I love having guests! Today, writer Sara O’Leary, author of the gorgeous Henry books, which Quill and Quire calls “almost unbearably charming,” posts about the various techniques she used to encourage her sons to read. “My boys both had dints on the tops of their heads as babies from where I used to rest my book while I was breastfeeding.”
For me it’s a gift to have Sara at Blog of Green Gables as part of When Writers Read Kids’ Books, but there’s a gift for you too! Together with Tundra Books, Sara has generously offered a prize for a draw: a set of six Screech Owl books by Roy McGregor, to a commenter who resides in Canada. So please send in your comments about how you’d get kids reading, and I’ll draw the winner’s name in a week’s time. Meanwhile, a warm welcome to Sara O’Leary:
There seems to be a lot of talk lately about how we can get boys reading. Around my house the talk is sometimes more on the line of how do we get them to stop. I have two sons and while neither could be categorized as what’s known in the trade as a “reluctant reader” they do have very different reading patterns. And in all the discussion of how we get boys reading, I think it’s important to remember just how varied those boys may be.
My first-born is a voracious reader and the problem has always been how to keep him in books. I was lucky enough to work as a columnist for a major daily for most of his childhood, which is the only reason we ever had enough money left over to buy him the occasional pair of shoes.
I wasn’t in the least surprised at his reading habits — his father and I are both readers and writers and our professional lives revolve around books. And really, the fact that he was an early and prolific and what could only be termed a dedicated reader probably made me a bit smug about the whole thing.
His younger brother was much less fanatical about reading. In fact, he’d often start reading a book only to put it down and go draw his own cover illustration, or make a video inspired by it, or write his own book. This wasn’t really a problem but it was odd to me. And it did force me to consider a little the question of how to get boys to read. I don’t have the answer but here are a few strategies that make sense to me.
Model behaviour. Don’t be afraid to let your kids see you reading. My boys both had dints on the tops of their heads as babies from where I used to rest my book while I was breastfeeding. There are books in every room of our house. My husband won’t leave the house without a book in his pocket. I wouldn’t say you have to go to this extreme but really if you can lie down on the sofa with a novel and call it good parenting, why not?
Read to your kids. The funny thing is that when they are small it doesn’t really matter what you read to them (and I say this as someone whose books are marketed to pre-readers). Read them what you are reading. Take them to the library as regularly as you can and let them bring home as many books as you can carry. So few of the best things in life are free but libraries are still one of them. Take them to bookstores and let them browse.
Remember that Mother Goose is the mother of us all.
Okay, I know I just said it doesn’t matter what you read to them but actually language acquisition is hugely aided by being read nursery rhymes or other rhyming verse. And it’s fun. There’s something intrinsically satisfying about a line that scans well and rhymes well and has a certain syntactical rightness. There are some beautiful editions of Mother Goose out there — I’m particularly fond of Barbara Reid’s. My boys and the children of many of my friends grew up listening to Ted Jacobs’ musical rendering of R.L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which I highly recommend. When my son Euan was small I printed out a number of Mother Goose rhymes and he made his own book with hand-drawn illustrations. This book is now one of my treasured possessions.
Books are good gifts.
I don’t like the idea of a book being tossed to one side as a boring gift but I am not above including a small toy or a box of candy in the packaging for a little instant gratification. There are terrible statistics out there about children who don’t own a single book to call their own. I suspect that these are not the children of anyone taking the time to read this but I think a child with a well-stocked bookcase is a child who has been properly provided for.
Play to their interests.
This is where independent booksellers really come in handy — too bad they’re such an endangered species these days. A good children’s book store (Kidsbooks in Vancouver, Babar in Montreal) can help you when you want a suggestion for a kid who really likes dragons or soccer or pirates. It would be nice if there were an online children’s book doctor who could prescribe books based on interests or past favourites. I don’t believe in pandering to kids — I’m not big on potty-humour even if it is a development stage — but there is a huge range of reading material out there and you’re bound to find something to appeal. Ask around. Ask people who blog about children’s books because they clearly are somewhat obsessive on the subject.
Like what they like.
As parents we do a lot of expecting our kids to like what we like. I don’t really think we’re obliged to like what they like but we owe it to them to at least give it a try. This is why I have sat through as many Godzilla movies as I have. I’m a terrible snob about comic books but I have a boy who collects vintage Marvel (and laughs at me when I pronounce it with the emphasis on the second syllable). I have less than no interest in hockey but was a regular purchaser of Roy MacGregor’s Screech Owl series when my elder boy went through a period of hockey-mania.
It does make me terribly sad to hear of children — any children, not just boys — who don’t read or of parents who don’t read to their children. Partly this is because reading is just such a tremendous pleasure that you naturally want others to share in it. And partly because I think that people who don’t read fiction are limited in a way. If you don’t actively engage in imagining the lives of others in the way that reading fiction produces then you necessarily only view the world through a single point of view — your own.
It seems to be that there is a very direct correlation between reading and the development of empathy. So while as parents we could view reading as akin to learning piano or being able to perform algebraic equations, it is also key to helping our children develop one of the most important attributes. My boys are beautiful, bright, and gifted but I don’t feel I can really claim to be proud of that fact because as I see it they pretty much arrived on this planet that way. But they are also both profoundly empathetic boys — they are kind and thoughtful human beings — and I think this is partly because reading has enabled them to see the world from the perspective of others. And I am inordinately, absurdly, and shamelessly proud about that.
Sara O’Leary is the co-creator with Julie Morstad of the Henry series: When You Were Small, Where You Came From and, most recently, When I Was Small (Simply Read Books). She has worked as a literary columnist and blogs about children’s books at 123oleary. A graduate of the UBC Masters program, she has taught Writing for Children and Screenwriting at Concordia University in Montreal. She is currently working on a novel titled The Ghost in the House.