For Julia Kennedy and 11 other English master’s students at UMass Boston, this semester’s reading list includes Vordak the Incomprehensible, a first-person narrative from a cartoon supervillain, and The Popularity Papers, a diary exchange between two best friends on how to attain top social status at a junior high school.
Kennedy and her fellow students will be helping dozens of children read and discuss these books, among other fun titles, as part of the new GRLS/Guys Read program, a collaboration between the Boston Public Library and the English Master’s program at UMass Boston.
Beginning this semester, six female and six male graduate students are rotating reading duties between ten different branch libraries in downtown Boston, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Hyde Park. In pairs, they’re guiding girls and boys ages 8 to 12 through graphic novels and chapter books in groups that Associate Professor of English Cheryl Nixon, the graduate program director, describes as “very much like book clubs.”
“We’re using that model for younger kids, to have them feel that reading is fun and cool and related to their lives. They’re learning that reading isn’t just for school,” she says.
The national program Guys Read was started in 2001 by Jon Scieszka, a prolific writer of young adult novels, in response to discouraging statistics on boys’ literacy in the United States. According to Scieszka, books taught in schools are not capturing the attention of boys in a way that encourages them to become readers. Guys Read addresses this problem by framing reading as fun, using books that boys will like. GRLS (Girls Reading Literature Society) is a creation of the UMass Boston master’s students, based on the same principle: that girls will read books that appeal to them, cultivating a love of reading.
Nixon, who is leading both programs, has a long-standing relationship with the Boston Public Library; for several years, the library has allowed UMass Boston’s English master’s students to take seminars in its Rare Books Room. She says that when BPL President Amy Ryan suggested bringing Guys Read to Boston, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for her students to help.
“Anybody who’s in English studies wonders, 'Where is the next generation of readers coming from?' The literary focus of this program – getting kids to read fun books – seemed like a good match for the English Department,” she says.
The community outreach aspect of GRLS/Guys Read also strikes a chord with students like Kennedy.
“I think it's vital for master’s students to engage with their communities, and I appreciate Cheryl's interest in finding new ways for UMass [Boston] to be involved with education and youth-related events in our area,” she says.
Nixon adds, “It makes sense for us to be partners: we’re the public university, and they’re the public library.”
The 12 students who are participating in GRLS/Guys Read are receiving credit for teaching assistantships, and, Kennedy says, valuable experience in teaching reading.
“We spent the fall planning which books we would read, getting ideas about structure, figuring out who would go to which libraries and who would work with whom. I think all of us in the program have an interest in teaching and/or working in small groups with readers. [I’m] excited to actually be working with children and meeting them,” she says.
The children, who meet biweekly with their groups, are invited to join GRLS/Guys Read by children’s librarians, says Nixon, who adds, “They really know these kids.” The librarians generate excitement for the program, and then “when the clubs are in session, other kids notice. We’ve definitely had some kids wander in,” Nixon says.
After the end of this semester Nixon hopes that GRLS/Guys Read will continue to attract enthusiastic English master's student mentors. “This semester is a bit of a trial run,” she explains. “We’ll continue to tweak and improve [the program], and it’d be great to expand into more libraries.”
The children, who are allowed to keep a copy of the books they’ve read together thanks to a grant from the Boston Public Library, are “very engaged and excited” about the new program, according to Kennedy. And Nixon is as well.
“The best part of the program,” she says, “is that it’s just about reading and enjoying books.”