I was recently asked by my local newspaper to write an article about how to get teen boys to read over the summer. For my own Young Adults, the hard part isn’t getting them to read — they read constantly, if you count Foxtrot collections, PC Gamer magazine, and Rebel Without a Crew. What’s been tough is getting them to read what might pass for “literature” on college applications. It has taken a multi-pronged attack, but I’ve now got a number of effective strategies I can employ when the ratio of books with stick figures to those with plain words gets too skewed.
As I mention in the article, one particularly successful ploy was to encourage them to join a Banned Book Club run by a parent in our homeschool group. My kids’ friend David, 16, explained the appeal: “It sounds like something that is smart and interesting.” Although not all the books are strictly “banned” (that is to say, someone has tried to remove them from schools or libraries), they all have the air of being slightly subversive to read. The list of books the boys (it’s all boys in this particular Banned Book Club, although there are similar groups around the country) chose to read this past year reads like a freshman lit course syllabus. Most were books I’ve looked at and figured were too much for me to get into – and I have an English degree. Here’s a sampling:
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
If you’re wondering about that last one … well, as Nick, another of the boys in the group, explained, “It’s good to read to get the cultural references.” I suspect the allusions Nick was trying to understand involved the Undead, but hey, I’m not going to argue with anything that could get my kids to voluntarily pick up Jane Austen.
In addition to helping kids understand “in” jokes, there’s also the movie connection. For boys who love the cinema, it’s not hard to entice them to read Heart of Darkness when you tell them it was the basis for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. And Naked Lunch, as my younger son discovered on his own, was made into a film by horror master David Cronenberg.
However, by far the coolest way I’ve found to get teen boys to read, and understand, great literature, is one they already knew: TV Tropes. I stumbled across this wiki, which covers every cliche, convention and narrative device known to humankind, while looking for background material on Oedipus Rex (which I had my sons read after we did a mini-unit on Ancient Greece — history tie-ins being yet another way to make literature palatable). And boy, did I find a buttload of good stuff, as this very informally-written website is wont to put it. But the best part is that TV Tropes takes the elements that any good English major should be able to uncover, and applies them to everything from Greek tragedy to The Andy Griffith Show. So it’s easy to keep teen boys engaged by showing them the parallels between pop culture they’re already familiar with and classic lit. Score!
By way of example, according to TV Tropes writers, Oedipus Rex contains such elements as the Downer Ending, also found in Blade Runner and Half-Life 2, as well as something dubbed “Explain Explain Oh Crap,” a trope seen in Star Wars and Futurama.
If you’re wondering if all this flim-flammery and misdirection works, let me just say that my eldest told me this week that he’s going to start buying his own copies of some of his favorite books to have with him at college next year. One title he’s particularly planning on using as he studies video game design is … Machiavelli’s The Prince, which he found really useful for understanding how villains operate.
Yup, that’s my boy!