I was lying in bed reading a book one night, when my oldest son came in.
“Dad, I can’t sleep. Can I read in here for a while?”
The answer wasn’t even out of my mouth before he dashed out of the room to fetch the book he had just started reading; the first book of The Spiderwick Chronicles series. He returned to my room, and I set up a pillow for him to lean on. After he had adjusted himself into a comfortable position, we made some small talk about the books we were reading – prompted by his stealing glances at me reading. And I, in turn, stealing glances at him reading.
“Dad – You read books, and mom is Catholic.”
I sat back and looked at my son. “What?” He clarified, “You read a lot of books, and mom is Catholic.”
As funny as it may be; the kid was on to something. When my son made this declaration, I had been pondering how to get him to be more interested in books. Not that he’s uninterested in books. He is. We just hadn’t found the books he was really interested in; books he had a magnetic attraction to.
Last summer, he and his brother discovered Star Wars, and like most little boys; they became completely brain-damaged by it. Every word spoken was about Star Wars. Every synapse that fired sounded like a laser bolt inside their little melons. So – what do I do? I pick up every Star Wars book I can find – Star Wars novellas for young readers, character encyclopedias, spacecraft manuals. I even bought them a Star Wars cookbook (I’m not kidding. It’s called Wookie Cookie. The Boba Fettuccine isn’t bad). The problem was, as much as he enjoyed the books; I got the feeling he just wasn’t crazy about the Star Wars novellas like he was about pretending to be in a galaxy far, far away.
When he was younger, I used to pick up the heavily discounted encyclopedias from the front of the bookstores. I bought books on snakes, primates, helicopters, dinosaurs, sharks; anything I thought they’d be interested in. I would leave the books around the house for him and his little brother to pick up. The goal wasn’t to have them read the books; neither of them could read at this point. I wanted them to get used to books; to become comfortable with them. I would also rent documentaries on dinosaurs or sharks, whatever they wanted to watch- we then would look up in the books the animals we had seen. We watched a dinosaur documentary every Sunday night, and we would place post-it notes on the pages of the dinosaurs we saw in the documentary. I then read the pages to them for their bedtime story. This went on for a year or two. We went through a spider phase, shark phase, and venomous snake phase. It worked out for me because, let’s face it, you can only read Goodnight Moon so many times before you want to hurt someone.
But that didn’t matter as much to my children as what I was doing.
I think I have a healthy appetite for books. Going back through my Goodreads.com and Amazon.com accounts; I estimate that I read a book every seven to ten days; approximately 45-50 books a year (not including the books I read to my children or work). I don’t know if that qualifies as a voracious reader. We’ll just say I like books.
What my son had cued in on was not the books I was gently introducing him to, but the family attribute of being readers. It was interesting to me he likened being a reader to being Catholic. It was a way for him to categorize the family based on a strong, identifiable trait.
Similarly, my five-year old told me this weekend that he and his brother don’t believe in God when they are with me, and they do believe in God when they are with their mother (Which was never my intention with them. I always told them to pick the path that was right for them). He tells me this as he poses his Star Wars action figures on my large, wooden statue of Buddha. I can only assume he is referring to the one-true-god who looks like Barry Gibb, and not any of those weird, foreign gods. But he’s only five years old, so I couldn’t really argue with him. I did tell him to get his gun-toting Star Wars bounty hunters off Buddha or he’ll release the flatulence of a thousand vegetarian curries under his covers as he’s falling asleep. To which he replied, “Cool!”, and quizzed me on exactly how bad that would smell.
My ex-wife, the Catholic, isn’t a prolific reader. So it’s only a matter of time before they think atheists are readers, and Catholics – not so much. I could head them off and correct them before they make the connection, but why spoil the fun?
On March 27th, USA Today ran an informational snapshot which stated 18% of 4th grade boys felt they did not have enough time to read, while 10% of 4th grade girls felt similarly. In comparison, 40% of 8th grade boys and 24% of 8th grade girls felt they didn’t have time to read.
Without getting into the disturbing gender disparity (I mean, 76% of 8th grade girls have the time to read and kiss their Justin Beiber posters!), our children are not reading or getting enough time to read. The really sad news is, the children are reading more than many adult Americans. An MSNBC poll showed 27% of adult Americans had not read a book in a year. In 2004, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found only 57% of American adults had read a book that year. Of those 57%, the median number of books read per year was 9 books for the women, and five books for the men (Come on, guys! Why so low? You can read more than five books a year if you only read while sitting on the toilet!). I am willing to bet the children who aren’t reading are raised in households where the adults also do not read.
When I was in the Navy, I had the benefit of having some very good leaders, as well as some atrocious ones- and I learned from both. One of the good ones taught me that any failure on my crew was ultimately my fault (and subsequently his fault, etc.), because we had not identified the weak link and given that person the necessary training they needed to do their job. The goal was never to punish the person for not meeting the standard, but to give them additional attention. I also had a boss who we could not beat in our qualification tests. For years, I struggled and studied to beat him in one of those tests. His ability to stay just out of our reach was indicative of his lead-by-example style of leadership. He was far senior to us and it wouldn’t really matter if we scored higher than him on a qualification test, but he did it because it motivated us. Years later, after he retired, he told me how hard he had to work to stay ahead of us. I can say I eventually did score higher than him on an exam; I beat him by two points. I had studied for months for an upcoming exam. Then the night before we were to be tested, I got him drunk and sent a hooker to his room at 3 in the morning- which is something I learned from those bad bosses I mentioned earlier.
I think we can take the same attitude with children reading (Maybe skip the hookers, but if that’s what it takes to motivate them. Right?). We can lead by example and be their role models for reading. We can blame the internet and texting, but ultimately the failure falls on us. I have zero evidence to support this rant, but it would seem that if we want to raise readers, then we need to be readers ourselves. It’s like when people say to not go on a diet, but make a lifestyle change. Make reading one of your traits; a part of your personality.
We also need to provide better examples of readers in books, television, and movies. The people with books in any movie or television show are either rich, white people who have expansive libraries nobody believes they read; liberal, white people who have books stacked around their loft as part of their decor; or the crazy, mad scientist. Not exactly the typical American family.
In books, there are only two characters holding the book pennant up for our children: Klaus Baudelair of the Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events series, and Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. Both are avid readers fueled by a thirst for knowledge. For both characters, the ability to apply the knowledge gained from books is their super power. However, neither character seems to read for the simple joy of reading.
I believe movies can also play a role in raising readers. I recently let my kids see the first Harry Potter movie to get them interested in reading the books. We then began reading the series after their approval of the movie – and by “We”, I mean “I” am reading the books to them. My oldest can read the Harry Potter books, but he can’t read it smoothly as a storyteller. His little brother also wants to hear the stories, so I do the reading.
The annoying thing about reading the book after seeing the movie was they knew what was going to happen. For the second installment of the series, I read the book to them and then rented the movie. The book-then-movie path seems to work better for us. The movie becomes a sort of reward for finishing the book, and it seems to make them look forward to the next book.
I decided to continue with the trend of renting movies based on children’s books series as an introduction to new series. I rented Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as The Spiderwick Chronicles. Along with the movies, I picked up the first couple of each series to read if he was interested.
I presented the boys the first two books of The Spiderwick Chronicles, along with two supplemental stories to the second book. I picked up the books at a used bookstore for roughly $.75 each, so even if they don’t like the books, I’m only out a couple of dollars.
An interesting thing happened with The Spiderwick Chronicles series. My oldest began reading the first book on a Thursday night. When my alarm went off the next morning, he hopped into my bed and stated he read the entire book. Saturday morning, the same thing happened; he had read the second book in the series. After his baseball game on Saturday, he hopped on the couch and began reading the supplemental stories. By the end of the weekend, he had read all four of the books; roughly 300 pages total. He then took off reading The Lemony Snicket series.
I don’t know what it was about The Spiderwick Chronicles series that captured his attention. He didn’t pretend to be in the story or reenact a scene; all of the cues I had been using to pick books I thought he would be interested in. It seemed he just needed to be introduced to enough books to find the ones that he liked.
Although I am no expert on the matter, I do have a few pieces of advice for raising readers:
- Treat books as regular entertainment for children. Too many children just get books as gifts. Make it a rule that your children can come and ask for a new book just like they do school supplies.
- You don’t have to buy children books to get them to read. I pick up comic books for my kids whenever I’m grocery shopping. Reading is reading.
- Ignore the reading levels printed on the cover of some children’s books. When I was first began introducing books to my son, there was a book he really like. However, the book was emblazoned with a large number 3 on the cover, indicating it was a Reading Level 3 book. Some well-meaning, but moronic adult had told my son he should be reading Level 1 books. I had to promise him I’d help him with any difficult words in the Level 3 book if he would read it. After that, I have purposely shied away from books with the reading levels printed on the cover. I have used the reading levels as positive reinforcement. The Scholastic website has reading levels for several children’s books. After he read The Spiderwick Chronicles books, I showed him how he, who is in 2nd grade, was reading at a 3rd-4th grade reading level.
- Give them books to look forward to. I set aside a stack of books for the boys to read when they are ready. The stack includes non-traditional books- Peter Benchely’s Jaws, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend; as well as the traditional- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. It’s just a stack of books that will knock their socks off when they are old enough to read them.
- You don’t need to spend a fortune on books. I picked up many of the books at used bookstores. I have bought grocery bags full of children’s books for under $20.
- Stop caring what they read. My kids could read The Satanic Bible and I wouldn’t care. We need to stop pushing the books on them. You can – and should – introduce books to them, but you can’t force them to read a book you picked if they aren’t interested.
For more information on raising readers, check out these links:
Unfortunately, as fitting as he would be to this blog; I would like to call for a moment of silence in the wild rumpus to mourn Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are is, and forever will be, the coolest children’s book. To this day, when someone get’s in my way when I am in the mood to make mischief of one kind or another, I still threaten to eat them up.
Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity, which should not be read by children.