No Girls Allowed! (Unless You're in Charge)

Promoting reading to kids in local schools is one of the most fundamental services of a children’s librarian. And in her more than three decades at the Kansas City Public Library, Sandra Jones has gotten plenty of kids to read. But she’s never met a group quite like the one she recently faced – and tamed – at Banneker Elementary.

At a few minutes after 10, the boys filed into the school library. They were clad in school uniforms and chanting “Hello, Ms. Jones,” in near-unison, sing-song voices. Soon, they were wiggling and bouncing in their seats, shooting up their hands to answer Jones’ questions almost as quickly as she could fire them off, heeding occasional calls from the school librarian to settle down.

The Readers Are Leaders Brown Bag Lunch Club was in session.

This was a special group, unlike any other Jones has worked with. For one thing, the group was boys only, a first for the veteran Southeast Branch children’s librarian. On top of that, they were among the least well-behaved boys in the entire second grade.

“I wanted to gather reluctant readers, get them together, have lunch, and get them interested in reading,” Jones says.

To pick the readers for her group, Jones asked for the help of Banneker’s Library Media Specialist, Diedre Stratton.

“I chose a group of 2nd grade boys who have lots of behavior issues, who didn’t choose to read,” Stratton says. “It really increased their interest in checking out books and taking them home.”

That’s an impressive result, given boys’ typical reading habits. Author Jon Scieszka, founder of the Guys Read program, reports that boys score below girls on reading tests in every age group; that eighth grade boys are 50 percent more likely to be held back than girls; and that college enrollment is consistently lower among boys.

In designing Readers Are Leaders, Jones knew that her biggest challenge would be keeping things fun. In the end, bullies, cars, wrestling, respect, dinosaurs, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe all figured into the book group curriculum.

At each session, Jones kept the group constantly engaged, challenging them with lively questions, bringing visual aids, arranging for lunch to be served, and generally making the program as interactive as possible.

On the last day of the program, which ran on Wednesdays this past March through May, Jones handed out certificates and book bags to each of the boys as a reward for completing the program.

“I liked the book club because it’s fun, and we got to read a gang of books,” said student Darerek Dukes.

On that final day, as the boys departed the library, Jones began getting ready for her next book club. At 11 a.m., she’d be leading her new, girls-only Books Build Brains Book Club.

Because girls want to have fun, too.

-- Jason Harper