Why Has Reading Declined Among Middle School Students?
By Jeannine Kellogg, Contributing Writer
Common Sense Media reported that the amount of time that children read just for fun has declined.
When children reach middle school and beyond, the decline is even more severe. Also, they also report a gender gap: boys are reading less than girls; and, boys are reading less overall.
As a writer of an action adventure tale for middle school children, I have encountered some realities in the literary community that might shed light on this decline, particularly among boys.
Authors hoping to get published, enter a competitive environment similar to the long lines at AMERICAN IDOL auditions where thousands audition to be the next Beyonce’ or Taylor Swift, or in this case, Harry Potter, and the judges know that most don’t have a chance. Literary agents’ email inboxes are so cluttered with unqualified would-be authors that they commonly refer to their inbox as their “slush pile”.
Thus, I was excited when a president of New York literary agency asked to review my manuscript in full. After reviewing it, he said, “You don’t have the right tone and tenor for middle school boys. For boys that age, it needs to be all about buns and farts.”
After my book was published, I attended the publishing industry’s largest tradeshow, the 2018 New York Book Expo. When I asked why the large publishers don’t often acquire books for boys, an acquisition editor from Harper Collins said, “The assumption is boys don’t read.”
Also, Christian publishers and agents looking for Christian-themed books do not often seek middle grade fiction, even allegorical faith stories like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings. At the New York Book Expo, I went to inquire why. Two different representatives from Christian publishing companies explained that, for Christian publishers, the adult romance genre provides a much lower investment risk with its and steady revenue stream for both agents and publishers. One representative explained further: Allegorical tales of Good vs. Evil that also appeal to boys is a large, underserved market that could definitely provide a substantial financial windfall. However, sourcing a successful one is very difficult. The effort needed to succeed was not worth the financial risk.
That’s not to say that there is not wonderful literature published every year. Horn Book Magazine includes reviews, award announcements, and articles about literature for children and young adults. The magazine has a powerful reach in the literary community. So, for marketing reasons, most children’s authors strive to get a Horn Book review.
In a recent issue, Horn Book praised an audiobook that “perfectly voices the male leads…complete with teenage-boy profanity.” Their print book reviews similarly highlight the worst of boys. In one book an atheist boy convinces other students to take subversive action at his encouragement, “starting with an ‘annotated for accuracy’ sex-ed video….but he apparently goes too far.” They also praise books in which the male lead character ends up on death row, a female character is raped by her boyfriend, another’s childhood friend is raped. And, so on.
The Wall Street Journal recently covered the topic of the depressing and dark content in children’s literature: The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature. Why would children enjoy reading such depressing content?
Scholastic does have a strong portfolio of book series that are very popular with boys and girls: The Warriors series, Wings of Fire, 39 Clues and others. To support the popularity and provide a competitive presence online, Scholastic created online activities to further engage kids with their brand. Themed around these book series, Scholastic created an online safe chat and online forums. They are anything but safe.
These chat rooms are legally designated by Scholastic to be “Kids Sites” intended for children 12 and under which requires them to be compliant with COPPA, an online child privacy law. While complying with the law is not straight forward and can be onerously expensive for a small company like mine, we would hope an industry powerhouse like Scholastic would similarly attempt to comply with the intent of the law: the safety of children online. But the following are some examples of content from their “safe chat” for grade school Jeannine Kellogg.
The chats revolve around “rp” – role playing. In observing the chats, it becomes clear that the participants are unlikely to be 12 and under. They get past automated filters that block sexual and inappropriate content by misspelling words, spacing the letters, inserting special characters, and other code-like phrasing.
Taken this week from Scholastic’s chats: shirt instead of sh*t, pitch instead of bi*ch, kilt instead of killed, cuty myself instead of cut myself and Master bead room for master bed room, graby her for grab her, I want to hity you, hawt for hot, also dem hot bois, for them hot boys, then smak em, start to killy him, and after all that, life stucks for life s*cks. As I wrote this, one user chatted about someone going to the bathroom and a pervert looking through the “key whole”, and this could go on ad infinitum.
Also taken from Scholastic ‘s online chats are the following phrases:
“nobody wants to be in relationship with me”, “stop whining”
“I love you” and “aww love you too”, “hugs and ckisses”, “I want to be in a relationship”
“sometimes ill just move my hand across my chesty …and ill be like ‘omg its flat!’
“please don’t bite me”
“its seems you only think about girls………it smells like spicy talk”,
“i very much so likey girls ()…”, “now you gotta rube her tummy xp like a good boy”,
“ckisses [user’s name] on lipy”, “ckisses [user’s name] on lipy back”
“she says she wants to be my friend but… she won’t even give me a hug like she used to”
Scholastic Chat regulars refer to themselves as “edgy 14 year old”, “asexual”, “unapologetically queer”, “pansexual”, “professional bisexual”, “aesthetically pleasing and somewhat edgy,” and when announcing rules for a role play thread one writes, “LGBTQ+ is allowed!”
One forum thread includes, “I will not rest until you and everyone you have ever loved are dead. And let me warn you, their deaths will not be swift or painless. I’d have them publicly executed in front of you before I kill you myself. I would make you feel my pain.”
One Scholastic user profile signature states, “Died. Was Reborn. Sought Out Revenge. Found Next Victim. BEWARE I WILL FIND YOU”
Another user profile: “Genderfluid LGBTQ+ Shipper”
On Scholastic chat, there is much talk about “shipping” and it does not refer to shipping Scholastic books by Amazon Prime. The term “shipping” is featured within Anime role playing and refers to partnering up two characters believing they would work as a couple. One user writes, “I’m just curious…. I’m not super interested in being ‘Officially shipped’, but I’d like to see who you guys think I’m cute with. If I happen to like the person, and they like me, then I might agree…. Things about me: Non-Binary, he/she/they Pansexual…. I’m over 15, but I’m not super worried about age on here. Like if you’ve got a good personality then there you go.”
Lastly, one user profile says exactly what Scholastic’s forums are, “So we all play our little part on this tiny little stage where nothing’s every really as it seems.” No, it is not as it seems to be—a chat room for children 12 and under. Instead, it’s a dark and predatory place.
If the automated filter can’t keep up, the Scholastic “Admin” who apparently manually checks cannot possibly keep up. Yet, because it is easy to find inappropriate references with just a cursory check of the Scholastic chat room, you might wonder if anyone at Scholastic is checking at all.
However, Scholastic makes it clear they are aware of the real activities that are happening within their chats and forums. The forum posts by the Scholastic “Admin” discuss that dating, crushes, relationships, inquiries into one’s sexual preferences, shipping, exchanging personal information, meeting elsewhere online for further communication, and the arranging of offline meetings are happening within the chats. According to the admin, “shipping” a child 12 and under is fine as long as it was done with consent.
How exactly do perverted adult users help Scholastic sell books?
In the literary world, this obsession with sexuality goes offline too. When children show up at some libraries, sexuality becomes the central topic again. Now, the trend is Drag Queen children’s story hour as reported here and here. It spurs the question why are portions of the literary community fixated on pursuing sexuality around young children? We’ve been watching the Catholic church’s dark realities unravel in front of us as we learn of the lifelong pain their sexual activities caused on so many children. Are we just moving this pain into the children’s space of public libraries?
As data show, children reading for fun decline when they reach middle school and beyond. It is worth asking if some of the content might be the turn off. When the next J.R.R. Tolkien arrives to write a fabulous tale, which inspires children to battle darkness not give into it, let’s hope that there is someone in the literary community ready to recognize the market opportunity. There is reason to doubt. Instead, many seem to prefer manuscripts that fixate on bodily functions, cutting, suicides, massacres, rape, hatred, horrific violence, and feature themes akin to 50 Shades of Gray for kids, sexual assault, child sex abuse, drug addictions, domestic violence, and so on.
We are called to battle darkness, and we do so best by encouraging children to reach for their unique and powerful purpose in life. They, each, have a wonderful calling, a powerful purpose, no matter their circumstance. They can rise above their own wounds victoriously. They can know that God loves them and will guide them out of darkness.
Evil lurks throughout one’s life, and we can and should tell stories that address that darkness. Yet the trend of hyper-sexualized content and dystopian worlds where evil wins, and people are divided into tribes that either kill or be killed should be over. We can rise up and battle for goodness in our schools, libraries, and on media. As we join together in battling this, we can do so together, respectfully, lovingly, and powerfully. I believe a wonderfully inspiring movement in literature is on the rise on the encouragement of parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians and other concerned adults who will say enough is enough.
Hyperlinks/Sites included in this article.
Common Sense Media home page: www.commonsensemedia.org
National Center on Education Statistics: nces.ed.gov
Link to Common Sense paper on reading statistics: www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-reading
Scholastic’s SafeChat Home page: plus.scholastic.com/chat
Scholastic’s Community Forums: plus.scholastic.com/forums
Drag Queen Children’s Story Hour:
Editor’s Note: Jeannine Kellogg is a business analyst, a world traveler, and writes stories to inspire children to understand their own unique and powerful purpose in life. Her debut novel is The Tukor’s Journey, an action adventure story for middle school youth.