A Boy, Writing at age Ten

I can't think of a worse hell for a writer (especially one who spends any amount of time teaching) than realizing that your own child doesn't like reading or writing. I'm not there, but my son has definitely entered a new stage in his young life, one where he doesn't want to be bothered with written language.

Somebody just kill me already.

He reads every day, but only because he's encouraged to do so at home and because he has to read each night as part of his homework. But he's not into it. His lack of interest started over the last year. He can't seem to find any enthusiasm for the stories they read in his classroom textbook, and he's whizzing through short answers he has to give in school assignments without constructing complete sentences or adding punctuation. His comprehension isn't good either; I'm certain his mind drifts as he reads. And this is from a kid who babbled from the day he was born, whose first word had three syllables. I remember being happy that he conquered reading early with his beloved Ant Books.

A while back, I read Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax and Boy Writers:Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher. These books analyze how boys are systematically disengaged from learning (the Sax book) and writing (Fletcher's book).I recognized many of the problems the authors described from my experiences with male students in the classroom. These authors examine and critique education through the lens of gender, but if you add race to the equation and how the lack of cultural representation may affect a kid's interest in school and writing, there's another level to the problem that has to be undone.

I've started to come up with strategies. I'm looking into outside tutoring. I'm also tutoring him, but that's always a very delicate situation where emotions run high. I plan to inject more oral storytelling and discussion of stories in our conversations so that he becomes comfortable with narrative and how it works. I'm also searching for books that he will like, and I've made a note to ask him for the title of a book he recently read in one sitting.

It occurred to me on Sunday that I'm now homeschooling on the weekends, something I never planned to do. But I can see how important this moment is in his life, how his esteem is and will be affected by what happens next in his literacy. As we worked on writing answers to a story that we'd read together he started to cry. "I thought I understood how to do this," he said. I told him that he did know, that writing is a process, that we constantly work to improve our writing and the work of this is never done. I showed him a journal that published one of my stories in the fall of 2009. Then I pulled out the lined paper with my handwritten list of all the places where I considered sending that story. There were over sixty publications on the list. I actually sent the story to thirty-four journals. Only two of them were interested. "That's 'no' thirty-two times," I told him, "and that meant I had to look at the story several times and rewrite it many times to make it better." Then I said something corny about being a fighter and getting up when you get knocked down. He listened and gave me a half smile.

At that moment, it was the best thing I could think of to say.


  1. At ten, I hated reading. It was really hard for me. I read so slowly. Now--16 years later--I'm in a PhD program studying creative writing. For me it took finding the right book. The one that made me want to read all the others. His book is out there.

    (I know you don't know me. I found your blog through Tayari Jones's blog and liked what you had to say.)

  2. Hey, Ms. Sushi. Thanks for your story - it gives me hope. I asked about the book he read so quickly: Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

  3. I applaud you in your persistence, and really, that is what it takes. My mother is a writer and the most veracious reader I have ever encountered. Although i read as an elementary student, I refused it when I reached junior high, and then when I was about sixteen, something clicked. Although I was already getting into lots of trouble, I started reading to escape and educate myself. One thing that my mother was a master at was giving me the right book at the right time. I still marvel at how skillfully she directed me through DH Lawrence, to Dostoevsky, to the post WWI ex-pats, she somehow knew what I needed to read. I hung on for dear life, and its probably what saved it in the end. I love reading what you write, Renee, you write with such an elegance, and my God! You think!

  4. Thank you for this. I was doing an online search for the very issues you identified in your son only my search is for a ten-year-old girl. Today we are trying comic books. She is definitely spending more time with them than her "school" assigned reading but the compreshension is still not there. The gender perspective on education is very interesting. Thanks for the information/references. My search goes on.