Why Johnny Won’t Read

It’s been a busy four months since I last posted, and for that Dear Readers, I am sorry. The last week of August added a new title to my name: Professor. It also added a rich, new dimension to my life that I never expected. It has also kept me quite busy. Between my seventh and eighth graders and my first and second-year graduate students, I find myself fully immersed in literacy. And I love it!

I’ve been reading a lot during these months. And yes, I have failed to even post to my “What I’m Currently Reading” page.

I’ve had the opportunity to read quite a few ARCs, courtesy of my time at NCTE‘s annual convention. My long weekend in St. Louis at NCTE wasn’t all fun and books, I did have the opportunity to present two sessions—one dealing with parsing out fake news and one exploring social justice in our classrooms. I networked and made some excellent connections to strengthen both my teaching in middle school and graduate school.

 

Additionally, I had lunch with Angie Thomas (author of The Hate U Give). Okay, that sounds like name dropping and as if Angie and I sat down to lunch together. We sort of did—we sat down to lunch together with about 200 people. She gave the keynote at the lunch was amazing.

I had drinks with Jackie Woodson, who is truly amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with her about her children (and yes, I did fan girl over her because JACKIE WOODSON).

I had hors d’oeuvres with Laurie Halse Anderson (well me and about 300 other people) and learned how her books and her life dovetail each other.

I got to thank Julie Murphy for writing sassy strong female characters, thank Chris Crutcher for tackling tough issues, get an advanced copy of Thunderhead (which truly made me the most awesome ELA teacher my students ever had) and say hi to Neal Shusterman again, wish Kylene Beers well and get a F@*& Cancer pencil, and meet some awesome Jersey folks (909 miles from home) whom I have one degree of separation with and never knew existed—Jennifer Ansbach—which also led me to NJCTE and information about their Annual Convention at Monclair State University March 24.

I normally don’t play favorites with publishers because, well, a good YA book is a good YA book. However, HarperCollins for the win at this year’s NCTE! Their reps pretty much let convention goers have copies of any of their ARCs (no limit on number of titles—I love these people). Additionally, their reps were really able to sell the books. They did things like ask me about my kids as readers and then recommend books they might like, which is what I do in my classroom. They shared their favorite title—and they were spot on! Each title I came home with from HarperCollins was better than the next. I was most excited about receiving Puddin’ by Julie Murphy because I ADORE Dumplin’ and Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher because Chris Crutcher! (Yes, I am fully aware of the superlative degree of most, but this is truly a tie.) I left with a few other titles: Hamilton and Peggy, The Poet X, Hooper, Supergifted, The Lost Rainforest (MG Rep’s pick), and Heretics Anonymous (YA Rep’s pick). I loved every title.

I thought I had YA burn out, but then I guess I don’t. I think I was sick of the repetitive nature of publishing. Twilight is a hit, so every book that comes out for the next five years is vampires. That is until Hunger Games hit it. Then we were all about dystopia. But wait! The Fault in Our Stars puts John Green on the map (um, where has everyone been? He had three books out before this better than TFIOS, IMHO), so everything after this is realistic fiction about teen angst. Thirteen Reasons Why makes it big on Netflix? Yep, knockoffs of Jay Asher suddenly appear.

Publishers, You. Must. Stop.

Teens are really diverse readers. Boys read. Girls read. Transgender kids read. LGBQ kids read. Cisgender kids read. Straight kids read. Poor kids read. Rich kids read. White kids read. Brown kids read. Differently abled kids read.

If you give kids good books that don’t talk down to the them and are about things they are interested in, they read.

Do you know why they don’t read—especially boys?

They don’t read if they are not interested in the book. Or if they don’t like the cover of the book.

Do you know how many books I have in my classroom library without dust jackets on them? (This is not a rhetorical question.) Pretty much every realistic fiction book I have in hardcover and a good share of my fantasy (in hardcover).

Why? Just look at the cover of Thirteen Reasons Why, then look at through the eyes of a 13 year-old boy. My boys, and to be fair some of my girls, give books gender. They decide if a book is a “boys’ book” or a “girls’ book” based on the cover.

Let’s dissect the original cover of Thirteen Reasons Why.

First: there’s a girl on the cover. This is a gigantic give-away to boys that this book isn’t for them—despite the fact that Clay, a teenaged boy, is the narrator.

Second: the girl is where very feminine looking clothing—complete with skirt and heels.

Third: the girls is sitting on a swing gazing off into the distance.

If you’ve read the book, it appears that this is supposed to be Hannah, and the cover depicts her isolation from others.

If you haven’t, the cover can be since as an advertisement for romance.

The inside of the dust jacket is a map of the town with key locations circled. In a discussion about “boys’ books” and “girls’ books” and the fact that in English the noun book does not have a gender as in say French or Spanish (the world language offerings at my school), we do look at book design and talk about marketing. I usually bring up TRW. My boys quickly agree it is not a “girls’ book.” And if one boy reads the book and recommends it, then other boys will follow (this happened with Twilight many years ago when the first movie came out—I will refrain from my personal comments about Twilight). We have had conversations about why the map that is the inside wasn’t the actual cover. We’ve had conversations about what might be a better cover. However, in the end, the dust jacket comes off, and the “naked book” will be read by boys.

I find it interesting that after the Netflix series (which really is nothing like the book—please don’t judge the book by the series) the cover now looks like this:

Yep. That’s a “boys’ cover.”

What to Say Next by Julie Bauxbaum was a recent book talk. I knew based on the cover this was going to be a tough sell to my boys—despite the fact that I thought my TRW fans would enjoy this.

No big deal, I carelessly thought, I’ll just take off the cover. Well, it was a big deal. The book is white with metallic hot pink lettering on the spine and metallic hot pink drink glasses outlined on the front cover. The boys groaned. I threw up my hands.

Luckily, the first student to take this book out was a boy. He seemed to enjoy it.

So publishers, please tell your marketing departments that boys read. They read widely. They enjoy it. They will put down their video games for a good book. They will take a book to sports practice. They just won’t read a book with a “girls’ cover.”

And while publishing might be getting a little bit better with diverse characters, they are not getting any better with diverse covers.

Until next time, see YA

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