5 Big Ways to Help Kids Love Books
Getting kids jazzed about reading can be out there — inviting them to suck on lemons and draw pictures of vacuum cleaners — or as simple as anticipated trips to the library.
Mary Brigid Barrett, children's author and illustrator, teacher, and founder of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance, shares her favorite ways to cultivate bookworms.
1. Make it an experience for all the senses.
"It's wonderful to have a book come alive in a sensory way. I love to read Robert McCloskey's book Lentil to preschoolers, and I always pass out lemon slices first. The story is about a boy in a small town in Ohio who saves the day with his harmonica. There's a part where the town's band is all set to play in a celebration — until they see the villain, Old Sneep, sucking on a lemon, and they all pucker up and can't play their instruments. At that point I tell the kids, 'Suck on the lemon!' They get a huge kick out of it."
2. Engage in a spirited debate.
"You want kids to start thinking critically, because that's what education is all about, and it's never too early. Take the story of the itsy bitsy spider: When I ask a group of 4-year-olds who the hero of that story is, they'll always chime right in with 'The spider!' And then you follow that with: 'The spider has a problem. What's the problem?' For a 6-year-old you can even introduce the word conflict into the conversation. Ask them, 'What would happen if there weren't any rain, and the spider could climb right out of the drain?' Well, it would be really boring if there was no problem to solve. Protagonist, conflict, resolution — there you have all the elements of literature! Very little is beyond kids if you can relate it to their experience level.
Now the first three or four times, a book should be read for pure enjoyment, of course. But when the kids ask for the same books again and again — and you're getting bored out of your mind — these kinds of conversations can keep things lively for you, too."
3. Write a book of your own.
"For a child who's just starting to read, get a spiral notebook or sketch book with blank pages and make his own personalized word book. You can start with the family: Have photographs of Dad and Mom, or even ask an older sibling to draw them. Print the letters, big and bold. Have a picture of their grandfather that says not only "grandfather" but "Poppo."
Then you can expand it from there with whatever interests your child. If you have a kid who's a fire-truck maniac, fill it with pictures from the fire station. I know one family whose young son was absolutely obsessed with vacuum cleaners — upon meeting you, he'll ask whether you have an upright or a canister!
This is also a terrific introduction to writing, and when your kids get older it can lead them into crafting their own stories."
4. Find out what else the library offers.
"Libraries can have so much that parents might not know about — DVDs, audio books, even games and puzzles that can be checked out. Some have preschool PJ nights. Many have museum passes, which are usually for one or two adults and at least two children.
The library is a great resource for parents, too: Two books I love are Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook, which recommends great books broken down into age ranges, and Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books for Children, which not only describes the books but gives great anecdotes about their creators. For instance, she tells how Robert McCloskey — who wrote not only Lentil but Make Way for Ducklings, of course — actually had a group of ducklings that he brought into his apartment, where he put them into the bathtub and drew them. That's a great story for kids."
5. Get everybody involved.
"A lot of parents feel guilty because the standard advice is to read to your child for at least 15 minutes a day, and if you have three kids it's not always practical to have three individual reading sessions for three different levels. But there are things that are appropriate for kids at a wide range of ages.
For instance, you might think a 6-year-old won't be interested in a board book. But she may feel a sense of ownership about it and want to engage a younger sibling by helping her 'read aloud,' even if she's just reciting the story from memory.
"Beverly Cleary's Beezus and Ramona series and Russell Hoban's Frances the Badger books would be very appropriate for kids 3 to 6. I read Charlotte's Web to my three kids when they were 8, 6, and 3. The day after we finished it, Patrick, the baby, said, 'That was so great. Can we read another novel?' When in doubt, always go for the 'reach' book.
"Also, be patient with the ones who just have high energy levels. One of mine would sit for hours and listen to books, one was a little whirling dervish, and the third was somewhere in the middle. Just say, 'I'm going to read aloud,'and then keep going. Even the dervish is going to absorb something. And take heart — the heroes of children's books usually tend to be little dervishes themselves. Try to think of a children's-book character who's perfectly complacent and obedient. I dare you!"
(For more ways to encourage reading, check out the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance's Parent & Guardian Handbook.)