis's Jakeman tackles families and prison via a superhero called Jakeman the Barbed-Wire Boy. Ellis is a Toronto writer who uses serious themes to connect her young readers with the world beyond Canada's borders.
Finally, Vancouver's Raincoast Books distributes quirky general-knowledge books intriguing to boys of every age. If you keep on hand Everything You Need to Know About the World, by Simon Eliot, or 101 Things You Need to Know and Some You Don't, by Richard Horne and Tracey Turner, you'll be able to interrupt sibling disputes with distractions like, "Hey, let's find out why we don't fall off the Earth." It's better for teeth and waistlines than "Let's go out for ice cream."
Anakana Schofield will be spending her summer with Honore de Balzac, while seven-year-old Cuan will be plowing through Geronimo Stilton and Harry Potter in French.
© The Vancouver Sun 2007