“That was intense!”: Getting Boys Excited About Books by Ernie Cox and Marcus Hora

“My son just finished Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz,” the email began, “and his first words were, ‘That was intense!’” We are thrilled to hear from any parent with a child excited about books, but this was even more special coming from the parent of a boy who told us in August, “I just don’t read much.”

Last spring, we realized we both shared a dream of getting more boys into books at our school, so after some research, some spending money from our principal (for pizza and ice cream, of course), and inspired by author Jon Sciezka’s own work with boys, the Prairie Creek Guys Read club was born.

At our monthly meetings, we are amazed at the passion (e.g. shouting and fist pounding) the boys bring to conversations about which characters are their favorites or which part of the book was most exciting. This always spills over to even more passionate (e.g. louder shouting and now jumping with fists in the air) sales pitches for which book we will read next month. Did you know you can actually get 5th and 6th grade boys to read a book about writing? We accomplished that stunning feat last month when the boys picked Ralph Fletcher’s Guy Write. It gave us plenty of ideas for how to work amusing bodily functions into future short stories. They even have an exemplar text in one of our first group reads, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Newbery Medalist Jack Gantos–an appropriate choice considering many boys we know like Joey forced to “read a book that can’t be read” with “letters that kept sliding off the page like drops of mercury when you smash open a thermometer.”

We don’t assign books for this club. We work to ensure that our classroom and school library collections are an assortment of genres, authors, and styles. Then we give our young readers plenty of freedom and support to try wander through these options. Giving boys choice in what they read and control over how they engage with text is important, and we think those things have freed our boys take charge and make the club their own.

Accountability in Guys Read is not a standardized test or a book quiz. Rather, it comes in the form of conversation, reenactment, booktalking, reading aloud, eating pizza, and beating our friends in crafts and games. Reading and literacy are social interactions and we want to show kids the rich relationships and experiences to be had by sharing reading with others. Research from the Cooney Center and others continues to tell us that our students are highly engaged in media access outside of school (http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/publication/learning-at-home/). This informs how we promote books and the kinds of events we host.

sw-reads-day-ii-logoStar Wars Reads Day, an international event sponsored by Lucasfilm, allowed us our first chance to host a school-wide Guys Read event. The boys devised Star Wars themed games and crafts that allowed them to embrace their inner Jedi, crafted a snack menu (gummy worms a.k.a. Chewie’s Chewies anyone?), and traded Star Wars and space-related book suggestions faster than Jawas trying to sell you an R2 unit with a bad motivator. The boys even agreed to let the girls join us for this one (no Jedi mind tricks needed, luckily) and when our first-ever “Star Wars Reads Day sponsored by Prairie Creek Guys Read” opened, we had a library more crowded and bustling than the Mos Eisley spaceport. We are currently planning our next school-wide event based on the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and possibly a Minecraft-inspired event. May the odds be ever in our favor!

But we realize beyond all the fun and games, boys need help developing a sense of themselves as readers, and to that end we work to move beyond the “boy book.” After the boys have a chance to pitch their books to the group, we offer some suggestions of our own to stretch boys beyond the usual picks. The Familiars by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson offered themes of friendship and loyalty, with a good dose of magic and adventure. It sparked the interest of many boys. A very engaging website tie-in (http://www.thefamiliars.com/) was a bonus for the boys, many of whom went on to read other books in the series.

We believe any boy who says he is not a reader is simply still searching for the right book to get him excited about reading. What makes boys change their attitudes toward reading from “I just don’t read much” to “That was intense!”? The boys in the Prairie Creek Guys Read club have shown us that food, fun, and friends are a great combination for getting boys excited about reading and, most important to us, having a reason to share their excitement with other kids. Yes, even the girls.

Ernie Cox is the Teacher Librarian at Prairie Creek Intermediate School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. You can reach him at erncox@prairiepride.org or on Twitter as @erniec.


Marcus Hora is a looping 5th/6th Grade Literacy and Social Studies teacher at Prairie Creek Intermediate School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He is also a graduate student in Literacy Education at the University of Northern Iowa with an interest in boys’ reading lives. He would love to hear your ideas involving boys and books by emailing mahora@prairiepride.org or on Twitter as @mhorateach.