The huge social impact of learning to love books

James Patterson on teaching kids to read.

James Patterson: There's a program that I'm involved with at the University of Florida, right now Florida the percentage of kids reading at grade level is 43 percent. The best in the country is Massachusetts at 62 percent so nobody should be standing up and going look at our stay we're 62 percent. So it's not good anywhere. The University of Florida has been working on a program for five years up in the Gainesville area, not Gainesville itself because there are too many professor's kids in the town, but outside and they have it up into the 80s. So I've been working with them and we went to the state legislature in April and we met with the head of the senate and several senators and the house and they gave us two counties in Florida and they said you don't have to get 80s but if you get good numbers you get numbers in the 60s we will take that program across the state, which would be spectacular. It's a win/win/win for the kids, it's a win for the teachers, it's a win for the state. Everybody wins. And when I go and talk to the legislature and when I go in and talk to big groups of librarians or teachers I'll always say I'm here to save lives. And I really want people to get that in their heads because that's what's happening.

I go sometimes now to prisons and primarily what you'll find there are a lot of relatively young African-American kids, and most of whom didn't read at all in high school or almost none, weren't good readers; now they read like crazy because it's the only thing they can do. And the irony is incredible. Most of them are pretty good readers now. Had they learned, had we got that percentage of kids reading at grade level up higher to the point where they got to high school they were competent readers they might have stayed with it. But if you get to high school, you get to the ninth grade and you are really like, "A-bra-ham Li—," you know, you can't keep up here, and you go "I can't do this. It's not relevant, I can't do it, so I'm not going to stay here, I'm not going to stay in school," which is a disaster. And I really mean it when I say that we can save lives—and thousands of lives. If we do this thing in Florida we will save thousands of lives in Florida. And any state that can solve the problem is going to save thousands of lives. Plus you can improve the economics of the state because you're going to have that many more people who can go out into the workforce, that have choices. That's important. It's a hugely important thing.
And I think it's kind of a sacred mission. I have an imprint at Little Brown called Jimmy Books and our mission, which is—I think kind of simple but I think it's smart—is when a kid finishes a Jimmy Book they'll say, "Please give me another book," as opposed to, "I hate books. I don't like to read." Because there are millions of kids running around this country right now that do not like to read, they've been introduced to it incorrectly.
If we taught film to little kids and we started with Ingmar Bergman movies, then they'll go "Oh I don't really like movies." And unfortunately that's what we do with kids in a lot of English classes! Let's go through a million rules you need to learn, and that's not the most interesting thing, and then we're going to make you read a lot of stuff that isn't really relevant to you yet or you're not really that interested, and then you wonder why kids are going, "I don't like to read." Because you're introducing it to them badly. So I want to try to make sure that what we do that they're going to love the stories and at the end of it they're going to say "give me another book." Not junk, not like the kind of food you can't remember whether you ate or not; I want them to remember that they read a book, but that they want another book.
I mean it's a tricky, dangerous time for books. We need literature, I mean we don't need James Patterson but we do need Hemingway and Faulkner, the literature, and for that to happen, for the moment at least, we need traditional publishers because that's where that happens, that's where we have the experience and the editors and the time and they're willing to not take enormous profits in order to bring some of those books to people. There may come a time when that can be done on the Internet and that's okay, but not right now. Right now if Ulysses came out and it went on the Internet, it would get three negative reviews and then it would disappear, so we can't have that happening because the Internet, they're just not ready for it. They don't have the editors. So it really is important that we keep publishers healthy for the moment. It's really important that we have bookstores for the moment. Independents are coming back a bit, which is good. There are more independents this year than there were last year. That's a good thing. It's not a good thing that Borders went out of business, because we need more bookstores, we just do. We need people in stores where people can come up and go "what's good?" or "what do you think of this one?" or "I like this and this, one else might I like?"
In particular with kids, it's particularly important because their parents come in, they don't really know—some do but a lot of parents don't know—they don't know where to start, so it's good if they can have somebody to talk to.
One of the problems with parents going online is that their kids are not going online with books, they're not reading, for the most part, reading on Kindles and NOOKs. So if you have a family where the parents have gone online and they're not going into bookstores anymore then they're not buying books for the kids, and the kids are not reading online, so we have X number of families where the kids just have no place to go for books, so that's not a good thing. I mean to me that's the biggest problem we have, which is making sure that our kids are readers.
The biggest insight and thing that can be done is this—and it's complicated in terms of all the things in the program in Florida, but the big thing is: in schools from preschool up through fourth grade pretty much every teacher teaches reading, but a lot of them have not learned how to teach reading, some have but a lot of them haven't. So the key is teaching them—and they can do it on their computers, they can do it on their phones—teaching them how to teach reading better. A lot of schools might have a reading teacher there and that teacher will help the teachers better ways to teach reading, but it's not enough, it's not nearly enough. And what the University of Florida has found is they have ways to really help almost any teacher who wants to get better at it. I went to a meeting about 800 teachers and this had to do with one of these counties and getting them up to snuff, and when they arrived there they were all a little skeptical, but then after a day or a day and a half they went, "this really is helpful." And when I said to them I said, "This is not about 'gotcha', we're not here to make you look silly, we're not here to criticize, we're not here to test you, this is about helping you. This is about helping you be even better than you are as a teacher. Help your kids to learn even the better. Because obviously 43 percent is not working the way you want it to work," or Massachusetts, it's 62 percent that's not great. That's not good. I don't know what it is in New York. New York is below 62 percentile though.

  • Teaching kids to read is one of the most powerful things adults can do.
  • Loving reading can be a literal lifesaver.
  • What can books do? Shrink the prison population and grow the economy.