Thursday, March 12, 2009

Confessions of a Reluctant Reader

Confessions Of A Reluctant Reader

By Max Elliot Anderson

My father published over 70 books during his lifetime. Some of his books included a couple of popular kid’s series, yet I never read any of them. I grew up in a family with six other siblings, so it was easy for some things to be missed. In my case, no one noticed that I didn’t spend a lot of time reading. Or, I might just have been good at hiding it.

We lived in a rural area of Michigan near Muskegon. Our home was situated on several wooded acres, with few other houses anywhere nearby. Not far away was Wolf Lake, where I spent endless summer hours. It was common for me to hit the back door, before breakfast, and not to return until dark. And I wonder how many miles I put on that rusty, old junker of a bike back then?

Along with my friends, I used to roam the vast woods surrounding our house. The area included miles of trails, a river, and lots of climbing trees. What boy could be expected to think about reading a book with such a variety of places to run, play, swim, and ride my bike?

Looking back, I can see now that I was a person who learned by watching, as opposed to reading about something. Show me and I get it right away. Read about it and who knows? My friends and I invented a host of pretend characters and situations from cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, to war games.

If I wasn’t involved in action, often a little dangerous, I wasn’t happy. Skinned knees, elbows, and knuckles were not uncommon. In some of those situations, my father used to smile and say, “Boys will be boys.” This drove my sisters crazy! But the wisdom of his words still rings in my ears as I observe boys today.

Our daughter teaches second grade in a public school in the Orlando, Florida area. We have had many conversations concerning the boys in her class, and issues surrounding reading. This has provided a real life lab for me to discuss some of my ideas concerning the kinds of material that boys like to read and why. It’s sad to know that so many boys live under a medicated cloud when all they really need, in many cases, is to run, jump, yell, and play until they drop. Whoever came up with the idea that a boy should sit in a chair for most of the time when the sun is up, in a typical classroom setting, just doesn’t understand boys.

Lest you think that my situation is unique, with an author for a father, and not caring to read as a child, consider this. A recent article in People Magazine reported the story of author James Patterson. Mr. Patterson is one of America’s most prolific authors. He has a ten year-old son, and this boy doesn’t like to read. So Mr. Patterson has established a web site at The central focus of this site is to encourage kids to read, especially reluctant reader boys. I’ve also established a blog, Books For Boys at

Later, as I attended school, I found other ways to hide my lack of interest in reading. It was common for me to approach book reports a little differently than other students in my class. I’d read the opening chapter from the book, the middle chapter, and the last chapter. From there I had a pretty good idea who the main character was, and a gist of the story. Then I’d just make things up as I went. A little later on, I suspected that the reports were only busy work so I decided to test the theory. Right in the middle of one of my reports I wrote, “If you’re still reading this, I’ll treat you to a steak dinner at the restaurant of your choice.” If I remember correctly, I got an A on that report which, of course, the teacher never read. I didn’t understand at the time that it was the reading of the book which was intended for my benefit, and the report was not the important part.

In spite of my lack of reading for enjoyment, I managed to finish high school, and graduated from college with a degree in Psychology. It was during my college years that I began to read more diligently, because I loved the subject matter.

It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I began to explore why I hadn’t enjoyed reading as a boy. I visited bookstores and the library where I looked at hundreds of books. That’s where I saw some interesting patterns in many of the books. They had too much detail for my taste. Descriptions of people, places, and things tended to be far more than I wanted too. Large blocks of words, sometimes several long paragraphs together, would have defied me, as a child, to jump in.

Even as an adult, I am easily distracted. If I hear something, I have to look up to see what it is. That causes me to lose my place on a page, and it’s frustrating to go looking for the spot to begin again.

At the same time, I came to understand that reading is one of the most important skills we need in order to prepare for a successful future. Not many people get to grow up like I did, where my dad was also a motion picture producer. I spent as much time as possible hanging around the studio during production. In those early years, I decided that I also wanted to tell stories through film. When I was eight years-old, I was “killed” by a hit-and-run driver, while riding my bike. But…since the movie I was in was being shot in black and white, the blood that ran from my nose, mouth and ear, came from a chocolate syrup bottle.

I found that I could pursue a career in the film and video production world without spending a lot of time reading. Try doing that if your dream is to become a doctor or lawyer. But since I was primarily a visual learner, it made perfect sense for me to find my way into a more visual form of expression. I’ve produced, shot, or directed over 500 national television commercials for True Value Hardware Stores for example. And I’ve told thousands of stories, visually, for industrial, medical, and retail clients in my video production business.

With my new understanding of the critical importance of reading in our education, I set out to write the kinds of books that I would have enjoyed as a child. They are short on detail and description, and contain a lot of humor, action, adventure, mystery, dialog, and heart-pounding action.

My books are 6” wide and 9” high. This is slightly larger than the majority of books. The paper is bright white with larger type. I don’t spend a lot of time on description and detail, so readers won’t be intimidated by those large blocks of type that used to stop me in my tracks.

You might say that I’m on sort of a mission in order to get kids interested in reading, especially our boys. I began a blog, Books for Boys And if I can, I hope to encourage parents, grandparents, and teachers in their attempts to help reluctant readers.

The first thing I would say is to let kids read anything that interests them. As a child, I enjoyed collecting coins and stamps. And I could easily spend time reading about those hobbies. No one ever took the time to encourage me to take the next step and find material I could read for enjoyment. So be on the lookout for signs that your children, or students, may not be reading as they should.

In the early stages, don’t worry about what is being read. It doesn’t matter if it is found on the Internet - under supervision of course - or newspapers and magazines. Watch for things that interest your child or student, and then steer them to material on those subjects.

I further suggest that parents look for books that are below grade level at first. There is no hurry in pushing the reading process. What is important is to get it started on a firm foundation. This can include the use of graphic novels, or even comic books. It’s the reading process that matters here.

Parents can try reading together, out loud. In many cases, a child will listen to the first few chapters and, if the story catches their imagination, they’re happy to take it from there. Again, this may happen early on, or it may take several books before the child develops an interest in finding out what happens next.

My books are written so that most of the chapters end in a cliffhanger. The reader simply must find out what happens next. A mother recently wrote to tell me this happened with her reluctant reader son. He came into the room where she sat and slammed one of my books onto the table.

“I know what this guy’s trying to do,” he grumbled.
“What?” his mother asked.
“He’s trying to get me to read the next chapter.”
He went on to explain how the chapter he’d read just ended. Then he picked up the book and read the last line to her.
“See,” he said. “He’s just trying to get me to read the next chapter.”

She was thrilled to tell me that he stomped off into the next room and did exactly that. And I get a lot of emails and letters like this concerning the effect that my books have on young readers.

Some parents have said, “No matter what I do, my child simply will not read.” When you press a little harder, what you find is that most of their recreational time is spent in front of the TV, a computer, playing video games, and watching DVD’s.

My wife and I have raised two children, so I’m not above suggesting a small bribe. Parents forget how much power they have to positively influence their children. I suggest to these parents that they use the TV, computer, video games, and DVD’s, even the cell phone with older kids, as rewards, not rights. So a parent might say, “After you’ve read two chapters in your book, and can tell me about them, then you can…”

Children tell me that reading one of my action-adventures or mysteries is like being in - not reading - but being in an exciting or scary movie. That’s probably because I think visually first, and write like that in my books.

When I’m writing, I like to turn the lights down, and burn a candle next to my computer. This helps to put me in a frame of mind to write. I put props and pictures around my writing room that help further set the mood. In the case of writing Legend of the White Wolf, I tore up a calendar to spread out several pictures of wolves. But probably the most important element I use is music. I always play mood appropriate music for the scene I’m writing. When I speak in classrooms, I demonstrate this technique which never fails to capture the imagination of the students and the teacher.

When I’m writing a spooky scene for one of my books, I will only begin writing after dark. All the lights are off, with just the illumination coming from a candle and the glow of my computer screen. I like to write hot weather scenes during warm weather and winter scenes when it’s freezing cold outside. This doesn’t always work out with my schedule, but it helps me to be as much into all elements of a scene as possible. Sometimes I’ve turned the heat way up in the house in order to feel the heat.

As I write this article, the music of Scott Joplin is playing on my stereo. I have his complete piano works on a four CD set. His music conveys a perfect combination of upbeat, entertaining tunes; perfect for the frame of mind I want to be in when writing abut my books for boys. I say for boys, but I’m happy to report that in addition to reluctant readers, my books are equally enjoyed by avid readers, girls, and even adults.

Finally, if I’ve accomplished nothing else, I hope I’ve encouraged adults, who are responsible for children and their reading, to look for opportunities to match the right reading material with the right child. There is no, “One size fits all,” when it comes to reading. But reading allows children, and adults, to exercise a God-given gift that is shrinking in its use and importance. That gift is our imagination. Too much of what we experience today comes from others who decide, by the music they use and the pictures and words we hear from a screen, what we should think, how we should feel, and what our reactions should be. Reading engages all aspects of our imagination.

In the end, remember that readers are the leaders others follow.

My web sites:

Author web page

50 Pages of Reviews


Shelley said...

Loved your entry and will be looking for your books, not so much for my son, but for my reluctant daughter.

I've had some ideas that are a tad (or depending on your point of view) or very out of the box and would love to get your take on them, as an author, as a parent of a grade 2 teacher, and as a former child.

Thoughts on Education

I'd like to eventually get back to college and finish my degree so I can more fully develop these ideas.

Tara said...

Max, thank you for visiting my site, and posting your reluctant reader story on yours. As a teacher and a mother of two boys, I have had many experiences with students who just don't find pleasure with reading. I agree with you, any reading is good reading - whether that be comic books, things found online, or books that others may consider "below their grade level." My 2nd grader has discovered books about Bakugan and Pokemon, and reads the character descriptions carefully. On the other hand, my kindergartener loves to read, and will pick up anything and everything just to read what it says. It is amazing how children raised by the same parents with the same opportunities can be so different. I'm going to check out your books for boys now, and looking forward to reading them!

Julia at Orca said...

What a great blog entry.. I find it funny that your dad was an author and you didn't like to read. I work for a publishing house and have all kinds of books (even ones for reluctant readers) at my disposal.. but still my son prefers D@D manuals. Oh well. At least he is reading.