Author makes pitch about books to boys

Literacy: A writer helps a school in its effort to encourage pupils to enjoy reading and writing.

November 09, 1999|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Anyone with children of both genders knows getting boys to read a book unprompted is about as simple as getting girls to turn their eyelids inside out and gross out strangers in the grocery store.

At Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City, where teachers and parents are trying to come up with ways to keep boys interested in reading and writing, Fred Bowen tried to help yesterday.

The Silver Spring resident, author of eight novels geared to children ages 8 to 12, seemed a good choice. PTA member Mindy Lovalvo asked him to come because his books are about one topic boys tend to enjoy -- sports.

"Sports are enormously important to kids," Bowen said. "It's something that they come to already loving. I always have girl characters in the books, but I know that more boys will be interested in them."

Bowen showed the Worthington pupils how to write a book in six steps, as girls and boys sat cross-legged on the media center floor, enraptured by Bowen's lingering New England accent and extensive knowledge of baseball and basketball. Bowen, who played sports as a child, has coached elementary school baseball and basketball teams since 1990.

"I'm gonna tell you about how I write my books," Bowen told a group of third-graders, one of several groups of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders he spoke to yesterday. "And that's gonna help you when you guys try to write stuff."

Bowen told them he starts with an idea -- either something that happened to him or to someone he knows -- which he writes down along with anything else he will want to say or do in his book. After filling up at least two notebooks with "scribble-scrabble," Bowen completes his first draft.

That's when he gets to the part many children find most difficult, Bowen said.

"You gotta show it to somebody," Bowen said. "And then you gotta listen to what they have to tell you."

First feedback

Bowen showed his first book, "T. J.'s Secret Pitch," to his son before it was published.

"I thought he would say it was perfect," Bowen said. "Why? Because he's my kid. I feed him. He loves me. But you know what he said? He said, `Dad, you need more games in this book. Kids like to read about games.' "

So Bowen beefed up the next drafts with anecdotes kids would like to read. The novel grew from 21 pages to 86, seven chapters to 12. And the book was a hit.

"I had to listen to a little 8-year-old boy who didn't clean up his room," Bowen said, as the third-graders giggled. "And now he's a 15-year-old boy who still doesn't clean up his room."

Making authors real

After the session, some of the third-graders in Sydney Melton's class said they thought it was "cool" that Bowen was a man who liked to write, and that he seemed like a real person, not just an "author."

"I liked when he was telling us about how to make a story," said Preston Donovan.

Bringing boys to par

Preston and friends Matthew Ivey and Michael Leone, all 8, notice that the girls in their classes are more advanced in reading.

"A lot of girls are good readers," Preston said. "I don't think that they're better, but they do read more."

Elementary schools struggle with the problem just as parents do. Whether urban or suburban, most boys score lower on reading and writing tests than girls.

Reading for fun

The Worthington boys said that not enough books hold their interest, especially with so many other entertainment options. They would rather be playing video games or trading Pokemon cards. Even reading a book about sports can wait if they can play the sport instead.

As father of a son and a daughter, Bowen knows about going to battle with what he calls the "video culture." From his experiences, Bowen is able to write stories that may pull boys away from the computers, television sets, locker rooms and trading cards.

He throws lots of statistics into his stories because he knows boys like numbers. He ends every story with a sports history chapter related to the book's topic. And he said his books are fast-paced and fun.

Spreading a message

Most important, he makes a point to go into schools, so boys can see a man who loves to write. "Sometimes, the boys'll sit there and you can see it. They're saying, `Hey! You know this is great that a guy is talking to us!' " Bowen said. Bowen's visit didn't inspire Matthew or Michael or Preston to think about becoming an author for a living. But they agreed that Bowen made reading sound more fun and writing sound easier.

They had ideas for books they would like to write themselves, if they could find the time between soccer and Pokemon.

"Maybe I'll write like a mystery and a sport mixed together," Preston said. "I think boys would really like that."

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