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Getting Guys To Read

This AS-350 helicopter owned by Liberty Tours collided with a small Piper aircraft over the Hudson River near Hoboken, N.J. on August 8, 2009.
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Jon Scieszka is out to prove that reading really is "a guy thing."

As a teacher, he saw boys struggling to read, but he also discovered which books they enjoyed. So, he quit teaching and started writing. Along with illustrator Lane Smith, he turned out many popular children's book, including "The Stinky Cheese Man," "Math Curse" and "The Time Warp Trio" series.

Scieszka told the The Saturday Early Show that he is now running a literacy campaign aimed at boys called "Guys Read."

The author gives parents and teachers some practical advice and recommends several books that no guy can resist.

Scieszka explains that it boils down to motivation. He says that most of the adult role models for reading — elementary school teachers, librarians, and even people in children's publishing — are women. They pick books they enjoy. But that's not the same as what a second-grade boy enjoys.

Scieszka believes most women prefer fiction. As a result, female educators assign fictional pieces they are familiar with and enjoy. But, according to Scieszka, boys enjoy non-fiction a little more. Guys like to read about things like old airplanes, how things work, baseball stats, cars, and so forth.

As a teacher, Scieszka said, he discovered that children are incredibly intelligent and intuitive. He believes parents and educators should offer children books that respect their intelligence.

Scieszka believes more men need to be active participants in boys' literacy growth. He says men can read the same book that their sons are reading for school or for leisure, so that they can talk about the books together.

Scieszka says an adult trying to help a child to read should think like a boy. Guys like informational stuff, so, he says, choose books with interesting facts. The trick is to steer them to books they might actually like.

Better yet, let the boys recommend books for one another. Scieszkas's neighbor, for example, started a father-and-son book club. The rule was that the books had to be chosen by the boys, Sceiszka says, so that gave them credibility and power. The meetings were held in the party room of an indoor batting cage. They'd talk about the book for a half-hour, then eat pizza and have batting practice.

It became a cool thing because it wasn't men preaching at boys. Just by the dads being there, they signaled that reading was important. Men always say they don't have time. They do have time, but they just spend it doing other things.

Scieszka says anything guys want to read — magazines, books, Web sites — still counts as reading because it's about getting boys to enjoy reading.

Scieszka knows a lot about kids in general and boys in particular. He has five brothers, taught elementary school for 10 years, and has been writing children's books for about 12 years. He lives with his wife and children in New York.

Jon Scieszka earned his M.F.A. degree from Columbia University's graduate program in writing. He was "sidetracked" into teaching first and second grades at The Day School in New York.

He decided to take a year off from teaching to try his hand at writing children's books. Somewhere along the line, HE MET illustrator Lane Smith who, like Scieszka, had a stack of rejection letters. "Too sophisticated" and "too spooky," the publishers would say.

But hanging out with a bunch of six- and seven-year-olds had given Scieszka a feel for what kids find funny. And to them, he says, there's nothing better than taking a classic fairy tale and turning it on its head.

That's exactly what he and Lane Smith did in their picture book, "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs" as told to Jon Scieszka by "A. Wolf."

Scieszka's recommended books for boys in three age categories:

For Younger Guys:
"Frog And Toad" books by Arnold Lobel (Harper Collins)
"George and Martha" books by James Marshall (Houghton Mifflin)

Middle Readers:
"Star Wars: Jedi Apprentice" series by Jude Watson (Scholastic)
"Tucket's Adventure" series by Gary Paulsen (Random House, Yearling)

Older Readers:
"Tomorrow When the War Began" series by John Marsden (Bantam Doubleday Dell)
"Interstellar Pig" and its sequel due out in October, "Parasite Pig" by William Sleator (Penguin Putnam)