As a dad of a 3-year-old whirlwind, I find myself already asking the question facing most parents: how can I make my child read more and spend less time in front of a screen?
As an author of children books and teen-friendly fantasy books, I also ask myself this question’s flipside: how can-I make my books appealing to them?
In the immortal words of Gonzo the Great, if at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again. In my case, after many trials, failures, and retrials, I have come to two main conclusions:
First, every child is different; second, every age has different triggers, needs, and sensibilities.
Which means that encouraging children, teens, and young adults to read, is an ongoing mission rather than a one-off thing. It also means that for every age, your weapons, allies, and book-loving super powers are different.
How to make toddlers love books
It is a paradox, yet not a secret: for many children, the love for books emerges at an age when they cannot read for themselves. Encouraging a toddler to love books needs lots of energy on your part, so it is important to also encourage yourself! Here are a few tips that have worked for my family:
- Take them to the library or bookstore. It can be scary sometimes, as it is more than certain that toddlers will be more fascinated by the library stool and will want to climb on it rather than looking at books with you. Allow that within reasonable limits—after all it is not a bad thing for your toddler to think of the bookstore or the library as an exciting place. Then move on to the books.
- Let them select some of the books. You will probably choose most of the books at that age, according to what messages you would like to pass to your little ones. However, let them also make their own choices. Sometimes, the result may surprise you. It could be that your toddler will be interested at a coffee-table book on tractors, farming, insects etc. Coffee table books are not “age appropriate” by any publisher standards, but so what? If it doesn’t break the bank for you and you find it interesting, take the chance. Your toddler will be proud to own a grown-up book, plus this one book will be an opportunity for both of you to learn something new together (it is possible that you know absolutely nothing on tractors until your 3 year old chooses a coffee-table book on the green and yellow John Deere monsters).
- Read the book but do not read the book. Read to your toddler every day, as you are her anchor to books and her facilitator to reading them. That does not mean you are obliged to actually READ the book, especially if you are tired of the same rhymes bedtime after bedtime. Look at the text as an actor. Make different voices for every animal, skip boring pages, improvise dialogues, find all the ducks on the page rather than repeating the mama-duck story once more. Make the book yours and enjoy it.
- Don’t be scared of repetition. At this age, children are not bored by repetition. On the contrary, it is key to their development. Specialists say that a child gains much confidence and satisfaction from being able to “predict” what happens next, while a new book at bedtime could prove stressing. However, if you are bored, try introducing new elements to your reading every few days. When the main story has sunk in, start looking at the pictures with your toddler. Then let them complete the rhymes. Keep exploring the book, until your sweet one is ready to move on to a new fixation.
- Make it a sweet moment. During the toddler years, it is more likely that the parent rather than the child will drop reading as a daily activity and let the love for books deteriorate. Because, let’s face it, we get tired during the day; too tired to impersonate the big good wolf once more. So we need to remember that there are actually very few moments of calm that we enjoy with our toddlers during our demanding schedules and busy days. Dim the lights, get under the comforter, inhale the sweet smell of their silky hair, and start reading.
How to Encourage your Young Reader
So they know how to read now. Why don’t they read? Why do you still need to read to them, or need to force them onto the couch with a book (which they love when you read it to them but hate when they are supposed to read it on themselves)?
I came across a startling statistic the other day:
- Every child wants to read when they begin school. Enthusiasm is 100%.
- By fourth grade, only 54% read something for pleasure every day.
- By eighth grade, only 30% read for pleasure.
- By twelfth grade, that number has dropped to 19%.
I suspect that, with school, children start looking at books as some kind of extension of homework, therefore as non-fun. Our expectation that they can read alone makes it an activity that, instead of being fun, is subject to assessment. “I don’t read well enough.” “I don’t understand the words.” “It is too long and I am tired.”
So, how can we to help them sustain their “fun” relationship with books?
- Keep reading to them. Listening to a narrator seems to be a very primal instinct. In my opinion, the success of audiobooks shows that even adults love to listen to someone reading to us. So keep reading. There is no age for stopping reading to our children. As they grow up, maybe we can take turns and ask them to read a favorite story to us from time to time. Also, by taking the “toddler” routine to the next level, we sustain a habit that they love not only because they love stories, but because they also love the privileged moment with us. If, on the other hand, reading alone becomes the reason to lose that favorite moment with us, it is possible that they will resent reading alone. So keep making those voices!
- Definitely let them choose their books, or most of them. If your daughter can choose cereals and outfits, she can definitely choose her books. Children at this age learn to make responsible choices and gain autonomy. Use your parental control only when it’s really worth it (more on that on teens…).
- Books make good gifts. Birthdays, Christmas, important milestones; all these are good occasions to gift them a book. Some children will love books at this age and consider them a great gift on their own. Others, not so much. In this case, offer a book ON TOP of the rest, rather than making it an alternative to other gifts. Books are fun—not the reason to miss a long-awaited present. Sooner or later, when they get tired of the toy, your kids will turn their attention to the book.
- Participate in reading activities. Is the teacher asking for contributions to the class library or for volunteer librarians? Is an author your child loves signing books in the neighborhood? Is there a book fair in your town? Go for it. Let your children feel that books are a fun part of their social life.
- Read books yourself. Although I know many bookworm parents whose children are never seen to read on their own (much to their despair), setting an example is important. It may remain dormant for some time, but the seed is planted.
Teens and Books
Ah, how the terrible twos and the horrible threes look quite lovely right now, don’t they? Or at least that’s what seasoned parents tell me. This is the age we battle with our children more than we would ever imagine. We need to pick our battles, and books might not be one of the battles we should fight. Try some subtle techniques instead of fighting:
- Keep setting a silent example. Remember that even if your teen is going through an age of negating their parents, they still model many of their behaviors on you. Therefore, the most important thing you can do is to read yourself. Let your teen see you read, make time for the library and bookstore, and have well-stocked bookshelves in a prominent place at home.
- Be nonchalant about their reading preferences, unless they read something that really crosses the line. Avoid both complimenting and criticizing your teen on the books they choose, as at this age they may not appreciate the attention. You may not understand the appeal of dragons, comic books, or vampires, but if you try to steer their preferences to yours, you will most probably stifle their enthusiasm. Likewise, if you “catch” your daughter reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ instead of “50 Shades of Gray,” don’t compliment her choice: teens try to differentiate from you at that age, so you risk making a worthy book look “old world” to their eyes by condoning it.
- Discuss it if they cross the line: So, your teen did bring “50 Shades of Gray” to read. What to do then? First, we can make our objections clear and discuss them openly. In some cases, bad books can be a clue that something needs our attention, so it would not be wise to ignore this. Maybe your teen is growing up faster than you think. Maybe she has questions that she tries to find answers in books rather than asking you. Go on and ask the questions. Try finding an alternative to the “bad book.” If the emotional need for romance is strong in a teen, there are plenty of YA best-selling romances for them to read rather than adult erotica.
- Respect their reading moments. When you see them read, just leave them alone. Reading is a place for finding yourself and an important moment of the day, rather than an indication that your teen has some free time to help you with the chores.
- Develop the skill of planting books and letting them grow. If your teen only shows minimal interest in books but are hooked on Game of Thrones, “plant” ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ on the coffee table, next to the bathroom sink (hello, captive audience!), on the garden table, in the car backseat. Make graphic books, beautiful coffee table books, and interesting magazines part of your décor. Lure your teen with interesting adult books: science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, funny books, sports books… Again, subtlety is key: instead of openly suggesting the book, just let it be on common sight. Let them watch you flick through them. You can bet it will end up in their hands at some point. Just let the envy grow.
- Give them missions that involve reading (but don’t tell them that): Let your teen see how reading relates to life’s everyday activities. Let them prepare for a trip by reading a guide or even fiction about your destination. Take the time to visit a bookstore during the holidays and choose a book to bring back from the holidays. Find books related to your family history. Offer them books related to some sports activity they love. Select together a cooking book and prepare some of the recipes with them.
An Act of Freedom
More than everything, I think that it is important to teach our children from a young age that reading is a pleasure, not a chore. We need to remind them that, contrary to popular belief, they have the right to read the end of the book before the beginning if they wish, to let a book half-read if they don’t like it, to read many books at the same time, to read the same book or chapter again and again, to fixate on a genre, to stop liking an author or a genre they used to adore, to read only a few select chapters, and even to judge a book from its cover alone.
Reading should be an act of freedom. Treat it like one and enjoy the wonderful sight of your beautiful child reading their favorite book!
Nicholas Rossis lives to write and does so from his cottage on the edge of a magical forest in Athens, Greece. When not composing epic fantasies or short sci-fi stories, he chats with fans and colleagues, writes blog posts, walks his dog, and enjoys the antics of two silly cats and his baby daughter, all of whom claim his lap as home.
His first children’s book, Runaway Smile, won the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award, among other distinctions. You can check it out for free on his blog. You can check out his second children’s book, Musiville, on his blog. He has also written the epic fantasy series, Pearseus. Many of his short stories have appeared in various collections and anthologies. He has published The Power of Six, Honest Fibs, You’re in for a Ride and Infinite Waters, which was voted as one of the best 50 Indie books of 2015.
You can discover more about Nicholas on the Mom’s Favorite Reads website here: