The first book in the Cirque Du Freak series starts in a toilet and ends in a graveyard. If you're a pre-adolescent boy, that's great stuff.
It's so great that 60 or so Hammond Middle School boys could hardly contain their glee when the author of the series was introduced at a special lunch yesterday in their school library in Alexandria.
The lunch was for members of Club BILI (Boys in Literacy Initiative), an all-male after-school book club that began at Hammond three years ago to help close the literacy achievement gap between boys and girls. The club focuses on books that appeal specifically to boys and includes read-aloud sessions, visits to elementary schools to promote reading and trips to see movies based on the books they read.
The reading gap is not new. On average, boys score seven to 11 points lower than girls on standardized reading comprehension tests, and the discrepancy is not limited to the United States -- a study by the University of York in Britain found it exists in 22 countries. Scientists say boys are born with biological differences that make them read later than girls, though they eventually catch up. Boys also have a harder time sitting still for long periods, studies show.
Prevailing attitudes toward reading don't help. "Society has created an aura about reading that it's a girl thing and it doesn't fit into adolescents' persona," said Jodie Peters, a reading peer coach at the school who co-founded Club BILI after coming upon a book about the gap called Reading Don't Fix No Chevys. "We want to fight that," she said.
Often, traditional classroom literature doesn't intrigue boys, Peters said. The club, which is funded by a grant from AOL and private donations, focuses on books that fire the imaginations of middle school boys. That means fewer plucky female protagonists and more potty humor and monsters.
Picking up the microphone at Hammond, Darren Shan, the 33-year-old author of the Cirque Du Freak books, knew what buttons to push. His upcoming series about demons, Demonata, starts with a bloody climax. "Chapter Two," he told the boys, "is probably the most gruesome thing I've ever heard of."
Listening to the Irish author, who was wearing a black hooded sweat shirt and looked rather boyish himself, the club members were wide-eyed. They interjected occasional one-word comments -- "Yesssss!" when Shan promised that there would be 12 books in the Cirque Du Freak series, and "Daaang!" when he said the last one wouldn't be out in the United States until the end of next year. Some boys had already devoured seven or eight of the pocketbook-size vampire adventure volumes and didn't want to wait.
It's not that boys don't read at all, said Rob Murphy, a burly sixth-grade teacher who is the club's other founder. "They're reading tons of stuff -- comics, video game manuals." But too often, he said, "the boys really hated the books that we were making them read in classrooms. There were a lot of female protagonists, and it was hard for them to make the connection with some of the plotlines."
Boy-friendly literature featured in the club has included the Lemony Snicket "Series of Unfortunate Events" books and copies of Sports Illustrated. "It validates what they feel comfortable reading," said Murphy, who, like other teachers and some club members, wore a T-shirt that read, "Real Men Read." "That was the point of it."
Several of the boys eating Subway sandwiches in the library yesterday said they had learned about the club through word of mouth; some said they had persuaded their friends to join.
"Write that I'm the biggest Darren Shan fan," said Mike Walker, 12, who discovered Cirque Du Freak in the library. "I picked it up and I couldn't stop reading."
Others discovered it only a couple of weeks ago, at the club, but have since immersed themselves in the stories of a regular teenage boy whom circumstances force into becoming a half-vampire.
In a question-and-answer session with Shan, some technical questions about vampires came up, such as what is a vampire-general (it is someone who has command over ordinary vampires but is lower in the hierarchy than a vampire-prince.)
Some students wanted to know whether Shan was in fact the series' main character, who is also named Darren Shan. "Are you really a vampire?" one boy asked. After a weighty pause, Shan said no.
Seventh-grader Brandon White, 12, asked a couple of questions about the books' characters. Then he asked one thing more. "Can I have a hug?" he said. "I love you."
Shan gave him a bear hug, then, in his best tough-guy voice, growled, "Get outta here."
Back at his table, Brandon and his friends discussed the merits of Shan's work.
Most books at school, they said, are for girls. But Cirque Du Freak is so good, said Brandon, that "you, like, kind of read it really fast."
"It's, like, blood and gore and snakes and spiders," Chris Platt, 12, explained, adding, "when I sit down to read I'm only supposed to read for 30 minutes, but I sit down at home [with Cirque Du Freak] and then when I look at the clock it's been two hours."