Winning the reading war
10.07.12 | Jeff Norton
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.