Some children seem to have been born with their noses stuck in books. I was one such child, exhausted every day at school because I had stayed up late reading Molly Moon or My Secret Unicorn – or whatever I was obsessed with at the time.
In an act of desperation, my mum sternly informed me one day that she knew exactly where every book was on the shelf, so she’d know if I took one. Obviously, I just memorised exactly where all the books were and made sure to put them back in the same place. Now, I realise my mum had no idea which books were even on the shelf, much less what order they were in – but I felt like I’d broken the enigma code at the time.
On the other hand, many children cannot think of anything they want to do less than read. It means sitting down, it means concentrating, it means being quiet – what’s the draw? Monster Books’ founder and children’s author Robin Bennett was one of these children, and on the topic of reading he says:
‘’I come from a family of voracious readers but, before the age of eleven, reading was just another kind of punishment as far as I was concerned. So I know that any kind of coercion, however gentle, doesn’t work. As a parent being dull and untidy is your best hope: having books strewn about the house and nothing else for them to do.’
Dire words. While being very boring and untidy is undoubtedly good (and welcome) advice, there are some other tips and tricks that can help your child start to see reading as friend rather than foe.
1. Change the focus
There can be a lot of panic around reading. Is your child reading enough? Or at the right level? Are they learning enough vocabulary? Children feel that pressure and want to run a mile. It turns reading into a test they’re supposed to pass rather than something to enjoy.
You can mitigate this by taking a different approach. Rather than saying, ‘you need to be reading – what topic would you like to read on?’, talk to them about what they’re interested in and then help them find a book about that.
As children, we get obsessively interested by rockets, trains, rabbits, sharks, fairies, ballet, football, or any other random topic. For me it was space and for a while, I only read space books – but I did keep reading. Let kids’ reading be led by their interests and they’ll engage more readily, rather than seeing it as time dragged away from what they care about.
2. Create a positive impression of reading
Sometimes, reading is homework, and that’s annoying. Sometimes they do haveto read the next chapter of Pig Heart Boy or Skellig by Monday and that’s all there is to it. But make sure that’s not the only way you talk about reading.
Most of the time, avoid discussing reading as part of school – talk about something you enjoyed reading as a child, a great article in the newspaper, or a book you saw in the shop window that looked really funny.
Like most things in life, reading will once in a while be a chore, but if you try and associate it as much as possible with enjoyment and leisure then it helps create that impression for kids. They’ll learn to understand that while there are some things they have to read for school, in general reading isn’t a chore.
3. Ask for their opinions
One of the weirdest things about reading at school is that it’s all about what the author meant or the historical context, and there isn’t much room for the kids’ own opinions. It creates an impression of books as wise, unassailable things on pedestals that are to be respected but not engaged with – which is a recipe for boredom.
Ask your child what they think about the book they’re reading. I hated Of Mice and Men; I thought it was boring, depressing, and predictable. It didn’t matter that it was sort of supposed to be boring and depressing because it was about the great depression. My favourite book of all time is The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and I find instant friendships with people who can quote it back to me and instant discussions with people who don’t like it.
Books are boring if they’re offered to you as lifeless printed words which you’re not supposed to engage with – so discuss your child’s personal reaction to whatever they’re meant to be reading, encourage them to feel animated about their own opinion, and worry about what they need to know about it for school later.
Some kids are even more intensely in the not-reading camp than any of these tips will remedy, but as a Bookseller it often seemed that a child’s dislike of reading was down to how they’d been led to view it rather than actually disliking it, and reframing it was enough . Of course, a stubbornly reluctant reader is a different challenge – but that’s a discussion for another week.