17th March 2006 at 00:00
Are comics a good way to whet the appetite for books? Three authors talk to teachers abouts the best ways in. Chris Johnston reports

Every summer when the A-level and GCSE results are published, there's a fuss about standards: are they rising or are exams are being dumbed down? Close behind in the media's education fixations is the subject of boys and reading. If some of the more hysterical stories were to be believed, no male pupil under the age of 18 has ever picked up a book in his life.

Determining to what degree boys do reading is an inexact science, but the consensus is that they are reluctant to read anything - fiction or non-fiction - for pleasure.

Three authors who write books for teenagers, along with a representative from the National Literacy Trust, met in London last month to discuss the issue with teachers and librarians. Dominic Barker, Stephen Cole and Graham Marks, all published by Bloomsbury - home of Harry Potter - all agree that they want to see boys reading for pleasure.

Even the authors' children are not immune from forming the same attitude to reading as their peers. Graham Marks says that his two sons, 16 and 23, got the idea somehow that reading was work, something that should be done only at school. "There is nothing more depressing, especially when one is a writer, and I dearly wish I could have changed their minds."

His writing career began at Marvel Comics. He argues that comics play a very important role in getting boys to read: they show that carefully processing every word is not necessary to understand sentences.

"There is no 'bad' reading - devouring Playstation magazines to find out the cheats is just as valid as His Dark Materials," says the author of four novels for young adults, including his latest, Tokyo.

Dominic Barker, who taught for several years in London schools before becoming a full-time writer, firmly disagrees. He believes that reading one type of writing only can be dangerous. Computer games reviews, for example, have a very similar style, he argues.

"Variety and difference is so important," he says.

His classroom experience has convinced Barker that boys lose interest in reading about Year 9, when they become very self-policing and sensitive to peer group pressure. He feels it is essential for teachers to read aloud with as much enthusiasm as possible and involve students in the process, by acting as the narrator and having a couple of children read the lines of supporting characters.

"Don't just go around the class having each child read one paragraph," he explains. "It has to be more of a performance to have impact,"

New teachers come into the job full of ideas about how they will motivate pupils to read and try different types of writing, Barker says, but the reality is they then find themselves restricted to teaching set texts.

Stephen Cole, whose latest novel is a compelling action adventure tale entitled Thieves Like Us, believes it is important that authors like himself talk to trainee teachers.

"They forget what it's like to be a kid sometimes," he says. "Writers can bring that enthusiasm, and it's important for those in the classroom to get that."

The three novelists met trainee teachers in Cambridge in January in an event organised by their publisher. Discussing whether too much fuss is made about the issue of boys and reading, Cole - who has also worked for a publisher and edited the Noddy magazine in his time - says that, for many boys, books are simply not as cool as playing computer games. But, he argues, this is not the end of the world.

"Boys are reading in other ways, and we have to hope that they will find books eventually," he says.

Jim Sells, literacy development officer with the National Literacy Trust, points out that sport has enormous influence on many boys. Simply pointing out that there are books about football is enough to hook some. But getting top-flight athletes and football players to support the cause is an even better motivational tool.

The Premier League Reading Stars project, part of the Reading The Game initiative, has at least one player from nearly 50 clubs, including household names such as Rio Ferdinand at Manchester United and Freddie Ljungberg at Arsenal. The Swedish player's chosen book is Cars, Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry.

"I was given this book by my aunt and uncle when I was very young and just read it constantly," he says. "I was fascinated with the pictures of the animals and other books in the series about truck drivers."

Jim Sells adds that one boy once said to him: "Now I know that footballers read, I want to read too."

Reading the Game www.bloomsbury.comchildrens

three men in search of an audience

Dominic Barker started out as a stand-up comedian. Two years later, he started teaching and then switched to writing: three novels about a teenage detective called Mickey Sharp were well reviewed. He was shortlisted for a national award. They have been translated into many different languages.

Stephen Cole edited and wrote children's magazines for the BBC. He has worked for many publishers, formed his own company as well as writing: Bloomsbury published The Wereling Trilogy; his latest novel, Thieves Like Us, came out last month.

Graham Marks has worked as an editor, publisher or writer after starting in comics. After a spell as creative director in an ad agency, he has returned to writing. Radio Radio, How it Works and, his latest book, Zoo, have all been published by Bloomsbury

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