While everyone knows that TOOCOOL rules, the reality is that people ask me, not him, the hard questions about boys and reading. That said, an analysis of TOOCOOL’s adventures will actually provide many of the answers that people seek when trying to unpack the range of issues associated with boys and reading.
The question I’m asked most often is “what can we do to get boys interested in reading?”
Some may consider it a straight forward question; my concern however, is that it makes an assumption that boys aren’t interested in reading.
Even when attempting to answer the question for the group of boys whose reading skills are particularly limited, I find that a range of stereotypes and all manner of conflicting generalisations get in the way.
My response to the question “what can we do to get boys interested in reading?” is to ask a question straight back. “Are we talking about boys who can read – but won’t, or are we talking about boys who because they struggle to read are considered reluctant readers?”
At this point I need to stress that I don’t actually consider the term ‘reluctant’ to be appropriate. A boy may struggle to read at the level of his peers, however the word ‘reluctant’ infers that there is a choice. In my experience as a teacher and author children don’t choose not to read. The term reluctant also results in children being ‘labelled’ and having heard trusted adults describe them as reluctant, to my horror I have heard children using the term to describe themselves.
I am also keen to point out that it is really important to acknowledge that there are many boys with sound reading skills, who simply refuse to read what their parents and teachers want them to read. They will only read what interests them – surprise surprise ! Sadly, many of these boys are also labeled in a negative way.
My work with children has evidenced for me over and over again, that it’s the type of book that is presented to the boy that will most often dictate the boy’s response. When the response is rejection, be it by the boy with sound reading skills, or the boy who is struggling to read at the level of his peers – the negative stereotypes and labels emerge impeding the progress we all desire.
Boys – irrespective of their reading ability – enjoy pictures, comics, movies and books which place action ahead of emotion. Boys – irrespective of their reading ability – enjoy situations where ‘what the characters do’ is initially more important than ‘what the characters think and feel’.
Mindful of this, I have always believed it essential to introduce boys to books that present an environment where it is possible for their imaginations to run wild. More specifically, an environment where they can project themselves into the book, and consider themselves the main character. Books that are written in the first person enable this – and this is one of the reasons why the TOOCOOL books have been so popular with children, despite their diverse range of reading skills.
It’s also my experience that boys love books that reflect an image that matches the image that they want to project to others, and in many cases the image they really do have of themselves. They seek to identify themselves in the book, living the adventure. Hence the book that then allows them via imagination to be what they would like to be, and to do what they would like to do, is the book that they’ll choose to read, or try to read; sometimes over and over again, which is just fine!
This explains in part the popularity of books with characters engaged in sport. These books attract many boys. That said if sport is not the key, then the application of the same thinking can be extended to wizards, super-heros, inventors, killers of aliens or creepy crawly things, the characters boys find hilarious, those who fight in mystical battles and even Tazan!
Boys love to have fun. If reading is what we require them to do, and we do, then the book in question needs to be just as much fun as whatever else it is that they do that makes them laugh and jump around in an imaginary adventure, or create mischievous mayhem. The TOOCOOL character attracts and lures boys because he has fun in an uncomplicated and positive way. Better still he is in control of how much fun he has, where he has it, with whom he has it, and because most often he creates his own plot for his adventure.
Boys are constantly told to behave, to be tidier, and to be quieter – none of which they want to do, and none of which amount to the sort of fun they want to have. So it’s literally TOOCOOL to the rescue – the characters in the books are not contained or limited by the restrictions placed on boys in real life. TOOCOOL is an average boy, from your everyday suburb, living a relatively normal life. But he, like most boys, uses his imagination to create his own world, where nothing much goes wrong and he is the focal point.
In writing ‘TOOCOOL’ my main aim was to create something that would entice boy readers – no matter what their reading ability. The fact that the characters and adventures have such an immediate and strong appeal for boys (and many girls who love the MARCY character) has resulted in the TOOCOOL books contributing greatly to the development of those with both sound and limited reading skills.
TOOCOOL has been the reason why so many boys have picked up a book by choice, and became excited about reading. In turn, the term ‘reluctant’ should only ever be used when it comes to describing how a child feels about putting a TOOCOOL book down!