Why don't boys read as much as girls? I'll give you one reason: teachers. Specifically, elementary and middle school teachers who use the dreaded class novel. The class novel, for those out of the know, is when a teacher selects a book (usually something like this in elementary school or this in middle school or, God forbid, this in high school*) and then they spend about eight times as long as necessary reading and discussing the book until, even if the book is halfway decent, all the interesting has been hoovered out of it.
Now, most teachers, for too many bad reasons to name, tend to choose books that they think have high literary merit. They teach classics, or at least books with pretty words that tend to be character driven and big on THEME (and yes, as a third grade teacher I am required to teach THEME). In other words, a lot of these teachers use pretty much the same criteria that the Newbery judges use. (And a lot of them don't know jack about kidlit and figure if it's got a shiny medal on the cover then it has to be good.)
So pretend you're a boy and because it's short and because it's historical and because it won a Newbery, your third grade teacher decides to torture you with a month-long study of Sarah, Plain and Tall. In fourth grade, you get On My Honor. In fifth, maybe it's Island of the Blue Dolphins and in sixth, how about Bridge to Terabithia.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of the above (except Sarah, Plain and Tall. That books sucks. See below.), but if you're a boy who'd rather be spending his in-class reading time, I don't know, choosing books you actually want to read like your teacher does when she takes her steamy romance novels to the beach in the summer, then you might just start to think that reading is:
b. Something you're forced to do, like eating your vegetables
c. For the smart kids, especially the girl ones
d. All of the above
And you might receive the unintentional message that some books are worthy enough to be read and some are not (at least, not where your teacher can see you). That Captain Underpants book you saw in the store? "Garbage!" says Ms. Davis. Those Wimpy Kid books? Please. There are cartoons in them!
So my message to teachers is this:
a. no more class novels
b. allow your students to choose the books they want to read and allow them to read them at their own speed. (Kind of like you do.)
c. if you want to know if they're understanding it, read the book yourself and talk about it. (You know, like real people do.)
d. if you must teach THEME, use picture books. They have themes too and you can cover about twenty different themes in the time it takes you to work through one (maybe two) in a class novel.
e. The Wimpy Kid books are awesome.
Sarah, Plain and Tall, reviewed by what sounds an awful lot like actual third grade boys (from Amazon):
"I don't think this is a good book for these reasons: It has no emotional, dangerous or mysterios parts."
"Sarah, Plain and Tall is a short and boring book. I, an eleven-year-old boy, had to read it for Accelerated Reader, and as the story progressed it became worse and worse."
"The story goes nowhere fast. My last comment is the book is too short. If you're a person who likes short books basically about the colors blue, gray, and green, and your between the ages of 7-10, knock yourself out."
"Don't put any little kids through the torture of reading this horrible book. It scarred me for life."
"Few interesting things happened, and the dialog stank."
"Some of you say "poetic nature" and a "light romance" what ever!"
"What a snore!"
*Thank God for The Outsiders and Lord of the Flies.