Why asking how to get boys reading might be the wrong question, by Jason Reynolds

Published on: 30 April 2018 Author: Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down author Jason Reynolds suggests that we need to listen to young people if we ever want to encourage them to get reading.

Jason Reynolds

I've always said that I have no idea how to get boys to read, though it's the question I'm asked more than any other. Given the frequency of it, one would think boys are born with some kind of genetic mutation that makes it less possible for them to engage in stories that happen to be printed, bound, and packaged.

But that notion - the ease with which we say boys don't read - in and of itself often strips young men of a certain potential. It thin slices them, labels them as the boys we all claim we need to make more whole and empathetic, more patient and intentional. More human.

And perhaps that's where the answer lies. Not in what we can do to get boys to read, but instead, what we can do to connect with them on a human level - and if we can figure out how to do that, we can figure what they want and need to see in books.

I believe in three constants that can always be used in forging relationships. These are also the three things I work into every novel I write.

Erika Meza illustration

1. Humility

As an adult who writes for young people, I have to approach the page with humility. I have to step into the space, into the life of a child, and lead with an ear. Listening is key. I can't write a story about a subject I've never paid attention to.

I also write young men in spaces where they have an opportunity to exercise their own humility. So many boys are Teflon-cloaked, full of emotion but dammed by social expectation, and so the character's weaknesses in the book can serve as a secret and safe space to acknowledge one's own tucked away shortcomings.

2. Intimacy

All I ever wanted to do as a kid (and still want to do) is joke around with my friends and family. That's my life. But it isn't just gratuitous silliness (though I do believe in that). It's more about the intimacy created by knowing someone else gets the joke.

My books do this with language, style, subject matter, and contemporary touchstones that every young man wants to see, only because it's what they connect to. I still laugh at fart jokes, and books can make fart jokes... healthy.

Erika Meza illustration

3. Gratitude

When's the last time you thanked a young man? Not for doing anything, but for being who he is. You should try it. These books are full of gratitude through unfiltered representation and acknowledgment. I'm okay with writing the 'bad boy', but not unless I can talk about how he's making decisions that he thinks are right. Not until I offer nuance, and complexity. Not until I give him a fighting chance on the page.

This is how I write. More importantly, this is how I live. So the question of why boys aren't engaging with reading could possibly be answered if we first address whether or not we've actually learned to engage with them, as human.

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