There's an interesting, if not exactly upbeat, article by Jim Milliot in today's Publisher's Weekly Children's Bookshelf. Scholastic recently sponsored the Kids and Family Reading Report, a national survey of children ages 5-17. The study found that the percentage of high frequency readers (kids who read every day) drops from 44% for 5 to 8 year olds to 29% for 9 to 11 year olds. The numbers keep falling as kids get older (down to 16% for 15 to 17 year olds). The study cites a lack of parental role models as a major factor in the decline in reading.
The study makes some interesting points about where kids get their ideas of what to read. High frequency readers get their ideas from librarians (#1) and parents (#2), while low frequency readers get their ideas from teachers (#1) and friends (#2). This matters because "the number one reason kids reported that they don’t read more is because they can’t find books they like to read."
I think that there are positive feedback cycles going on here for the kids who do like to read. For example, kids who read a lot spend time in libraries, and are comfortable asking librarians for help. The librarians suggest great books to them (because that's what librarians do), and then the kids love reading even more, and end up spend more time in libraries. And so on. When kids get many of their reading suggestions from their parents, this means that their parents actively support reading as important. These parents are doing research about good books, visiting the library themselves, and in some cases reading the books themselves. It's not surprising that the kids end up reading more. Which in turn validates what the parents are doing, and perhaps makes them more likely to keep it up.
It seems to me that the kids who get most of their book suggestions from teachers and friends may not be getting such individualized recommendations. Maybe the teacher reads from or mentions a particular book to the whole class. Maybe a friend who has very different tastes happens to mention a book that he or she is reading. Those are both very different things from having a librarian who can say "based on the fact that you liked this book, try this one", or having the individual attention of a parent. That's not to dismiss the recommendations of teachers and friends - they're important, too. But teachers are focused on lots of other things, in addition to books. And kids may not have the resources to make detailed, individualized recommendations for their friends. It's hard enough for them to find good books for themselves.
The positive thing about all of this, I think, is that it validates the importance of finding and reviewing great children's books, and getting those recommendations out there where parents and kids, and librarians and teachers, can find them.
One final point: the Children's Bookshelf article says that "(t)he study did not report a wide disparity between girls and boys on the topic of whether they like to read or not." However, the difference appeared significant to me. For example, 26% of boys read for fun every day, while 36% of girls do. The difference isn't surprising, but to me it suggests that authors and publishers should continue their efforts to publish more boy-friendly/reluctant reader sorts of books.