When my boys were small, we attended three weekly story times at libraries, read at least five picture books each day, and produced endless pages of dialog with our sock puppets. I had not read the research on creating literate kids; I had memorized it. They were the only kids in our neighborhood who did not spend rainy afternoons in front of the tv.
Fast forward ten years: with one teenager, and one on the brink of becoming a teen, my boys have evolved into reluctant readers. I am hoping this is one of those stages kids go through and grow out of. Knowing they are tired of me talking about reading (all right, nagging), I sat down with one of their friends, and for the small price of a pizza, he agreed to talk to me about why he no longer reads for pleasure.
Ben (not his real name) is sixteen, a B+ student who likes video games, skateboarding, and swimming. Ben hopes to become a video animator. He used to read on a regular basis, but stopped around age 13.
Me: So, Ben, what kind of books did you read?
Ben: Mostly adventure and history books. Historical fiction and biography were my favorites. I liked non fiction because it's automatically realistic.
Me: How often did you read? And when did you stop?
Ben: Every day. At least for a couple of hours. Then in eighth grade, I just didn't like reading any more. Books seemed too slow. It just takes too long to see what happens. I like video games.
You can change what happens in video games, but you can't in books.
Me: Do you know what YA books are?
Ben: Yup. Our English teacher had us do a report on one last year in ninth grade.
Me: In general, what do you think of books that are written with teens in mind?
Ben: (laughs) Most authors aren't in high school. They write too much about relationships, and that's really boring. A lot of the plots are like a Disney movie - like the bad kid gets in trouble, the good kid gets rewarded. It doesn't work that way in school. Not usually. And they don't get what the real problems are.
Me: What do you think they are?
Ben: Drugs are still a really big problem, and they don't let you read those kind of books in our school. There's always one clique in school that everyone, even the teachers, look at and know they do drugs. But there are a lot of other kids in school that are into drugs that no one suspects because they're not in that one clique. There are drug parties every weekend in houses. At least I hear there are. And a lot of the kids take their parents prescription drugs, so it's not like how the authors show it. It's not like you have to go out to some strange neighborhood and buy drugs. But that's definitely a big problem.
Me: Do you think the authors get down how teens live?
Ben: I'm not all teens, but I can say here at least, a lot of kids talk a lot through texting or on myspace.
Me: (eagerly) So if a YA author were to write a book that's a realistic portrayal of high school, you would want to read it?
Ben: Uh. Probably not. I only read what I'm assigned.
Me: Ok, last question. If you could talk to an audience of YA authors, what advice would you give them so that you might, maybe, possibly would pick up their book and read it?
Ben: I guess you need to have a good conflict. Like something that makes you want to see what happens. And I like when I have to think about the words a little. I don't like when they describe something to death, or use way too many words to say a simple thing. Last year we read The Pearl, and it was like that. A big, long book that should have been a short story. Probably the most important thing is that stuff keeps happening and you can't tell what will happen. That would be a good book.