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Friday, October 28, 2011

Teens HATE to read? Seriously?

At a recent book signing at the Enfield Mall, I was struck by number one, how dead the mall was compared to when I used to hang out there on the weekends with my friends, and two, how many teenagers reported that they HATE to read. Blasphemy! Horrors! And what’s up with that?

“Really?” I asked in shock.

In keeping with current vernacular, the young ladies replied, “Seriously. With all the crap we have to read in school, we like, have NO interest in reading.”

“Wow! So if I said this book is a young adult romance between a seventeen year old girl and a nineteen year old Marine who was wounded in Iraq, you wouldn’t be interested?”

Eyes widened, snarky smiles lit up their faces, and eyes rolled—all signs of interest for teenage girls—whether they will admit it or not. Since I had captured their attention and felt like I was on the cusp of breaking through a barrier of some kind, I pressed on. I thought, if I could influence these young girls to become readers, how cool would that be? My mission was clear. I needed to change their minds about reading. I gave them each a copy of the book and laid out the challenge.

“Read to the end of chapter one, and I dare you to put down the book.”

They all giggled and took the books, satisfied grins on their faces that they had been gifted a kind of treasure—for free! The only thing I asked in return was for them to go on Amazon and leave a review after they read it. They all smiled and said they would. We’ll see. Most importantly, the possibility exists that they will read the book and it will change their minds about reading.

I couldn’t blame them entirely for their disdain of books. After all, I too had to endure reading such classics as The Red Badge of Courage, Farenheight 451, and Catcher In The Rye. And who could forget Chaucer, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway and the works of Shakespeare? Umm…most of us, probably. I’m not against reading good literature, but kids in today’s world of immediate gratification and technological warp speed want to read about people they can identify with. They want stories that draw them into a world where kids are powerful—where they can take on the monsters and win—thus the fascination with the paranormal. Harry Potter, Twilight and the thousand other vampire, werewolf and witch stories available on today’s shelves have kids drowning in magical possibilities. Again, I can’t say I blame them. I too, read to escape the harsh realities of a world spinning out of control. So can we find a compromise?

This is a new generation of readers and we need to offer them books with stories that will engage them while also offering real, identifiable characters. If there are underlying life lessons, moments of poignant emotional revelation and reasons to root for our heroes and heroines, all the better.

Help me out here. How can we make teenagers LOVE reading again? Any ideas?


  1. Wow! I had one teen who devoured books faster than I could buy them and one that has the attention span of a gnat. She won't read unless it's at gunpoint-almost literally.

    My son is a readaholic, but he's 11. Okay, I'm not sure if it's so much the material that they are reading in school as much as it's the instant gratification thing. Why read it when they can watch it? I had all three of my kids interested in books the year my husband went to Kuwait. I disconnected the cable and we do not get local stations... so, they had to read of die of boredom. It worked too. At least two of the three stuck with it.

    So, my suggestion, get rid of tv. Fat chance that the world will let that happen. Grrr...

  2. Thanks Rachel. I think you are absolutely right. Technology, whether it's TV or Computer have created so much distraction for kids, they don't have to read for entertainment anymore. No TV would be a great start!

  3. I had similar experiences as Rachel, two girls, one a book hound (still is), the other not so much. Today’s media overload is the main culprit, the attention “vampire” of continuous texting draining the life of many. Rarely do I see teens get off the school bus without a cell phone planted in their face. Harder still, as we all know, is getting teen boys to read, hence the overwhelming stats of girls in the market who do read. Finally, given the choice of reading a fun book over Shakespeare or Catcher in the Rye, there is no contest.

    Advent of kindles, IPods and IPads could make a difference, since it is something teens are apt to carry at all times. Easy access to good stories when the notion strikes them (or trapped waiting somewhere, in detention) could go a long way with improving readership. Save the hard covers for required school stuff.

  4. Excellent observation. Hopefully technology will bring books back into reader's hands. We really must do more to get teenage boys to read. There are a lot of really great books coming out that might interest them. Simone Elkeles has her Perfect Chemistry series out and I know my friend Huntley Fitzpatrick has a book in the works that has a teen father as the main character. It would be great to have more to offer them. Let's get writing those stories guys!

  5. One of my daughter's friends is a very intelligent boy, takes Honors and Advanced Placement classes at school--and has told me the only books he actually enjoys reading are mine, and that's because he knows me. He says he has so many books shoved in his face at school for required reading that he pretty much never reads for pleasure.

    My daughters, ages 16 and 13, both read for pleasure, in large part because my husband and I do and I used to read to my kids constantly.

    One of my books, Connection (book 1 in my Reality Shift series) was actually one of the books "shoved in the faces" of kids at my daughter's high school in summer 2010 for required reading. Most of the kids actually read it, and some contacted me and told me it was the only summer reading book they actually read and enjoyed.

    There are plenty of books out that teens would enjoy; it's just a matter of getting them into teens' hands.

  6. I cringe in horror just reading the words! Both my sons have uttered variations of "I hate to read", but I know they don't mean it. They both read manga, specific books (one loves anything by Rick Riordan, the other reads Zombie books). So I think some of it is just us grown-ups not recognizing that some books like manga are legitmate stories (often incredibly good)but are different than what we grew up with.

    And I agree with earlier comments, sometimes you have to disconnect them from the computer, Xbox or whatever social media is consuming there time. Great post PJ! (and yes the mall is so lame now!)

  7. Thanks Jo. I think you're right about getting them into the hands of young readers. They have so many choices to make these days, it must be incredibly daunting for them to weed through what they might actually like.

    Yes Casey! The Enfield mall has fizzled to beyond lame. I think they need to do a major overhaul and put in a center square that includes a food court or internet cafe or SOMETHING to attract people that want to come and hang out for more than the time it takes them to stop at the Bath and Body shop for some soap.

    My sons were not great readers either. My oldest will read history and war books now that he's an adult. He read Heaven Is For Heroes and had some great suggestions (too late to include in the book LOL) I may have him proof my next one. My younger son would rahter dig a ditch than read a book. Ouch!

  8. I let my kids stay up later if they are reading. Sometimes, I have to come in and yank the book from their hands so they won't stay up til 3 a.m.

  9. PJ - I hope those girls respond to your challenge. At my son's hockey practice (he's 13) last night, I overheard one of his teammates saying he had stayed up all night playing Xbox and was really tired. We have a rule in our house - no technology in the bedrooms - no phones, no tv, no computers, no game systems, etc. So my kids always read before bed. It's impossible to keep the kids away from technology entirely, but I think there should be technology free zones/times, so teens at least get a chance to slow down and notice other things, like nature, reading, etc.

  10. Julie! That was me as a kid. I'd be under the covers with a flashlight so no one would catch me and make me stop reading. LOL

    Alysia, I think a technology free zone is an excellent idea. I'll have to promote that to the world somehow. It defintitely would make kids pay attention to other things. Great idea!

  11. I had another adult say to me this week, Wow - it's unusual for kids to enjoy reading. My response - Well, I think Harry Potter changed that. My audience is a bit younger, 10-14-ish and it's been my experience that these kids (who haven't had all that boring literature crap shoved down their throats yet) love to read.

    So what happens between 13 and 17? Boring Literature assignments, perhaps a perception that the opposite sex won't find a 'reader' attractive, less free time to read, more technology distractions...and probably a bunch of other things. But maybe some will come back to it, and if we can hook 'em before they get to the teen years, maybe they'll continue to enjoy reading through school.

    But seriously, teachers and curriculum developers, can we ditch the 100 - 500 year old 'classics' and include more current books? Of the style that today's kids can identify with?

  12. One of the books on my 13-year-old's required summer reading list this year was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy...I don't know whether teens can identify with it, but my daughter had a great time reading it.

  13. Great post. I think what's hard is getting boys to read. Mom of 3 boys and 1 girl I'm always struggling to find boy POV books with a real edge to them for my teenagers. I think the next generation which will hopefully engage teens more to understand reading is portable and encourage more interaction with teens and authors is the right move.

  14. PJ, Isn't it true if you read to a child until they are ready to read by themselves, you influence their desires? And even when they are ready, if you take the time to read together, isn't that inspirational? But no matter what you do, teenagers have other interests, but will most likely go back to loving to read. Most boys love sports, so books about sports might give them a spark.

  15. @J. I totally agree about the classics. I'm embarrassed to say, I've read very few that I loved and I was an avid reader.

    Jo--LOVED Hitchhiker's Guide! I've noticed the High School reading list has expanded to include lots of great newer titles, but the demand is very high for kids to read specific books. I think they get overwhelmed and as with all teens, the minute you tell them they HAVE to do something, it immediately becomes the enemy.

    LOL, Renee! I just came from commenting on your guest blog over at Lisa Mondello's site. Everyone else!!!This is Renee Pace who has a new teen boy saga called OFF LEASH--great for the kid who wants to read about a boy and his dog.

    Gail, Alas I wish it was true that reading to children is a sure fire way to get them to love reading. I read to my boys in utero! They got stories every night of their lives. My oldest son loved it and we read together until he was twelve. He still reads today. My second son fell asleep through every story I ever read him. Snoozing five minutes into every Harry Potter book--can you imagine? He would rather shovel snow than read a book. I think it just depends on the kid. We all have different strengths and interests and I think the more left brained you are, the less you appreciate fiction. My husband who is brilliant and well educated hasn't read a book of fiction in probably 30 years--when he was forced to in high school.

  16. Sad, isn't it? And I'm not surprised. My 16yo daughter actually likes to read, but seems to prefer nonfiction. She likes some of her school assigned books even! But she doesn't read very often, partly because of things like homework and time with friends, but yes, also because of Facebook, video games, etc. And I totally agree with others here that much of the "classics" assigned in school beat the love of reading right out of kids.

  17. Thanks for stopping by Jennette. Reading is reading. Be happy your 16 year-old is reading anything. After talking with many of the teenagers at the mall, it was truly heartbreaking to hear the disdain they had for the gift of books. We writers can change that by making great stories available for them.

  18. It's definitely child by child. I have two who love to read. And one with ADD who can't remember the sentence she just read. She's the one that would always tune me out when I would read to them. It would make me so sad.

    As for the required reading in high school...I don't know who picks those, but I was looking at the list this summer and I checked them out at the library, and I couldn't get through the first page of some of them.

    One of them had no commas through the whole book. No commas? I know the comma can be overused, but to not use tham at all, makes reading very hard. It shouldn't be hard.

  19. I agree Katy. I recently tried to go back and read The Great Gatsby. I know it sounds like blasphemy and my editor Carol (who's a literary professor), would smack me upside the head if she heard me say this, but I was bored to tears and found the antiquated sentence structure, language, and punctuation, difficult to deal with. I didn't finish it. Sorry Mr. Fitzgerald.

    Having said all of this, I think that just as there are readers and non-readers, I think there are also different kinds of readers. I know many people who love to read non-fiction but can't wrap their minds around a good make-believe story. There are poetry lovers, literature lovers and romance lovers. Fortunately there is something for everyone.

    Have you tried manga or graphic novels for your ADD girl? I imagine that people's whose minds are a bit chaotic might revel in the shorter dialogue, dramatic scenes, and more visual story board effect.

  20. I am extremely fortunate to have a 16 year old who loves to read. She devours books, magazines and newspapers. Her taste is varied - from Harry Potter to Go Ask Alice to the Wall Street Journal, she completely immerses herself in a book or paper until she reaches The End.

    I can understand the reluctance teens feel about reading "for pleasure" when they have so much to read in school and for homework, but introducing them to new worlds, dimensional characters and exciting adventures will give them a break from the monotony of required reading. I LOVE the way you approached this and can only imagine how glowing the reviews on Amazon will be!

  21. Thanks Debra. It was really enlightening and gave me a new sense of purpose for writing YA. My mission--to help teens LOVE reading again. I have my work cut out for me, but I'll definitely have my mission in the back of my mind while writing.

  22. Nah, I feel like kids are reading more nowadays than ever before!! My 15-yr-old son is an occasional kinda reader. He re-read the Twilight saga a couple of times, but he doesn't rush to read the next big thing. Go figure.


  23. Excellent! I'm glad someone's boys are reading! I thought more kids in general were reading these days. That's why it surprised me to hear so many girls at the mall say they HATED reading. Maybe those that are hanging ut at the mall are the non-reader types.