FLR: How do you structure your outreach programs to get kids interested in why reading is important? Will your outreach programs extend to parents?
JS: The message gets to kids because it is a good message… and one they like to hear. The basic idea is to motivate kids to read by letting them read texts they enjoy reading. And parents are the first ones who have to get the message.
FLR: Many people are using your website and ideas from "Guys Read" to start grassroots projects of their own. Can you describe a favorite such initiative that you have heard about?
JS: I just visited the Hennepin County Library system in Minneapolis. And their "Guys Read" work has expanded into a program beyond my wildest dreams. They have formed book groups, hired young guys as mentors to the boys, and got clubs going in 30 or so of their branch libraries. And they have involved local community businesses to fund the program. Amazing. And heart-warming.
FLR: Are there any age groups where you see a lack of good reading material for boys? Where do you think we start to lose our young male readers? Why? If so, have you specifically catered any of your books to that age group?
JS: The good news is that there are great reading materials for all different age boys. We just have to find the way to connect boys with these materials. Studies are showing boys drifting away from reading in the 4th and 5th grades. No one knows why. People have guessed that other activities compete more for boys' attention, boys want to read their own choices, boys don't want to read books they are forced to read… I've never written just for boys. I write what I enjoy and what I think will most engage all kinds of readers. I wouldn't want anyone to start writing for boys, or writing for girls. Kids should read the widest range of texts possible.
FLR: What impact do you think "No Child Left Behind" has had on the readership of young people? Why doesn't this program, which is designed to reward high scoring, bring out the competitive nature in boys (or girls, for that matter)?
JS: I have traveled across the country, listening to teachers and students and administrators and I have heard nothing good about NCLB. I understand that the idea was to ensure that low-performing schools wouldn't keep short-changing their students. But this relentless testing is ripping the heart out of real education, across the country. Teachers are leaving the profession because they don't want to be mindless test monitors. Kids are seeing school as nothing but one giant test. And schools are eliminating music, art, phys ed., and even science classes… because those subjects are not tested. That is crazy. This "solution" has turned out to be 100 times worse than the problem. This is a business model applied incorrectly to an art—the art of teaching.
FLR: One aspect of the "Guys Read" mission is to expand the definition of reading. Do you think that there is any visible success in this area since the mission was originally expressed? Do you include Internet and e-book experiences in your definition of reading? Have there been any efforts or success in writing/storytelling available online? Do you include spoken books when you review the "Guys Read" program?
JS: There has been incredible progress in expanding the definition of reading. Graphic novels, wordless books, audio books, e-books are all much more accepted kinds of reading. The great reception of books like The Arrival and the Invention of Hugo Cabret show that we are making progress in letting kids read all kinds of new storytelling. "Guys Read" is just starting to add audiobooks in its suggestions and recommendations.
FLR: Eliza Dresang's Radical Change Theory: Books for Youth in a Digital Age theorizes that the reading habits of children radically changed with the proliferation of the internet and other digital media. In fact, she discusses The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales as an archetypical digital age book, with a vivid assortment of shapes, colors that blend into text, and the famous blank page. How do you think reading habits have changed in the last twenty years? Do you think the art of writing and the definition of reading have changed in an effort to accommodate those habits?
JS: Eliza brilliantly saw that change just as it was happening. She was way ahead of most everyone else. I completely agree with her that kids "read" in a different way now. They are working with brains that have been visually stimulated since birth it ways that were never possible 10 years ago. I see these kids as much more sophisticated decoders of design, illustration, and multiple interwoven storylines. Written/illustrated narrative has definitely changed to reflect this new audience. But I don't think we, as teachers and librarians, have quite caught up with how different this new reading is. We are hanging on to our older way of reading.
FLR: In your new role as the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, what will you do to promote previously overlooked genres as legitimate options for required reading lists (i.e.: humor, graphic novels, nonfiction, sci-fi)? How will you serve as an advocate for the humor genre in children's literature?
JS: I get to be an advocate for humor and illustrated storytelling just by going out and goofing around telling stories the way I do. And with my new title, I get the chance to give interviews for print and TV and let people know that these other genres are real reading.
FLR: What additional opportunities do you think being National Ambassador for Children's Literature will give you to encourage kids to read?
JS: In my new role as Ambassador, I also get to be a champion for kids. I get to tell parents and teachers and TV show hosts and interviewers to relax, let kids read what they enjoy, let them become readers by reading something they really love. And because I have a title (and a sash, and an Ambassador Fanfare, and I'm still hoping for that Apache attack helicopter I asked the Library of Congress to get me) I can get adults to listen.
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