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Inside Practically Paradise

Susan Writes about Getting Black Boys to Read

Susan Norwood guest blogs today about a subject near and dear to our heart. She doesn’t tell you but she is focusing her graduate work on this topic and has done some amazing action research, too.

Until this year, Metropolitan Nashville Schools required Language Arts teachers to teach Essential Literature. We are not required to this year because there is not enough money in our district to replace the books that are lost or damaged. Nonetheless, we still have crates of these books, and teachers still teach them. Here are the titles we have at our school:  A Break With Charity (Rinaldi), Diary of A Young Girl (the play), Gathering Blue (Lowry), The Count of Monte Cristo, Tales of Edgar Alan Poe (Adapted), The Pearl (Steinbeck), Hope Was Here (Bauer) and The Lottery Rose. Diane Chen did not choose these, so don’t blame her. What do you notice about this list?

What I notice is that there are no characters of African descent, and all but one (The Pearl), have protagonists of European descent. With the exception of A Break With Charity, that was published in 2003, all the rest were published in 2000 or earlier. There is nothing wrong with these books, except that they do not especially appeal to African American males. Not one boy wanted to read Gathering Blue based on the cover, which shows a white girl holding flowers. It is one hard sale!

At a faculty meeting early in the year, we were told to focus on our African American males, because they were a subgroup, along with ELL and Exceptional Ed., students who scored the most poorly on standardized tests. These boys simply do not see themselves reflected in these titles, nor for that matter, do my other boys. This is why libraries are so important. We need to make sure that boys are connected with books that matter to them. This is the only way we are going to improve the literacy of our African American males. Not only must libraries have books that appeal to these males, but we must actively promote the titles. We can’t leave boys to stumble upon a good title by themselves. We must make displays, give book talks, show trailers and place the books physically in their hands.

According to A.A. Samad, a black commentator (his website is Getting Black Boys to Read: Hip-Hop Enters the Fray (and that might not be a good thing) this segment of our society is becoming increasingly unengaged and illiterate. He says that getting young black boys to read is not just a black problem, but a problem for our entire society. I fully agree with him. For the past year, I have made a concerted effort to find books that my black boys will read. I care about getting these boys to read, because it is my mission as a teacher. On a personal note, I care because I am the grandmother of an African American male.

What do these boys of mine like to read? They like to read books that are current. As one boy blogged, “old books are bad.” Okay, that’s a start. I found that they also like magazines, non-fiction with pictures, urban lit. with male protagonists, and graphic novels.  In no particular order, specific titles they like are:


  • LeBron James: The Rise of a Star (Morgan, Jr.)
  • A Child Called It (Pelzer)
  • My Life in Prison (Williams)
  • Go Ask Alice (Anonymous- may be fiction, but who cares?)


  • Wimpy Kid Series (Kinney)
  • Brotherhood (McDonald)
  • Harlem Hustle (McDonald)
  • After Tupac and D Foster (Woodson)
  • Scary Stories- (Various: R.L. Stine, Horowitz, Schwartz, etc.)
  • Killer Pizza (Taylor)

Trivia and Reference:

  • Guinness World Records
  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not
  • 100 Unbelievable Facts (Otway)
  • Oh, Yikes: History’s Grossest, Wackiest Moments (Masoff and Sirrell)
  • Oh, Yuck: The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty  (Masoff and Sirrell)
  • Thrill Rides: Top Ten Roller Coasters in America (Shulman)
  • Worst Case Scenarios

Manga and Graphic Novels

  • Artemis Fowl (Colfer and Donkin)
  • Bone – Jeff Smith
  • One Piece
  • Bleach
  • Naruto
  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • Dragonball Z
  • Smile (Telgemeir)- This is an interesting choice, since the protagonist is a white female.

Magazines (These are extremely popular and hard to keep!):

  • Automobile, Motor Trend, Car and Driver
  • Dupont Registry (Frequently borrowed permanently. I don’t like to say stolen.)
  • Sports Illustrated, ESPN
  • Hoops (I had to stop getting this, because it was always taken within the first week. I may relent and re-subscribe)
  • Slam!
  • GameInformer (I only had one remaining copy at the end of the year.)
  • Gamepro
  • Entertainment Weekly
  • J-14 ( a girl mag, but all the guys read it!)
  • Seventeen (another girl mag that all the guys read)

This list is just a start, but these titles are my go-to titles. Once again, I risk the wrath of would-be censors, because my students want to read realistic books that deal with topics such as abuse, gangs, drugs, and violence. This means that many of my books also contain profanity. As one boy told me, “The best books always have bad words.” I’ll leave you with that thought.