Inviting Aliterate Boys to Read: The Slippery Slope of Recommending Books

Recommending books to boys seems like it should be pretty straightforward.

  1. A boy needs a book to read.
  2. A parent asks an expert other—teachers/librarians/reading specialist—or book recommendations or reads blogs/articles/books touting the best books for boys.
  3. A parent gets said book(s) for the boy and shares it with him.
  4. The boy reads the book(s).

But, as many parents figure out (and teachers too), recommending a book to a boy is not so straightforward, especially step 4: The boy reads the book(s).

Book Recommendations Become a Slippery Slope

This is based on my experience as a literacy educator and boy-responsive literacy consultant. It also depends on the boy.

For some, this may come across as counterintuitive, contrarian even. At the start of my teaching career, it was for me too. I recommended books to boys that I thought they’d enjoy because as a reader I loved getting recommendations and kept a list in a notebook. Yet, over and over again, most boys rebuffed my recommendations and continued not reading, leaving me devastated and wondering why.

After talking to hundreds of boys about their reading lives, I discovered that boys who already liked to read appreciated book recommendations (like I did), and boys that didn’t like reading ignored them.

From these conversations, I vowed to myself that I would never recommend books to and for aliterate boys (those who have the skill to read not the will to read). Below I share why and what I do instead.

To explain, here’s a recent example.

I attended a volunteer community meeting. During the introductions, I shared about my book on what parents need to know and do to get preteen/early teen boys reading. Immediately after the meeting, a few women came up to me (two moms and an aunt), all to ask the same question.

Them: “My son/nephew hates to read! All he does is play video games/watch TV/play sports, and I just want him to read a book for a change. What books do you recommend?

Me: “None. If your son/nephew hates to read, a book recommendation from me isn’t what he needs right now. I can help, but you might not like what I have to say.”

My answer surprised them; it usually does.

Why a Book Recommendation From Me Isn’t What an Aliterate Boy Needs

Parents of boys who hate to read are frustrated/discouraged/worried/well-meaning and grasping for straws when they ask for book recommendations. Many keep hoping, with fingers crossed, this time they’ll find the magic-bullet book; this time the book they share with him won’t be shunned.

But it will be, even if it looks interesting to them, on principle, out of habit, and because there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Another reason is that boys who don’t like to read also don’t want to hear about a book recommended by a random stranger, or for that matter, from anyone they feel doesn’t get them, isn’t like them or not someone they admire.

Here’s a story from a teacher who struggled with this exact thing.

Nothing this teacher recommended registered with the aliterate boys in his freshman English classes, and because of their non-reading habits, most underperformed.

Until…LeBron James started reading books before the NBA playoff games.

Yep, that’s right. Images of him lying on the floor reading, surrounded by people, got these boys motivated enough to take the plunge. They ended up reading and loving both the Divergent and Hunger Games series because of LeBron, someone they admired and wanted to be like, read them.

Once they devoured those books and re-shaped their relationship with reading, then they were ready and open to hear and try their teacher’s recommendations.

So, knowing that my recommendations won’t make a difference for boys who hate to read, I choose to decline and share what I know will work instead.

LeBron Reading

Here’s How I Can Help

(but you might not like what I have to say)

If after I offer my help and the person nods for me to go on, I say, “Let me ask you a question: what does he want to read?”

The responses usually go something like this:

  • Comic books: Over my dead body. I banned them years ago.
  • Graphic novels: That’s like reading comic books. No, not happening.
  • Potty humor: No way. It’s gross and stupid.
  • Skateboard magazines/how to beat his video game/the sports section: That’s not real reading because it’s something he loves to do.
  • Books about war: I don’t promote violence in my home.
  • The same “stupid” series over and over again: I finally threw the books away/hid them when he was at school.
  • Like I tell him, who cares what he wants to read. It’s what I approve that he’s allowed to read.
  • Nothing, absolutely nothing

You get the idea.

Aliterate Boys Will Read

Aliterate boys will read, but not when they don’t feel appreciated or are forced to read. That’s why I respond with, “What I recommend for your son to read is what he enjoys.”

How about:

  • Taking him to the comic book store and letting him pick out some comics/graphic novels he wants to read;
  • Buying him Captain Underpants and then talking to him about the humor he likes so much;
  • Picking up this month’s skateboard magazine and leaving it on the counter with a note;
  • Going to the library, taking out some war books he might like, and reading them together;
  • Getting him a book series he wants and letting him devour it until his heart’s content;
  • Letting go and opening up to his book preferences for a change;
  • Observing your son and using his interests to form your recommendations;
  • Asking him what he might want to read?

I follow with,

“Getting boys to read starts by appreciating their preferences first. Over time, when they’re permitted to read what they enjoy, they’ll be ready to hear your book recommendations.”

My final question is:

“Wouldn’t you rather he read something than nothing like he is doing now?”

My hope in sharing why I don’t recommend books for boys who hate to read, and what I do instead, gets people thinking differently about recommending books to them and start to realize that their not reading goes deeper than just a book.

Because when we start to re-shape reading for aliterate boys, one small change at a time and step out of what we’ve always done, we open them up to what’s possible.

Here’s to boys reading!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr,eekimArticle Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler /NBAE via Getty Images. Features LeBron James at Oklahoma City, OK.June 12, 2012, NBA Finals. Copyright 2012 NBAE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.