I was born a book lover. From the time I was little, I loved words, pictures and anything to do with the pages between two covers. I spent countless hours in my bedroom, on road trips, under a tree, sitting on our porch, lost in the latest book obsession.
"You're missing all the scenery!" my mom would say as we passed through another picturesque town, and I finished yet another book meant to be read on vacation.
And then my sons were born and I realised that the love of reading is not innate — it often needs to be cultivated. So how do we teach our children, particularly those who don't naturally take to books, to love the written word?
For starters, stop pushing so hard, said Heidi Powell, manager of the children's department at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington. Just because a child can read the words in a chapter book doesn't mean it's time to enforce chapter-book reading. "We like keeping people in picture books," she said. "Don't raise them to read chapter books at age five. This is not a race." If they are pushed too hard, they may baulk or they may not fully understand what they are reading, and they may never find pleasure in the written word.
"You want them to be emotionally ready," added Mary Alice Garber, the store's children's book buyer. For example, she said, lots of kids want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid because their older siblings did, but that book "introduces them to the language of middle school. Even the most precocious readers should stick to books for their age range," she said. (She suggests Timmy Failure, for 8- to 9-year-olds, as an alternative.)
When you walk into the library or bookstore, where should you guide your child? That was a trick question: You should let the child be the guide. Let them read what they love, and they will love what they read.
"Let them know you're a reader," says Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association. "They like the shared joy in reading, when adults share their reading pleasure." There's obviously no reason to tell your six-year-old about the plot twists of The Engagements. But you can start a conversation about why the book is so hard to put down as he sits on the couch next to you, his own book in hand.
For older readers, middle school can be an important turning point, and a time when some encouragement can help move a child from being a reluctant reader to being a voracious one. That's when the classics — To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre — come in.
"There are so many great books out there for middle school kids," said Kathy Williams, former English teacher, now a reading specialist for seventh and eighth grades in Burke, Virginia. "You just have to find the right book for the right kid."
Even when they're in middle school, it's important to read alongside your kids, said Christine Riggen, a former eighth-grade English teacher. "If they can see you as a reader in authentic ways, like picking up the paper . . . the next biggest thing is talking about what you're reading."
So I'll just leave The Secret Garden on the shelf in case my boys want to give it a try, but I know they'll probably be more apt to go for The Chronicles of Narnia. And if it's simply sports biographies they want, I'll be fine with that. Really.