Blogs

Winning the reading war

I hated reading as a boy.

That’s probably not the thing you’d expect from a professional writer and producer with a debut novel about to publish, but it’s 100% true.

To me, reading was hard and I was embarrassed that I wasn’t very good at it. I learned quickly that, like sports, if reading wasn’t something I could win at then it was best avoided. Of course, a nine-year-old schoolboy couldn’t fully avoid reading, though I did my best. In many ways, times haven’t changed. Recently, the UK’s National Literacy Trust released a report outlining the challenges of getting boys to read. It stated that three-quarters of schools were concerned about boys reading. And rightfully so!

At school, reading books usually meant reading about characters I didn’t care about in situations that didn’t ignite my imagination. At home, my Dad tried to bribe me, offering an allowance based on a nightly page-count. He shared his childhood favourites like The Hardy Boys and the Tom Swift novels in an effort to inspire me through a type of intergenerational book club. I rarely made it past the first chapter of those books. They simply could not compete with the mythology and immersive worlds of the "Star Wars" films or even the "Transformers" television show.

But fortunately I did find my way into reading, and I can still clearly remember the two inflection points that fueled my transformation.

The first was the Scholastic Fair that would trundle into my primary school in Burlington, Canada, with the fanfare of a travelling circus. This was long before the western world got over-retailed, so stepping into fair was like walking into a buzzing bazaar of books and possibilities. It was the first time my parents gave me a sum of money and the responsibility to spend it wisely. I was allowed to spend the money on books (not toys or trinkets) and the books that caught my attention were thin with bizarre, otherworldly covers commanding me with a message of primary-school empowerment: "Choose Your Own Adventure."

I devoured these books. Suddenly, with short, concise chapters, reading was something I felt I could win at. Each interactive book presented the challenge to stay alive by avoiding the pitfalls of choosing the wrong path. Of course, I cheated by holding various fingers in the pages to game the narrative, but that was half the fun! The Scholastic Fair came around twice a year, and over fourth and fifth grade, I must’ve bought up the entire library of these addictive adventures.  

When I moved to Pineland middle school for sixth grade, another type of book captured my imagination, the dystopian novel. This was my second inflection point.

The book was called After The Bomb, written by Gloria D Miklowitz. It was a terrifying story of a boy who survives the accidental nuclear bombing of Los Angeles.   didn’t understand it at the time, but this scary story was actually a type of choose-your-own-adventure tale. While it only had one narrative arc, the premise was so ghastly and frightening, that it demanded the reader to answer the fundamental question of dystopian fiction: what would you do?

Like the branching books, this linear novel challenged me to use my imagination to go beyond visualising the story to speculate what I would do if I was living in the story’s world.  And the use of my speculative imagination (which is essentially ‘role-playing’) elevated the act of reading from a passive, linear experience into an immersive, boundless game that I finally feel I can win at.

I thought about my two inflection points when crafting my debut novel MetaWars: Fight for the Future. I wanted to create a book so compelling that it rivals the competing media of film, TV, and video games. So I wrote it to read like a videogame; hyper-visual, immersive and addictive. It’s my hope that it’ll become a young, reluctant reader’s inflection point; showing him that books can be for him and that reading is something he can win at.

If we can put compelling books that compete with visual media into the hands of reluctant readers, I believe it’s an important first salvo in winning the war for reading.
 

Comments: Scroll down for the latest comments and to have your say

By posting on this website you agree to the Bookseller comments policy. Comments go direct to live please be relevant, brief and definitely not abusive. Report any "unsuitable comments by clicking the links"

Great article! I remember those Choose Your Own Adventure stories so well. They used to drive me nuts, because I couldn't bear to miss out on any of the possibilities, so my fingers would get sore trying to keep tabs on all the places I could go back to make a different choice. If I'd had my own Post-it notes, things could have gotten well nerdy.

But I can totally see why Choose Your Own Adventures would appeal, they ARE empowering. I can see that during events with kids, they get so much more excited about storytelling if I let them direct the story and draw the ideas they suggest. That's the worst thing about being a kid, being totally powerless and having to go to boring school and play with (or at least try to avoid) nasty kids, and there's nothing a kid can do about it. Childhood IS a dystopia. Having only cheerful books to hand is like that horrible thing people used to tell me as a kid, 'Cheer up, these are the best days of your life!' Growing up and maturing for me was moving from hatred toward people who said that, to gentle pity for them.

Nice, Jeff! :)

I also remember the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and loved them! They had all the elements of a suspenseful read plus it felt like you were actually writing the story yourself too.

Part of the problem with boys (and some girls) engaging with books nowadays is that, if they aren't books around at home for reading for pleasure, reading becomes an activity at school that is aimed towards meeting targets. That doesn't really motivate anyone I would think. What seems to get some of the children I work with fired up is the chance to talk about books and life more generally - what they like and dislike - and to have their opinions valued rather than marked.

Great article. I don't remember Choose Your Own Adventure Books but do remember having my own money to spend on puffin book club housed at my junior school. The sense of empowerment of being able to spend my own money on my own book which I alone chose was key to retaining my interest in books. So I agree. But I'm a girl so that interest was perhaps easier to retain.

However, more relevant to this article perhaps was that I did a great deal of research into boys and reading when creating 'BOOKABOO' for ITV and came across a variety of reasons for boys not engaging with books. Some of these were nurture based -lack of male reading role models being key particularly in early years. This research now informs the guest selection on Bookaboo, 50% of which are male. I also had to factor in the differences in the area of the brain that deals with communication in younger boys. It is this research which played a key part in informing the pace of Bookaboo which I'm proud to say has gone onto win 2 BAFTAs, international prix jeunesse award and more. It is this research that informed me that it should not be a bedtime show, but an 'anytime' show. It is not a 'calm down' show but quite the opposite, it's a get excited about books show. It is this research which makes me road test the books that are submitted for Bookaboo and it is this road test which constantly throws up the books that are lovely to look at but not necessarily great to share aloud.

Given your upbringing in Canada, I hope you'll be pleased to hear that Bookaboo has begun his world tour. I write this from Montreal where we're in the midst of shooting a further 28 episodes to be broadcast both in UK and Canada. Once again however, the biggest challenge remains finding truly great picture books enjoyable for both grown ups and children to share aloud and that appeal both to boys and girls.

Lucy

Great article! I remember those Choose Your Own Adventure stories so well. They used to drive me nuts, because I couldn't bear to miss out on any of the possibilities, so my fingers would get sore trying to keep tabs on all the places I could go back to make a different choice. If I'd had my own Post-it notes, things could have gotten well nerdy.

But I can totally see why Choose Your Own Adventures would appeal, they ARE empowering. I can see that during events with kids, they get so much more excited about storytelling if I let them direct the story and draw the ideas they suggest. That's the worst thing about being a kid, being totally powerless and having to go to boring school and play with (or at least try to avoid) nasty kids, and there's nothing a kid can do about it. Childhood IS a dystopia. Having only cheerful books to hand is like that horrible thing people used to tell me as a kid, 'Cheer up, these are the best days of your life!' Growing up and maturing for me was moving from hatred toward people who said that, to gentle pity for them.

Nice, Jeff! :)

I also remember the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and loved them! They had all the elements of a suspenseful read plus it felt like you were actually writing the story yourself too.

Part of the problem with boys (and some girls) engaging with books nowadays is that, if they aren't books around at home for reading for pleasure, reading becomes an activity at school that is aimed towards meeting targets. That doesn't really motivate anyone I would think. What seems to get some of the children I work with fired up is the chance to talk about books and life more generally - what they like and dislike - and to have their opinions valued rather than marked.

Great article. I don't remember Choose Your Own Adventure Books but do remember having my own money to spend on puffin book club housed at my junior school. The sense of empowerment of being able to spend my own money on my own book which I alone chose was key to retaining my interest in books. So I agree. But I'm a girl so that interest was perhaps easier to retain.

However, more relevant to this article perhaps was that I did a great deal of research into boys and reading when creating 'BOOKABOO' for ITV and came across a variety of reasons for boys not engaging with books. Some of these were nurture based -lack of male reading role models being key particularly in early years. This research now informs the guest selection on Bookaboo, 50% of which are male. I also had to factor in the differences in the area of the brain that deals with communication in younger boys. It is this research which played a key part in informing the pace of Bookaboo which I'm proud to say has gone onto win 2 BAFTAs, international prix jeunesse award and more. It is this research that informed me that it should not be a bedtime show, but an 'anytime' show. It is not a 'calm down' show but quite the opposite, it's a get excited about books show. It is this research which makes me road test the books that are submitted for Bookaboo and it is this road test which constantly throws up the books that are lovely to look at but not necessarily great to share aloud.

Given your upbringing in Canada, I hope you'll be pleased to hear that Bookaboo has begun his world tour. I write this from Montreal where we're in the midst of shooting a further 28 episodes to be broadcast both in UK and Canada. Once again however, the biggest challenge remains finding truly great picture books enjoyable for both grown ups and children to share aloud and that appeal both to boys and girls.

Lucy