Getting 21st-Century Kids to Read More Books

Getting 21st-Century Kids to Read More Books

For the last couple of decades, I’ve been wrestling with the complicated challenge of getting kids to read more — especially boys, who are more likely than girls to turn away from reading books as a pastime. When desperate parents, teachers and librarians ask me how to get their “reluctant readers” to open a book, I’ve found that the best short answer is: Help kids choose something they’ll want to read.

Not surprisingly, what many of our 21st-century, image-bombarded, constantly visually stimulated kids want to read more than ever is graphic novels. They like stories told through a combination of text and pictures.

And now, thanks to the huge success of text/picture hybrid stories like Dav Pilkey’s Dogman series, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and Raina Telgemeier’s books, including the memoirs “Smile,” “Sisters” and “Guts,” publishers are offering books that employ all kinds of graphic storytelling, for all different ages.

Emerging readers of the crucial ages 7 to 12 can now choose graphic books from an inspiring variety of genres — humor, nonfiction, fantasy, action/adventure and drama. I’ve found that many of those so-called reluctant readers will light up at the sight of a graphic novel. These six feature a refreshing range of boy characters presented in nonstereotypical ways.

If you know any young fans of wild, goofy humor, they absolutely must check out THE 117-STORY TREEHOUSE (Feiwel & Friends, 384 pp., $13.99; ages 6 to 10), the ninth book in the series by the longtime collaborators Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton.

The characters in these books — Andy, the writer, and Terry, the illustrator — live in a treehouse. It started out as a 13-story treehouse. With each book, they add on 13 new levels of essential additions, such as rocket-powered carrot-launchers, a fighting-robot arena and an Underpants Museum.

Also in each book, Andy and Terry must write a book for their publisher, Mr. Big Nose. In this latest book Terry tries his hand at telling, not drawing, the story, and gets everyone in trouble with the Story Police.

The Treehouse books are a perfect balance of minimal text, maximum black-and-white drawings packed with jokes, and unbelievable amounts of nonstop action, gags and exuberant, anarchic storytelling. These books seem ideally designed to make a new reader feel — and be — successful.

Laura Knetzger’s BUG BOYS (Random House Graphic, 272 pp., $13.99; ages 7 to 10) is a fantastically reader-friendly collection of fully illustrated, full-color short tales about the adventures of Rhino-B, a brash but sweet rhinoceros beetle, and Stag-B, a calm and thoughtful stag beetle.

The Bug Boys find a treasure map, celebrate their Coming-of-Age Festival under the Great Chrysalis, get in a big fight and make up, travel from their Bug Village to broker a peace between warring Bees and Termites, and — in one gorgeous wordless sequence deep in a dark cave — expand their hearts and minds and friendship.

The text, art and page and panel design all combine to tell the Bug Boys’ tales in a beautiful whole that is even greater than the sum of its smart and funny parts.

Written by Annie Barrows (of “Ivy and Bean” fame) and illustrated by Sam Ricks, THE BEST OF IGGY (Putnam, 144 pp., $13.99; ages 8 to 12) is not what most people might imagine as a graphic novel. It is more of a heavily illustrated middle-grade tale. But its lively mix of text and both large and small black-and-white illustrations in a reader-friendly design of plenty of white space is a welcome variation in middle-grade storytelling.

Twenty fast-paced short chapters tell the story of a mischievous fourth grader named Iggy Frangi, who gets into trouble for three incidents. Barrows’s deadpan omniscient narrative voice is brilliant. Explaining that Iggy is the hero of this book only because he is the one who does things in it. Warning that all the things Iggy does (in this book) are bad. Helpfully listing the “Three Types of Things We Wish We Hadn’t Done.” And even more helpfully defining “extenuating circumstances.”

Fellow fourth graders will love Iggy for his honesty and humor. But everyone will probably love him most for his motto: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”

A boy named Tomas helps his grandfather clean up his garden, and discovers that the fruit of the strange dragon fruit tree hatches real dragons, in THE BOY WHO GREW DRAGONS (Yellow Jacket, 224 pp., $13.99; ages 7 to 12), written by Andy Shepherd and illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.

This lively action/adventure/fantasy tale covers all a young reader might want to know about the care, feeding and exploding-poo dangers involved in raising a dragon. The realistic black-and-white illustrations help sell Tomas’s fantastic tale.

The book’s spot art of dragon scratch marks, dragon tracks and dragon poo splotches breaks up the text in a fun way. But the burned page edges and burned holes around chapter headings don’t make complete sense. (If there was a hole burned in the page at the chapter heading, the chapter title wouldn’t show through that hole. The second following page would.) That design quibble aside, “The Boy Who Grew Dragons” is good-hearted fantasy fun.

John Patrick Green’s INVESTIGATORS (First Second, 208 pp., $9.99; ages 7 to 10), a tale of two superspy alligators, done in full-color, classic comic-style panels, is part of a wave of books that seem to be copying the look and format of Dav Pilkey’s Dogman books.

That’s not a completely bad thing. Because while the sewer-loving alligator agents of S.U.I.T. (Special Undercover Investigation Teams), Mango and Brash, aren’t breaking any new ground in terms of their graphic novel format, they are taking readers on a very entertaining read. The fast-paced tale of a missing baker, a helicopter turned “were-copter,” and a vat of radioactive cracker dough has heaping helpings of surreal alligator action and wordplay gags to keep new readers bent on solving the mystery. And the sharp illustration line, color and movement really pop.

In Zanib Mian and Nasaya Mafaridik’s PLANET OMAR: ACCIDENTAL TROUBLE MAGNET (Putnam, 224 pp., $13.99; ages 6 to 12), Omar, his scientist parents, little brother, older sister and imaginary dragon move to a new neighborhood outside of London. Omar is not thrilled about starting a new school. And he is really not thrilled about being bullied at school, being told all Muslims (therefore he and his family) are going to be kicked out of the country.

The black-and-white illustrations don’t add much to the story. Many pages feature varied sizes and styles of lettering, rather than showing action. And the purposely amateur style of the art (stick figures and backward letters) doesn’t seem believably drawn by Omar. Still, this is a very kid-friendly and appealingly honest story about being different, being labeled “other.”

Besides having a range of active boys as protagonists, one thing all of these books have in common is that they are part of a series. That’s no accident. It’s more good help — when a reader finds a book he likes and asks, “Is there another book just like this one, but different?” you can say yes. Yes, there is. And it has text and pictures.

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