How can we encourage boys to read more? Anne Marley of Hampshire County Library discusses a project that has got fathers and sons reading together and which provided valuable information about their tastes and preferences.
Towards the end of 1998, Hampshire County Library wanted to produce a booklist suitable for both fathers and sons, to encourage boys to read and enable fathers to participate in an activity with their sons. It was due to be produced during the National Year of Reading. Once we had assembled a list of titles that we – a predominantly female group – had chosen, we realised that to publish it with no consultation with the potential readership was absurd.
So the original idea for the Dads ’n’ Lads group stemmed from a need to have a Focus Group that would recommend a number of books from this pre-selected list for reading by Dads and their teenage sons.
As the School Library Service and the public library service are very closely linked in Hampshire with a joint service, it was very easy to consult SLS colleagues to see which schools would be interested in participating. We had no shortage of schools who wanted to take part as the English teachers and school librarians attend regular Fiction Study Groups. We asked four schools to join in. Carefully worded letters were sent home with Year 8 or 9 boys, explaining what we were aiming to do which was to set up a group of fathers and sons to discuss books and come up with a booklist from their recommendations. The teachers had hoped for a good response, knowing their students well, but in the event, only one school was able to drum up four fathers and sons, which we considered enough to start a group.
The reasons for lack of interest were many and varied – the boys already did lots of after school things, the boys were not interested, lack of street cred if their mates found out, the fathers were not interested or were too busy, or there was no father in the home.
So we started with our one school, Test Valley, a secondary school in Stockbridge, a small town north west of Winchester. The Head teacher, Wendy Morrish, was very interested in the project, as were the English teacher, Mark Weeks, and the school librarian, Ruth Crabb, and it is largely due to their enthusiasm and persistence that the group was set up.
The first meeting
Our first meeting was one cold evening in February 1999, to which four somewhat wary fathers and sons came along. The fathers came for various reasons, but the most obvious one was to support their sons and encourage them in their reading. The sons’ reasons were either that their dads had told them to or that they enjoyed reading. Ruth and Mark had targeted their audience quite carefully, wanting to get a mix of enthusiastic readers and boys for whom reading was a bit of a trial, but who were nevertheless keen to read. They obviously approached far more than the four who came along and I think we were very lucky with the ones who came, because we had a wonderful cross-section of readers.
The School Library Service and the public library provided the books from the tentative booklists we had produced and the Schools Librarian, Bridget Rowe, and myself added other titles that we knew from experience went down well with teenagers.
We initially talked to the group, saying what we wanted to achieve and then basically gave a book talk about the titles that were there. We automatically assumed they read by genre, so the books were put on tables by the genres we thought we would separate the list into – horror, biography, fantasy, sci-fi, war, thrillers, sport, travel and computers – all things we assumed men and boys were interested in. We then asked them what books they enjoyed and if there were any authors they wanted us to bring along.
They then selected the books, we made a date for the next meeting eight weeks later and off they went, leaving us wondering if they would be back.
Well, they have been coming back ever since, each time with more confidence and enthusiasm, talking to the group about the books they have read and recommending them to each other. Some books were read solely by fathers, some solely by sons and some by both. Bill Bryson is the most popular author with the group, and Adrian Mole: the Wilderness Years by Sue Townsend is the most popular individual title. The group has now grown, with their consent – one or two have dropped out, others have joined, two actually from another school, Harrow Way, in nearby Andover – and so we are up to between eight and ten pairs of fathers and sons.
What has the library service gained from this experience?
Firstly, we have a great booklist, compiled solely from the recommendations of the target audience, which has just been published. We also asked Anthony Browne, award-winning author and illustrator, and his teenage son to contribute their recommendations too.
This, however, is not the most important thing to come out of the group.
The most important was a valuable lesson in co-operation and partnership. By listening to and talking with these men and boys, we have learned a huge amount about what they want from books and reading and how they select books.
Though this is a small group and therefore not necessarily representative of men as a whole (what can be?) they were very clear on several points:
* they don’t select by genre – that was made obvious by the second meeting
* they want to have the opportunity to read widely
* they do like to talk about books and listen to recommendations and extracts
* the boys don’t necessarily exist on a diet of horror and fantasy
* they want to try new authors
* they like being able to recommend books to other people
We also have noticed a great change in the group dynamics:
* the boys are more confident
* they are talking more in the group, even in front of their and the others’ fathers about the books they like
* they are more articulate and enthusiastic in what they say
* the fathers join in – sometimes it’s difficult to stop them!
* reading tastes have developed beyond their and our expectations e.g. one father who only thought he liked travel books has now developed a penchant for the Patricia Cornwell novels amongst others
* the fathers have gained in confidence too and are reading more widely and with evidently great enjoyment.
What has been the impact at school?
Mark Weeks – English Teacher
As an English teacher, I have been very pleased to be involved with the Dads ’n’ Lads scheme. It is proving of great value in raising the profile of reading among boys and the positive effect upon participating pupils within the English classroom has been clear. By targeting a mixture of confident, wavering and reluctant readers we have managed to create a successful blend, to such an extent that word has spread and we now find ourselves being approached by other parents and pupils keen to be involved.
Ruth Crabb – Learning Resources Manager
The target age for this group was 13 years (Year 8). I was aware that, in this school, this was the age when boys would begin to stop reading/borrowing books. Watching and listening to the group has made me more aware of the types of books this age group are interested in, therefore enabling me to add more appealing books, both teen and adult, to the library stock. I have also altered the way the books were displayed by segregating the 14 to 19 selection. There has been a noticeable increase in pupil borrowing for this age group following the changes that I made. Also group discussions about books read or on display are actively encouraged within the Years 7 to 9 library time. Peer promotion of books, as demonstrated by the Dads ’n’ Lads group, has also helped to increase pupils reading and confidence.
A Father’s and Son’s perspective – Andrew and Anthony Dines
I have always been a voracious reader and bedtime stories and reading have been part of family life so far. My son has been a keen reader, but has found the transition in the last two years from ‘younger books’ to teenage and adult books to be quite hard. There are so many demands on teenagers these days and factors affecting their opportunities to read:
* length and size of books can be daunting
* the higher level of application and concentration needed to read at a higher level
* distractions of TV/PCs/music, etc which require less concentration
* the fatigue factor in the growth pattern at this age – growing nearly a foot in one year!
* demands of schooling itself
‘Dads ’n’ Lads’ has provided a focal point for reviewing books of many different varieties that would not necessarily have been considered for reading by either of us.
However, more interestingly, it has provided a forum for the discussion of books in which initially Dads, but increasingly Lads are prepared to discuss their reading experiences. This is something that my son has found both very interesting and rewarding.
If boys are to read, then the books must be appealing, interesting, satisfying and help develop the maturity of the reader. Both of us have found the experience of these meetings to be richly rewarding and hope that it can be continued and also widened.
When I first came to ‘Dads ’n’ Lads’ in February last year, I didn’t think I would enjoy it very much and I thought there would be a lot more people there than there actually were.
But I was wrong! There weren’t too many people and the evening was very enjoyable. We walked out with a few books to read before the next meeting, most of which I really liked.
We arrived at the next meeting which was even better than the last one! After assembling, we discussed the books that we had read and I found that very interesting because it gave me some ideas for what to read before the next meeting.
I haven’t enjoyed all the books I’ve read in the group, but I have read and enjoyed quite a lot of books that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I hope the group keeps going well into the Millennium!
This has been a very worthwhile project, which we are going to introduce into other schools, that now feel able to support it. It shows conclusively that men and boys can and do read for pleasure and are happy to develop their reading and discuss books with others. The ‘Dads ‘n’ Lads’ leaflet was published in March and is being used as a promotional tool in Hampshire libraries, backed up with book stock in public and school libraries. The greatest achievement has been in seeing how the individual fathers’ and sons’ pleasure in reading has been increased as a result of belonging to a group like this and that fathers and sons have shared in an activity that both have enjoyed together.
Anne Marley is Principal Librarian, Children’s and Schools Library Services, Hampshire.