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How to Create Readers (And Read More Yourself)

photo by Erik Schepers on Flickr

A few weeks ago, my husband and I put the kids to bed early.  Both were overtired, and we gave them strict instructions:   Lights out, no talking, straight to sleep. Much later, when we went upstairs to check on them, we found tell-tale evidence they’d disobeyed.  Each kid had fallen asleep with a flashlight on and a fat book on the floor nearby.

“You must be so proud,” my husband said.

And it’s true, I kind of was.  I can’t tell you how often people hear that I’m a writer and feel compelled to share that they don’t really read, and neither do their kids.  Or tell me they wish their children read more.  Or tell me they are writing their first novel, but they don’t have time to read.

So here’s my list of tips on how to create readers from your own kids, your nieces and nephews, your neighbor’s children down the street.  Think of it as an investment in your work — somebody has to buy the book you are writing, right?  And along the way, you may find new ways to squeeze in additional reading time yourself — which can help you learn  more about pacing, voice, technique, and all the other aspects of great writing.

There’s power in numbers (or, embrace the clutter). As I write this, Donna Karan’s face is staring up at me from the kitchen table — I’m reading her autobiography as research for a novel idea I’m toying with.  There’s a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book on the center island  — one of my son’s go-to favorites whenever he finishes reading something new.  There’s a stack of magazines on the living room coffee table, and I’m honestly afraid to look under my daughter’s bed because the books there may be the only thing holding it up.  Sometimes when I’m being particularly sneaky and there’s a book I want them to read, I’ll leave it in the back of the car — they’ll read anything in an attempt to avoid the ‘How was your day?’ conversation!

The more books you have around, the more varied they are, the more likely it is someone will pick one up, even for a moment, and get hooked.  It may not make for the tidiest house, but it does create a well-read one.

Give books as gifts. When we had our first baby shower, we asked everyone to bring a children’s book.  Some were board books, which we kept in a basket in our daughter’s bedroom.   Mostly she gnawed on them, but at least she got used to the feel of a book in her hands.  Others we put away for safekeeping in a beautiful bookcase her godfather built for her.  Reading the inscriptions on those books, even now, connects reading with love for me.

But it’s not just babies who need books.  Be creative with your gift-giving.  Give your high school athlete a copy of Friday Night Lights for his birthday.  Find a manga comic book for your trendy niece.  Browse second-hand bookstores for affordable coffee table books filled with photos for your parents or grandparents.   Become known as that cool person who gives awesome books as gifts.

Restrict media.  For me, this is the biggest key to developing readers — and reading more myself.   When my kids were little, they were allowed to watch certain cartoons on the weekend, but we had a firm no-tv rule during the week.  And that meant it couldn’t go on for me, either — at least not until they were in bed and asleep!  We still stick to this rule now that our kids are in middle school.  On the weekend, we’ll binge watch favorite shows or movies, but Monday through Thursday, the television stays off.  My husband and I either DVR shows or watch them after the kids are in bed, which means many nights are television-free for us as well.  That may equal less time to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it means more time for reading.

Create a love for language, not just reading. Start a story and ask your kids to tell you what happens.  Make up stories about people you see at the grocery store or on walks.  Sound out words that sound funny or have funny meanings. Retell favorite stories that you grew up with, like The Wizard of Oz.

When my kids were both small, there was a period of time when I was too exhausted, mentally and physically, to write fiction, but I could retell stories that I remembered and make them my own, which led to my making up stories for them.  It pushed me to be creative and kept my brain working and imagining.  I believe that helped me when I finally did have time to write again.  And both my kids now love to write and tell stories themselves.

Don’t rush it.  Here’s a true tale:  Both my children attended the same play-based preschool, and both attended half-day kindergarten.  Both were at about the same level of reading proficiency when they entered first grade, which is to say, not much.  But there’s a three year-age difference between them.  When my first child wasn’t fluently reading by December, I casually asked the teacher if I should be concerned.  She reassured me that development-wise, she was right on track, and would be reading shortly.  She was right, and in a few months my daughter was plowing through Harry Potter.

When my second child entered first grade with the same educational experience and same reading level (none) it was three years later.  By mid-fall, he was meeting with a reading specialist to bring him up to school standards, and by December, he was reading.

We are lucky to live in a district that has reading specialists, and I’m grateful for all the wonderful and hard work they do.  At the same time, it shows to me how much the pressure is increasing on kids. 

I really believe reading is a magical experience.  It can take you to different worlds, help you experience different lives, teach you how to do everything from cook a casserole to remove an appendix.  It’s a crucial skill.  But it should also be fun, especially for children who are just learning.  If it’s too much like work, you can bet they won’t want to do it in their spare time, and to me, the reading my kids do on their own is the most important reading of all.

Studies have shown that earlier readers aren’t necessarily better readers, and that many students aren’t ready to read until age seven or so.  It’s hard to fight the bureaucracy that is the American school system, but we pretty much ignored timed reading requirements when my kids were little, or we counted the time we read to them instead.  We kept the focus on fun for as long as possible.

Look for libraries.   On vacations and trips, seek out local libraries.  Drive a town or two over and see what’s there.   It’s something we still do, even though my kids are big(ger) now.  We’ve discovered libraries that loan out everything from sculpture to games and found fabulous librarians who were happy to talk books and make recommendations. 

Let them read what they love (even if it isn’t what you enjoy).  In third grade, my daughter  discovered a series I hated.  And it was a big series.  She took a book home from that series every week for the entire year.  The school librarian would listen to me complain and just laugh, pointing out that half of the appeal was how much she knew I disliked it.

As my kids have grown older, I’ve had to navigate more serious restrictions besides just my taste.  Is the book too adult for them?  Is it too gory?  Are they emotionally ready for the content? 

Generally speaking, there’s no hard rule at our house about what they can’t read, and it is almost unheard of for us to declare a book out of bounds.  I’ve found that keeping an open mind leads to some very interesting discussions, and that in general, kids are pretty good at self-policing what they are comfortable with.    

Don’t forget audio books.  It’s a sneaky way to fit in more reading time.  Hearing how words sound, understanding the importance of inflection and pacing, learning how to tell a story, are all important skills.  Plus, sometimes it is just nice to be read to — even as an adult.

Set an example.  Seeing you carve out time to read is the most powerful influence of all. 

Make reading the forbidden fruit.  When all else fails, try sending them to bed and telling them to go right to sleep.  Just make sure to have a left a good book and a flashlight nearby.  No matter how old they are, it still works every time. 

Now it’s your turn.  How do you find time to read?  And what are your tips for creating avid readers — the fan base of tomorrow?

About Liz Michalski [2]

Liz Michalski's (she/her) first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.