Motivating Young Readers: An Interview with Famed Children's Book Author Joseph Bruchac

By vonzastrowc

BruchacPictureWeb.jpgIn honor of NEA's Read Across America, I'm posting an exclusive interview with celebrated children's book author Joseph Bruchac, who for over 30 years has captivated millions of young readers with his more than 70 books.  His writing often draws inspiration from his Abenaki Indian heritage and offers a strong corrective to what Bruchac sees as widespread and damaging stereotypes about American Indians.

Bruchac spoke with me about strategies for motivating children to read.  He offered ideas for helping struggling readers, resources parents and teachers can use to combat stereotypes in children's literature, thoughts on the promise and perils of the internet, observations the shortcomings of standardized assessments, and a preview of his forthcoming books.

Read through a transcript of interview highlights below.  Click here for the full 23-minute version.

Or choose specific segments of the interview from the following list:

Why Bruchac Started Writing for Children (2:23)

Motivating Children to Read (1:21)

The Effect of Persistent Stereotypes of American Indians on Young children (3:53)

Combating those Stereotypes through Literature and Education (3:03)

Reaching Struggling Readers (3:26)

Turning Children into Writers (3:27)

Upcoming Books by Joseph Bruchac: An American Indian in the Civil War, and Experiences in Medieval Slovakia (3:05)

Closing Thoughts: Supporting Educators (1:10)


Highlights Transcript

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Many people now are concerned that even with such good writing out there for young kids, fewer and fewer young people are actually reading for pleasure.  Do you see this as true?

BRUCHAC:  I think there are a lot of things that take the attention of young people away from reading.  The dominance of electronic media, for example.  But I think there will always be a place for reading and I think that it's just finding the right books to introduce at the right time.

And personally, I have found that a number of the books I've written have been good for reluctant readers.  Books like, for example, "Skeleton," or my novel "Code Talker."  Books that have an exciting story but also have something of a lesson to them as well.  You know, in traditional storytelling we believe that a good story is both interesting and useful. 

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  As I'm sure you're aware, a lot of people in the education community are very worried that our most vulnerable children - that's often poor children and children of color - are more likely than their peers to struggle as readers.  I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how we should try to support and motivate those children.

BRUCHAC:  I think that there are two problems at work there.  One is access in their schools.  There is that, then the other thing is that often the families themselves do not have the resources.  And I don't mean it's because the families are neglectful, but you have...even where there are two-parent families, both parents are working.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  I wanted to shift gears just a little bit and ask you about what you think of current depictions of native peoples in children's literature.

BRUCHAC:  I think that we are facing some of the same problems we've been facing for the last few hundred years - that stereotypes of American Indians that existed in the time of Fenimore Cooper still keep turning up.  I find it a kind of cultural blindness that exists towards American Indian cultures on the part of the majority culture.  And it is evident, still, within children's literature.

I find myself still going into schools and having to help kids unlearn the stereotypes that are still being presented to them in books and in classrooms, and I find it important in my writing to try to present images of native children that are both accurate and positive.  I don't mean going so far in the other direction that I exaggerate the positive.  I intend to be realistic.  But on the other hand, I want people to recognize human beings as human beings first, whatever their background may be.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  How do you think we could encourage more young people, especially young people who have been disadvantaged, to become writers?

BRUCHAC:  I find that when I go and I do a workshop with kids for writing, they get terribly excited.  They become invested in it.

I was doing poetry in the schools 30 years ago, and I would go into classrooms - 30 years ago - of kids who were described as the "slow learners."  And by the time I'd finished a week with these kids, they were turning out poetry that was really intelligent, really good.  I'd sometimes come back to these schools a year later and find the kids in the "dummy group" were now regarded as excellent students and they continued to write.

Writing is a terribly exciting thing.  When you create something of your own and you see other people respond to it, it really builds your self-confidence and encourages you to go further.

And it's true, simpleminded as this may sound, the more you write, the better you get at writing.  The more you read, the better you get at reading.  The more you read and write, the more success you will have in both areas.  And it then cuts across the entire curriculum.