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Where Have All the Readers Gone?

You would think that my husband and I would be voted most likely to raise readers. Our home is filled with thousands of books. We both read every single night. Steve has books in his car and even takes them with him on appointments. We’re both authors – we WRITE books for gosh sakes.

Even when our boys were little we read books by the bushel full. We went to the library every week and it was a family tradition to get a library card. Our home is not media-centered, either. We don’t have a big screen television, or cable or any favorite television shows that we watch on a weekly basis. The only movies we watch are at the movie theater or on a DVD.

So why, out of seven sons, I can’t name ONE, who would pick up a book that wasn’t for school? Are we turning into a nation of Alliterates - people who can read, but largely don’t? Science fiction author, Ray Bradbury said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Since The American Institute for Research reports that only 13 percent of American adults are capable of performing complex literacy tasks, this may be cause for concern for my boy’s future.

What happened? Did my boys develop immunity to the joy of reading?

We both preached the importance of reading to our children. After all, our country’s future depends upon literacy skills. Between 1996 and 2006 the average literacy required for all occupations rose by 14 percent, reported in Reading Next published by the Alliance for Excellent Education (2004). Additionally, the 25 fastest growing professions have far greater literacy demands, while the 25 fastest declining professions have lower than average literacy demands.

Perhaps computers and video gaming are to blame. A 1999 national survey of young people, ages 8 to 18, asked which type of media they wanted to take with them if stranded on a desert island. Of course, number one was a computer with Internet access.

But if the Internet is to blame, it’s also been a blessing. Our twins struggle navigating written text due to their dyslexia. Yet, there is a surprising amount of reading and writing embedded into their online role playing games.

Another plus is the way their games are in all probability enhancing their visual skills. A 2001 study, “The Impact of Computer Use on Children’s and Adolescents’ Development,”  found “Many computer applications, especially computer games, have design features that shift the balance of required information-processing, from verbal to visual. Perhaps their older brother, now a graphic artist, was aided by the visual skills he picked up gaming and surfing the web. Another skill incorporated in playing computer and video games are divided visual attention, the skill of keeping track of a lot of different things at the same time.” 

An extensive 43 country study called “Gender, Context and Reading”  interviewed almost 200,000 kids who were 15 years old using a reading comprehension test which discovered something you may have intuitively known: “In every country, girls outscored boys.” There have been many, many studies that suggest girls perform better at reading than boys. Many of the reading disability diagnoses are also skewed to the male gender. According to the lead researchers on this study, “Are adolescent girls better readers than adolescent boys? Why or why not? In this study, across cultures, girls tended to outscore boys and were more likely to be adequate readers…”

“After controlling for all other variables, girls still outscored boys in reading by 13 points on average, and gender explained about 1 percent of the differences in reading achievement. …Thus, the effects of gender on reading comprehension are not largely attributable to biological influences alone but perhaps also to the valuing of literacy activities to a greater extent among girls than among boys across many societies.”

Perhaps that’s at the root of our problem – we had boys instead of girls. Is there no hope for those of us who are raising boys to raise a reader, too? 

While we still worry about the future of books among the general population, we were given food for thought at a recent birthday for our 31-year-old. We asked our sons if they were reading any books. Our birthday boy astonished us by saying, “Lots of them, I download them to my computer.” He’s avidly exploring ways to ease his chronic fatigue syndrome. So perhaps our worries were unfounded. They may never have vast bookshelves filled with books, but their computers will be stuffed with books.

And what about the other sons? Well, most seem to prefer reading articles to books. The more we thought of this, it makes sense. Why would our graphic artist buy a book on the latest Photoshop techniques if he can find plenty of articles online, with up-to-the-minute information, with illustrations in full color? Typically, people don’t require entire books to satisfy their need for information.

Although we want to instill the skills of reading, in the end we want our boys to have a thirst for wisdom and knowledge. One of ours prefers watching documentaries and listening to NPR. Others consult YouTube for interviews with experts.

While we’re all for pushing reading, since it’s often the best way to get at information, the more we’ve thought about it, our boys are indeed continuing their education, although we may seldom see them cracking a book.

Shining a Light in the Darkness of Prison

John Last 1Reading saved my life. I can only guess at how many books I read in my nearly 25 years of incarceration. I feel certain that it is easily over a thousand. For me, the longer and more detailed the book was the better. One perfect book was To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember squatting in the hallway outside of my room after lights out so I could finish the last few pages. Dune was another favorite that I read over and over. I would recite its litany against fear, which begins, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer…” But the greatest book was Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean, towards the end of his life, says, “To die is nothing, but it is terrible not to live,” a depth of connection transfixed me completely and tears streamed down my face. These worlds, and many more, helped keep me sane and alive, and gave me a way to continue to learn about and experience life.

I imagine that reading serves this function for many people, but there is something particularly powerful about its power in the darkness of prison. It is a light that shines because of the help of many people, from family members and librarians to non profits that send books to prisoners.

A few weeks ago, I met some folks who shine this light into a particularly dark corner of the prison system. They were from the Free Minds Book Club, a Washington, D.C.-based non profit that serves juveniles who are being held as adults in the D.C. jail. Free Minds Book Club runs two weekly writing workshops for them in the jail. They encourage the kids to express themselves in poetry and prose and to share their work with their peers. The results have been terrific. For some of the kids, it is the first time that they have been asked to really share themselves. They also read books and have discussions, just like book clubs around the world. Right now they are reading Muchacho by LouAnne Johnson, author of Dangerous Minds.

Besides the book club and the writing classes the group holds workshops, called On the Same Page, around the community. They share the writings of the kids and use them as a springboard for starting discussions about ways to reduce violence and crime. Another program is called Write Night, where volunteers read the kids’ work and write their responses, which the kids get to see later.

Their work doesn’t end at the jail. The program has been running for 10 years, and now many of the participants are in federal prison or have been released. These kids, because of where they live, can be shipped all over the country. But Free Minds continues to support these young men, some of whom may spend their entire lives in prison. For some of the young men, Free Minds is their only link home.

Free Minds also distributes a regular collection of writing from their members around the country, called The Connect. It is a monthly newsletter made up of writing, articles and poems from staff, kids who have come home, kids still on the inside, family and community members. It offers advice, book reviews and news from home. Tara Libert, cofounder, writes, “…most of all [it offers] encouragement so our members don’t feel like no one cares or [that] they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Recently five of their writers comprised the editorial board for a new literary journal; They Call Me 229-359. It contains submissions from around the country.

There isn’t enough room in this space to talk about everything they do, so I encourage you to go to their site or check out their Facebook page. They maintain a blog where they post members’ poems each week. You can go there and leave comments, which will then be printed and mailed to the poets in federal prison. It is a kind of virtual Write Night, and serves the same purpose of connecting these youngsters with people on the outside. Free Minds is a group of people who are doing restorative justice week in and week out, and they deserve our support. I leave you with a poem by one of Free Mind’s contributors:

My Face

MARCH 1, 2012

I think my face is only a disguise
2 hide the pain you cannot see
Because if my face was my heart
You’ll probably see a different me
And another half of me is bitter
And another half is sweet
But I try 2 keep
My skeletons buried 6 feet
I am only 18 but my life is so deep
But from the view of my face
My secrets are kept 4 keeps…

Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy Offers Grant to Encourage Reading

The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy is offering a grant to support reading skills. Some of the requirements for this grant include,  literacy instructions for kids pre-K to the third grade, intergenerational literacy and literacy for adults. No grant request should exceed $65,000. The deadline for this grant is September 9, 2011.