Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Thinking like a leader

I couldn't attend BEA this year, but one report from Publishers Weekly caught my eye. It was about a panel of booksellers on "Thought Leadership" and how important it is to the children's book market. 

I like to think of myself as a thought leader. Everyone I know who brings up the subject of books for boys gets my leading thoughts on the subject. Sometimes they're overwhelmed, sometimes I get nods of agreement, but I often see a sense of surprise at the depth of the subject. Many many people -- especially those of us who have raised or taught boys -- have felt the frustration and disappointment of trying to "get him to read." This doesn't count for every boy, of course. I recognize that there are lots of well-read boys out there. But the main current is one of effort and dismay. 

So, people often connect with my message of why boys don't read. If you haven't heard or read it before, I think the main issue with boys and books is CONTENT. I believe that there are two main issues: 

1. Most of the people (adults) in the chain of choice for young readers' books -- from authors to agents to editors to librarians and teachers and even the parent most typically responsible for a boy's education -- are women. Don't get me wrong moms, don't point that finger at me Mrs. Bandemere (my 3rd Grade teacher), please continue to consider my books Ms. Editor. We love you. You're doing great work for us. We appreciate it. (One of the most influential people in my life was Mrs. Jepeson, the librarian at my elementary school.) But when it comes to choosing books for boys, you have one MAJOR DISADVANTAGE -- you've never been a 12-year-old boy! It's not your fault, I know. But often, the chain of choice picks books with content they THINK boys SHOULD read (based on other-than-masculine tastes). Uninteresting content = disinterested readers.

2. Boys are often steered away from reading materials that they find interesting -- video game/tech magazines, comics, technical manuals -- and told that it's not "real reading." A study by two literacy professors in Maine found that while boys' literacy test scores are as low as the perception, boys do, in fact, have quite a capacity for being literate on the materials that they're motivated to read. Wouldn't you be discouraged if someone walked by while you were reading your favorite anything and said, "Oh, yeah, THAT. That's not real reading. Get back to Shakespeare or something else I find valuable." So, we tend to gently punish boys for their tastes and steer them away from reading that interests them. 

The article in Publishers Weekly quotes booksellers as saying that "we need to be a resource." I agree. The motto of our developing bookstore is "Boy read. Guaranteed." While it's not fully developed yet, we'll be including guides and articles that parents, teachers and librarians can use to enhance boys' reading experiences. We're developing thought leadership with every choice we make. We want to inspire boys to read and give them the tools and materials they need to do it.