The need to read

Favorite things
Fourteen-year-old Jenny Stice, an avid reader, holds up a couple of her favorite books at a summer reading event held at the Mall of America.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

At the Mall of America, teens could browse through tables of books hand-picked by their peers and talk to Minnesota authors like Julie Schumacher, winner of the 2007 Minnesota Book Award for Young Adult Literature.

The Metropolitan Library Service Agency, an alliance of more than 100 libraries in the seven-county metro area, has been pushing summer reading for teens for the last couple of years.

MELSA has nearly 100,000 children in its summer reading program for younger kids, but only a fraction of that number in the teen program. About 12,000 teenagers participated last year, and MELSA hopes to boost that number this year.

Author Julie Schumacher
Author Julie Schumacher talks to teens about her books at the Mall of America.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Librarian Jody Wurl, who works with teens at the Hennepin County Library, thinks many teenagers are overbooked with summer activities from sports to trips. But she's optimistic that many of them will make time for reading this summer.

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"I think that a lot of teens are just going to take this opportunity to read things they want to read, things that aren't assigned, and things that are just pure entertainment," Wurl said.

Wurl said there are academic benefits to leisure reading. "You keep practicing the skills that you'll need to use during the school year. Every book expands your vocabulary or contains some sort of information about a city or a place or a way of responding to a situation," said Wurl. "You're always learning when you read, even if it's considered a trash novel."

Research from the federal education department found that students who read for fun do better on reading tests than students who do not. At the Hennepin County Library, Wurl asks teens to review books and write up summer reading lists for the library's Web site.

One of the teen volunteers is 14-year-old Jenny Stice of Maple Grove, who reads about one book a week, from fantasy novels to whatever her friends are talking about. Stice has dyslexia, and said the more she reads, the easier it gets.

Librarians Jody Wurl and Alicia Anderson recommend some summer reading to teens at the Mall of America.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"Reading was always really hard, and just understanding some of that stuff," Stice said. "But now that I've read so much, I don't have as many problems with it as I did before."

While Stice and her friends love to read and talk about books, research shows they're not the norm. The U.S. Department of Labor's time use survey found that 15-to-24-year-olds average less than 10 minutes a day reading. They watch TV for 2.5 hours a day, and play computer games for 40 minutes a day.

The research director for the National Endowment for the Arts, Sunil Iyengar, recently wrote an article about the benefits of teen leisure reading for the publication Education Week.

"I think we all realize that these other forms of entertainment so to speak are crowding out, or potentially crowding out, reading time, and they certainly seem to be doing that when you look at time-use studies," Iyengar said. "That's why we're really cautious in trying to encourage people to not shut the door on reading as they are aware of other entertainment options that come their way as well. So kids, to realize, hey, it might be worth dropping my Game-Boy for a few seconds to pick up this book."

The National Endowment for the Arts published a 2004 report called "Reading at Risk". It concluded that literary reading is rapidly declining in the U.S., particularly among young adults. To reverse that trend, the NEA has launched a program called "The Big Read", which promotes reading programs in communities.

Two Minnesota communities participated in The Big Read this spring. In Fergus Falls, citizens read and discussed "My Antonia", and in Grand Rapids, the featured book was "Fahrenheit 451".