I was at a friend's house the other day when she mentioned that her 8-year-old son, whom I'll call Mark, doesn't like to read very much. She has him on a summer reading schedule of 20 minutes a day, but he fights her constantly.
"What's he reading?" I asked. She brought out the latest book to show me. I also interrogated her son, who clearly suspected that if he admitted to liking any kind of book at all, he would be forced to read more. After further pestering, he begrudgingly acknowledged a fondness for action and sci-fi.
I took a closer look at the book. It was contemporary realism about a kid who tries to build a spaceship out of cardboard boxes. He then pretends to have adventures in it. There were also some family problems, but I got the picture. This was the wrong book for my friend's son.
After a little more conversation, I discovered that every week my friend took her two boys to the library and asked them to pick out one book each. As part of their vacation homework, they would have to write a book report at the end of the week. "Sometimes Mark likes to read, though," she explained. "He loved those Magic Tree House books. Maybe we could find another series."
The next time I came over, I brought an emergency bag of books designed to pique Mark's interests, along with some suggestions for his younger brother Adam, who's currently reading Frog and Toad. My bag contained the following: the four Horrid Henry books by Francesca Simon that I recently reviewed; all six On the Run books by Gordon Korman; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl; The Heroic Adventures of Hercules Amsterdam by Melissa Glenn Haber; Dial-a-Ghost by Eva Ibbotsen; and Mister Monday by Garth Nix. (I suggested that this last book and its sequels should come after the others, as they're much denser reading.)
I also strongly recommended The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, although I couldn't find my own copy. It was actually my top pick for Mark.
Further prescriptions from Dr. Coombs? I explained, first to my friend and then to her wide-eyed sons, that when they go to the library they should each check out ten books for the week. Mark winced, so I hastily reassured him that he didn't have to read all ten. "It's so if one of them turns out to be a dud, you have other books to choose from."
I had already told my friend that when a book is boring you to tears, you shouldn't finish it. Whereupon she said that even she had been bored by this week's book, which she was helping her son get through, taking turns.
"Guess how many books I checked out at the library yesterday?" I asked the kids.
"A hundred?" Mark asked.
"Nope. I couldn't carry a hundred. I got 20. At my house I have 2,000." Or is it more?
The two boys looked at each other, suitably impressed.
"We only have 50," Mark informed me.
One thing I hear a lot from well-to-do suburban parents is that they have plenty of books at home. I remember doing a school visit at a private school a few years back and getting a sense of what was going on. After I made a big pitch for going to the library, some of the students' comments made me realize that their wealthy parents didn't ever take them to the library. Instead, they were proud of their supposedly extensive home libraries.
Sorry, but those libraries are just not good enough. They're a wonderful foundation, but the vision I want to instill in parents is that a kid should walk into a public library and feel the incredible power of owning hundreds of books, of having hundreds of choices.
When I was a kid, my mom took us to the library every week. Every week we checked out the maximum number of books we were allowed to get, which I think was in fact ten, and every week we finished those books in the first three or four days. My sister grew up to be an attorney, while I grew up to be a teacher and a writer. Those books weren't the only reason, but they were definitely a factor.
I should mention that I recommend having reading sessions designated by pages or chapters, not by time. That way kids can stop watching the clock and pay more attention to the story. This approach requires a certain amount of supervision and involvement, though. What I like to do is assign my students to read at least five pages. Then the next time I see them, I ask, "What happened in the book?" This question is meant to be gossipy, not teacherish. It's like asking a kid about a movie—they'll often retell the plot in gory detail. A corollary I've noticed is that kids who recount events in a book blithely for three days straight and then get stuck the fourth day have loudly broadcasted that they didn't do the reading. (I've also found out whether they were reading or simply retelling a movie that way, How to Eat Fried Worms being a recent example.)
"When you give Mark a book, tell him you want him to read a chapter a day, but he can read more if he feels like it. Be very casual about this," I told my friend.
While you're getting a kid hooked, you can take turns reading pages, of course. Depending on the child, I may explain to them that I'll get them started, and then they can read on their own.
When I bring books to students, I first find out their interests. If they can't name any books they like, I ask them what movies and TV shows they like, which gives me a pretty good idea. In broad terms, I've found that most kids prefer either sci-fi/fantasy and adventure, contemporary realism (family, school, and sports stories), or nonfiction. Then there are those kids who will read just about anything, given half the chance.
Some parents seem obsessed with having their precocious 6-year-olds read books intended for high schoolers because "my Johnny is reading at a 10th grade level." To which I say, "So?" Because Johnny is not emotionally ready for The Great Gatsby, and oh yeah, he'll probably hate it. Why should Johnny miss out on the great literature written for 6- to 9-year-olds just because he's "gifted"?
Now, my friend who is working on the great summer reading project is highly educated and is very supportive of her sons' academic progress. But she was not herself an avid childhood reader, so she doesn't happen to have a wide knowledge of children's literature. This is where a good children's librarian or the staff at a well-stocked independent bookstore specializing in children's books can be invaluable.
It's early days yet, but I suspect that with the reading list I've given Mark, he may yet be hooked on books. At the very least, reading won't feel so much like torture anymore. In addition, I recommended the Geronimo Stilton books for his little brother. Not because they're the best books of all time, but because they'll launch him into better books and they're just a lot of fun. I also suggested James Marshall's Fox books, which are well written.
Happily, potential readers are all around us. A few years ago, I worked with a tenth grade student who was very bright and articulate. He told me he read articles on the Internet, but he really didn't read books. I explained, "You were meant to be a reader. You're missing out." I brought him some books that didn't completely take, but he started catching on to the possibilities. His next teacher called to tell me that this boy had gone through a couple of assigned books and was now reading Machiavelli's The Prince on his own because he was interested in political theory.
Another time I was teaching a 12-year-old non-reader who informed me that there was no reason to read Harry Potter because he'd already seen the movie. I dialed it down to A Series of Unfortunate Events on the grounds that they were shorter. Pretty soon he'd read all ten of the Lemony Snicketts (then available) and was happily launching into Harry Potter. I remember his mom saying to me one day, mystified, "I don't understand it. I come into the living room, and he's sitting on the couch, reading a book. We go to the doctor's office, and he wants to bring his book."
"That's great!" I said. I waited till I got home to do a victory dance in my own living room.
It seems we are complacent in believing that the many college-educated parents in our society are successfully raising a generation of readers. It certainly isn't for lack of trying. But getting the right book into the hands of the right kid is not as easy as it looks. Of course, when it does happen, the results can be deep and rich and mind-altering.
Because there is simply nothing like a good book.
P.S. Thanks very much to Jen Robinson for mentioning this post on Booklights. More to the point, I recommend you visit Booklights, a site sponsored by PBS for parents, to get more insights into how to raise a reader. The current post is about summer reading, especially letting kids read for pleasure during the summer (as opposed to reading assigned books).