Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Boy readers. And Percy Jackson

Tech Central Station, which I suppose changed it silly name to the initials TCS a while back (not much of an improvement) reports on boys' reading problems and the fact that they have been scoring substantially below girls on standardized tests for 30 years:
[ TCS ] The good news is that reading scores for 9 and 13-year-olds are the highest ever according to results released this week from the 2008 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The bad news is that boys trail girls in reading performance at all age levels. The gap at age 9 is 8 points, at age 13 is 8 points, and at age 17 is 11 points. This is not a new trend—boys have been scoring lower than girls on U.S. Department of Education reading tests for more than 30 years.

The reading gender gap spans every racial and ethnic group, and categorically finds boys underperforming girls regardless of income, disability, or English-speaking ability.
The article talks about one way to change this:
One of the best ways to get boys reading is to offer them reading material that motivates them to want to read. Boys enjoy reading: nonfiction; stories with action and adventure; stories with male protagonists; and a wide variety of reading materials, including books, magazines, newspapers, how-to manuals, Web sites, comic books, and graphic novels.

Many teachers do not offer boy-friendly reading material because they view it as substandard. They believe it's better to require boys to read books that meet high literary standards, even if boys find those books unappealing. The fallacy of this line of reasoning lies in the results:many boys are poor readers.

The consequences of creating future generations of boys who hate to read are far worse than the consequences of succumbing to the natural reading interests of boys. The first priority should be to get boys excited about reading so they will become lifelong readers. Broadening their literary palates comes second.
I've been reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books lately (Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters, Titan's Curse, Battle of the Labyrinth, and yesterday's release of The Last Olympian.) They are very, very boy friendly. It's all about being a hero (literally), being there to fight beside your friends, fighting the good fight, etc.

I actually had a strange reaction to one thing in the books. The stories revolve around a group of "half-bloods", or in mythological terms: demigods. Kids with one normal, mortal parent, and one god in Olympian gods, like Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, and etc. The kids are unabashedly referred to as "heroes" throughout the books. Just being a demigod means that it is their place in life to fight monsters and help their god-parents, making them naturally-born heroes.

But I've lived in a post-modern and liberal world all of my life. My high school, college, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, all of it was on the cultural and political left. I think I've been so ingrained against the idea of anyone ever being an unapologetic "hero" that my mind actually skips a step when I see the kids in the books being referred to that way. It's really a sad commentary, I think, that we can no longer simply accept the heroic without qualifying it and without suspicion.

In the end, Percy Jackson proves himself to be a true hero, and even the greatest hero of all the Greek myths. Nearly every feat of every hero from antiquity was thrown at him, and he survived "against all odds." But it is not only his fighting ability that makes him a hero, but two choices he makes in particular (neither is the one from the Great Prophesy.)

Choice #1: I've always felt one of the most powerful stories in Greek mythology was that of Odysseus and Calypso. If you don't remember: Odysseus washes up on Calypso's island. She's beautiful, she's perfect, the island is perfect and peaceful, he could be immortal on the island with her, no more war, no more odyssying around the Med for 10 years. But it isn't enough. He can't stay because he is human. He must strive and struggle and fight if he is to remain human and to remain Odysseus. So, he leaves her and the perfect life behind. In the words of Tennyson:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little
In the books Percy is placed exactly in Odysseus's place. He has the same choice to make, and makes the same one. There is a war going on in the outside world, he won't leave his friends to fight it without him, and he certainly won't leave the girl he cares about out there without him.

Choice #2: (Spoiler Alert!!) The gods, in the end offer to grant Percy one wish. Greek Mythology is filled with heroes acting selfishly, and the point is made again and again in the books that heroes are selfish and not to be trusted in the end. Almost every old hero is held up as wanting from Orpheus to Hercules. But again, Percy passes the test. When he is offered anything, he chooses to use his wish to help others...pretty much stunning the gods by doing that. But he's a complete hero, a superior fighter as well as a friend and honorable young man.

One of the kids we carpool with is a 9.75 year old boy, and he has been reading these as well and loves them. I've given copies to my niece's classroom as well. They are really great boy books. Full of heroism and sacrifice and standing firm against the odds.

I highly recommend them to anyone.

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