Guys Read Succeeds
Greg Hill is the director of the Fairbanks North Star Borough public libraries
We’ve had a strong graphic-novel and comic collection since I came here 19 years ago. I’d learned how well comics worked in library settings back in Texas, where I ran a couple of smaller libraries in the 1980s and found that I could get them rebound into hardcovers and would last upward of 100 circulations before wearing out. I began with Carl Barks’ work from Gladstone, and Barks remains the most popular author at my library in any format. About a quarter of our 3-4,000 comic books, mangas, and graphic novels are borrowed at any given time.
Obviously, this collection attracts more young people to the library, and we’re constantly expanding it.
We also use graphic novels in our Guys Read program, which we created to try to attract more reluctant-reading boys to the library. Aimed at 4th-grade boys (who have the biggest drop in reading scores), it implements teams of male volunteers who go into the schools at lunchtime and read fun, boy-friendly books (that are heavily illustrated) to the boys while they eat lunch (no loss of recess or instructional times) and project pages from the books onto the walls so the boys can see where they’re reading.
Titles we’ve used include Mouse Guard by David Petersen, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Carl Barks’ Greatest Duck Tales, Vol. 1, and the mangas LegendZ and The Legend of Zelda.
Since its creation four years ago, our approach to Guys Read has proven enormously successful, with all 18 elementary schools here participating. This winter libraries in six other Alaskan communities are trying Guys Read for the first time.
As a public library director, I’d long searched for a way to reach people, especially kids, who don’t realize all the new features of modern public libraries (video games, DVDs, car-repair databases, etc.). A meeting with the local school superintendent led to the creation four years ago of the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Guys Read program, which is targeted to 4th-grade boys. Boys start disassociating themselves from reading around 3rd to 4th grade. Many boys don’t have male role models who are readers, and many of the books presented in school are better suited for girls, whose interest in the nuance of literature (character development, relationships, etc.) is more developed.
Encouraged by a local businessman who had recently become interested in children’s literacy, elements were identified that would attract boys to reading:
Boy-friendly books: funny, exciting, or outrageous, that are
1. Well and heavily illustrated, and
2. Have sequels, are part of a series, or have lots of similar titles. Also, every participating school is given multicopy sets of the books for their library.
Two-man teams of volunteer readers read to the boys during their lunchtime, which doesn‘t impact instructional or recess times, projecting the pages onto large screens (which hold even the most reluctant reader’s attention) and read aloud using laser pointers to show their place.
A wrap-up party was held at the public library featuring guy games (all very low-tech: spitwad target shooting, paper airplane accuracy, beard-growing, etc.) and guy grub (barbeque ribs, cornbread, and cheese pizza). While they eat, another reading takes place and free books are distributed in bags loaded with small flyers aimed at parents (“Free Tax Advice on Saturdays,” “Rent 7 DVDs for 7 Days for Free”).
After the three-school pilot program four years ago, teachers and principals saw how overwhelmingly positive the boys’ reaction was. All 18 elementary schools in the borough participate in the month-long program. Book circulation has soared, with half or more of the schools’ 10 most popular books being Guys Read books. Teachers tell of boys who’d proudly never read a book asking for volume two of some Guys Read titles and begging for extra trips to the school library. Parents write letters to the editor about the effect the program has had on their boys.
Consequently, the Alaska State Library has provided small grants to put the Guys Read program manual online and to create “program in a box” kits to send out to smaller communities’ libraries to develop their own programs. Another state library grant has been awarded to develop a Gals Read program for 4th-grade girls to work concurrently with Guys Read.
This approach seems to resonate with the boys, and the effect of Guys Read on them is currently being tested by researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.