Friday, October 2, 2020

Curating Books for Resistants Reader: How to Connect Your Kids with Lit They'll Love


It's pretty surprising how many times I've had parents tell me, "My kid hates to read. I can't get her/him to read anything. I've tried everything, but nothing works." In addition to Writing Belle Publishing and the 27 novels that I've published over the past years, many of you know that I have also worked part-time as a creative writing instructor. While I have taught a fair amount of basic grammar and English classes, as well, creative writing is my favorite subject to teach (for obvious's just way more fun and applicable to real-world situations!). As a creative writing teacher, I would sometimes be hired to teach a whole classroom of students or just work one-on-one with a student to help them develop their written skills as well as their reading comprehension skills (they go hand in hand!). The years that I have spent doing this cultivated a love of teaching within me, but it's also taught me so much about writing. I have found that children often have the freshest, most diverse way of looking at stories and themes and ideas. They are sharp, observant, and brutally honest. Yet a lot of parents struggle with getting their kids interested in reading. A huge reason for that is because of the siren song that beckons us to doodle our free time away on iPads, tablets, computers, and gaming consoles. The 21st century is a new frontier. Even when I was a kid in the 90s, the most advanced gaming technology I had in my house was a 1989 Gameboy (with a rumble pack, guys!) and then, in 1998, a Nintendo 64. We didn't have smart phones or tablets or online gaming. Whether or not you agree, I firmly believe that we were way better off without the allure of the Internet, despite its many positive accolades. I mean, yes, I am blogging right now on the Internet. But it's easy to get lost online, spending hours frittering away time that could have been spent doing much healthier things, like getting outside or reading out loud to your kids. 

Often, when I am hired to teach, one of the first things parents will ask me to do is to get their children interested in reading. Reading, of course, also hones writing skills, so it's integral that when writing is taught, reading should parallel it. Many times, I've sat down with a student who professes to dislike reading. When asked what they like to do in their spare time, it's not uncommon for me to get an answer like this: "I like to play on the iPad," or "I like playing on the Xbox." When I first started teaching at 19, I was floored by the amount of kids who resorted to gaming instead of reading for entertainment. I had to come up with an approach that would fulfill the parents' wishes to interest the student in reading, while competing for attention with Minecraft or Bejeweled. 

Here is the method I came up with, and I will tell you this: it has never failed me yet. 

Curating Books for the Resistant Reader

  • Examine your competition closely. Like it or hate it, you are competing with a highly-addicting form of entertainment: movies and video games. Research shows that gamers literally experience a rise in dopamine while playing, which drives them to return to the game over and over. Don't believe me? Check out this article on Thoughtful Parent. Not only that, but games are bright, colorful, violent, adventurous, exciting, rewarding, and now, gaming often links gamers together from all over the country and world through text and video chatting. For kids especially, it's easy to get sucked into this virtual world of adventure and connection, sometimes to the point where a virtual existence becomes more important to them than a real one. In light of this, the thought of placing a bound stack of paper in front of a student who loves to game seems hopeless. It's not. I've been down this road with kids before, and let me tell you: to the bleary-eyed, virtual-reality consumed gaming kid, a book actually becomes a novelty. The key is to find the RIGHT book. 
  • Getting to know your kid. I'm going to get right to the point: you need to pay attention to what your kids are watching and gaming, because it's going to reveal to you where their interests lie. Let me give you an example. One of the students I taught years ago was incredibly interested in all things military-themed or fighter-pilot-themed. He watched every fighter pilot movie ever made, played every game, and even collected fighter pilot toys. I picked up on this, naturally, and instead of shoving a copy of Pride and Prejudice into his hands, I found historically-themed military thrillers. Because he was supremely interested in the subject already, this was how I hooked him into reading at first. Once he found that he actually enjoyed reading, I was able to introduce him to other adventure novels, such as Moby Dick and My Side of the Mountain. Always start with something your child loves, and then slowly introduce a variety from there. 
  • Don't overwhelm your child with huge books. Another key to cultivating reading success is to start with smaller books before throwing the bigger ones out there. You know what I'm saying. Don't begin the week with War and Peace and expect your child to turn into Aristotle overnight. Light reading is usually a good place to begin. One of the constant successes that I always recommend to my students is the Ember Series by Jeanne DuPrau. The series consists of 4 books, but each book also stands alone. It's not an overwhelming read by any means, and if the child really loves it, they'll continue to ask for the next book (I've never had a child dislike that story yet).  PBS has a great article about starting small with reading right here: For Parents
  • Make the connection between authors and stories. I heavily emphasize the background and personal lives/experiences of authors if I can to my students. For example, Jack London was a raucous seaman, gold miner, and adventurer before he settled down to write fictional stories based on the same experiences he had himself. Making the connection between a real-life writer who had real-life adventures is oftentimes fascinating to kids, and I find that they begin to attach themselves even closer to the book, looking at it from a fresh perspective, which also motivates themselves to write about their own adventures. 
  • Play up the book-to-film adaptation angle. This is often an option I reserve for the most anti-book student (although sometimes we do this for fun, too). Finding books that were adapted into film can be a fun game for kids who are highly resistant to reading. I've used this method a few times. We will read a book, discuss it, and then I'll have the student watch the film. They always get a huge kick out of seeing the story on the screen, and then we have a big discussion about how the movie was the same or different, better or worse, and it's a good way to get a child to read when there's a little treat or reward waiting on the other side. I honestly like to play this game with myself, too. I love reading a book and then watching a movie or TV adaptation and comparing the two mediums (yep, the book is better 99% of the time). 
  • Find a series. I briefly touched on the Ember Series above, and it's a good example of how to hook kids into reading multiple books. There are so many fun series for kids to read. If they love the first book, they'll be itching to read the rest. I personally love middle grade novels a lot more than YA novels right now, and I often recommend books written by Rick Riordan (he's written so many books, and they are all hilarious, adventurous and fun) and Gary Paulsen. I personally remember reading Nancy Drew when I was a kid (my grandma had books that were printed in the 30s) and getting sucked in. Of course, there are dozens of Nancy Drew books in print now, and I probably read most of them. It helped me learn to love reading, because I kept craving that suspense, that adventure, and that magical feeling of becoming Nancy Drew and solving each and every mystery that came her way. 
  • Remember graphic novels, too. Graphic novels can be a cool way to get your children interested in reading, as well. They are bright, colorful, and essentially one giant storyboard of a plot. I'm pretty careful about graphic novels. personally, because a lot of them contain extremely mature material. Yet if you can find appropriate ones for your kids to read, more power to you. Remember, reading is reading.
  • Put reading time on the daily schedule. Reading often goes by the wayside for a number of reasons, but one of them is old-fashioned fatigue. It's so much easier to turn on DisneyPlus and let your children watch Moana for the 70th time than to give them a book that they might buck at. My approach is not too extreme. I don't see a reason why screen time can't share an equal space with book time. Simply separate the two. Have your child go to their room and pick something to read, even if it's only for thirty minutes or an hour. Schedule reading into your everyday life, and you will reap the benefits for years to come. 
  • Forget the smartphones: bring a book. Look, I get it. I have a toddler, and she is just as prone to having dramatic meltdowns as any other kid. That being said, it will be a cold day in you-know-where before I give her a smartphone to play a game on in the grocery store or at church to keep her quiet. Why? First, because kids need to learn how to behave anyway, without shoving a device in their face, and second, because you're just adding on screen time on top of screen time. I say this from a place of humble humanity, too. My daughter watches her fair share of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Frozen, but when we leave the house, the phone is the last thing I want her to reach for when she's bored. You can help your child erase that nervous tic of reaching for a digital device by not even having it available. Bring a book or a magazine instead. Sitting in the cart? Read a book. Waiting at the doctor's office? Thumb through a magazine. We are inundated with technology at every turn: teaching kids to entertain themselves without technological devices will do both of you good, I promise! 

Curating books for your kids is really not too hard to do. It all comes down to catering to their likes and interests. Doing so will grow a love of reading within them that will eventually allow them to expand their own reading tastes naturally. Don't feel like your kids are "behind" because they haven't read The Catcher in the Rye (unpopular opinion: I don't like that book). If your kids are reading ANYTHING, they are doing well, and so are you. Don't despair. Reading is reading, whether it's romance, adventure, history, or fantasy. Just make time for it, encourage it, and allow your children to access books. Make trips to the library, download the Kindle App if you need to, and peruse the local book store with your children. Show them how wonderful reading is, and they will follow your example. Remember, children are watching everything you do, so the best thing you can do to encourage them to read is to do it yourself.  

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