Boys, books, and a present for you: guest post by Sara O’Leary

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:


when you were small by sara o'learyThere 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 mother goosedoesn’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.

marvel comics, 1939As 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 and son in their early days of reading

Sara O’Leary and son in their early days of reading together. This lovely shot was taken by fellow author Christy Ann Conlin.

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.


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37 responses to “Boys, books, and a present for you: guest post by Sara O’Leary

  1. Holly McDaniel

    I recently volunteered at the library and was having difficulty with keeping my little guys attention. A librarian friend suggested non-fiction and it worked like a charm. We would look at animal books and whenever his mind started to wander I would draw him back by asking him questions about the pictures. The gruesome facts about crocodiles and spiders were also a great attention grabber. My other little guy loved Ripleys, Guiness, and anything with weird facts. I have to admit that I loved reading them with him too.

  2. Hi Holly, I think there is a certain kind of boy who simply likes facts. One of mine was a bit like that and has a huge stack of Horrible Histories to feed his hunger. The other thing I would recommend for younger readers is the Eyewitness Books from DK as they are beautiful and full of information on a huge variety of topics. They have loads of photos which is good if your child is more visually-oriented.

  3. kristendenhartog

    Great plan Holly. Actually N likes those facty books too. Lately she has been immersed in Ultimate Weird But True by National Geographic Kids. All the crazy fonts, colours and pictures make me feel like I’ve had too much caffeine, but she is loving it!

  4. m

    We’ve been acquiring those DK Eyewitness Books in our home, too, as the boys’ interests drift from space to knights to geography. I imagine more in our future. The Usborne books that have multiple flaps one each page, sometimes flaps within other flaps, are also great for young nonfiction lovers.

    I think the key is having a lot of books around of all types. We can’t really foresee what our kids will be drawn to, and sometimes the won’t know what they’ll love until they’re exposed to it. Pictures books, nonfiction books, novels, atlases, medical books, craft books. It makes me sad when I go into someone’s home, especially someone with kids, and see almost no books.

  5. Wonderful post, full of great tips (to which I can attest because I’ve followed them all and have three avid boy readers aged 4-11). I have the hardest time with not being a snob, though, and I flatly refuse to buy or borrow Lego-tie-in-type books. The boys get this, and get their fix from the school library if they want them. What is encouraging is that they more frequently don’t, and I am thrilled to see them picking up more nourishing fare. I love that you quip about having a little money left over for shoes. My mantra when I leave the bookstore is, “At least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes….”

    • I think being a snob about what you buy is fine – that’s why there are libraries and grandmothers and so on. (And about shoes, just wait until yours hit the teen years! It only gets worse.)

    • kristendenhartog

      Makes me think of your note on fb the other day — that you knew you had done your job when your son came home and said that, with a bit of time to kill between school and an appointment, he wandered into a book store. Nice!

  6. My comments might be out of line here, but I am seeing reading as a complicated business these days, one growing in complexity, with the insertion of electronic devices. A growing challenge for authors and writers

    I have two grandsons 14 and 11 who are very different in their reading habits, but who both look at me a bit askance these days when I give them a book. That is an infrequent occurence, I succumb occasionally, but I prefer gift cards for Chapters. Even then, they would prefer itunes cards to use for their ipads and iphones. They are not adverse to reading and have each gone through the stage of devouring favorite authors – JK Rowling and the Hunger Games series. But I do see them moving further away from books and printed material generally, relying on the electronically retrievable.

    With younger children, we have more control – I’m shoving books at my 7 month old granddaughter, so I appreciate the recommendations here Sara, and will make a point of including some of your books in her collection.

    • I don’t see your comments as out of line at all, Susan. I think that what you’ve noted with your grandsons is very much part of a larger trend. There’s a good online post by UK writer Matt Haig where he talks about the “feminization” of reading – basically that as our boys get older they don’t see it as an activity that they need to be engaged in or as an activity that is particularly socially acceptable.
      I think that this is happening on the macro level and so is hard to fight on the micro (grandparent/parent) level.
      The fact is that more women than men read fiction. This is a given. But when they (boys and girls) are small and malleable and still look up to us in both senses is when we have a chance to influence them and it seems to me a dreadful shame not to do so. And I think a gift card to somewhere like Chapters is a great idea – maybe they’ll spend it on headphones or who knows what but you’ve at least enticed them into a place where they just may see a book that begs to be taken home with them. And if they have an iPad or other device they can always set up a Kindle app and access many books for free. Or there are also audiobooks through sites like
      Bit yes, 7 months is the optimum age! There’s a beautiful new series of board books called Cozy Classics that you might want to check out for your granddaughter.
      And lucky you – I am hoping for a granddaughter of my own one of these days!

      • Thanks for your reply Sara, I’ll check out the cozy classics for my granddaughter. Never fear, I’ll be pushing books and reading at them as long as I’m not pushing up daisies, so to speak.

      • Susan, The other nice thing about books as gifts is that you can inscribe them so they remain meaningful into the next generation – unlike clothes or toys! So even when you’re on the wrong side of the daisies, you are kind of still around!

  7. Michele Maycock

    Hi Sara,
    Being a mother of four boys, now 22, 19, 15 and 13, I thoroughly enjoyed your post about boys and reading. I spent almost every evening for the past
    twenty years snuggled up with one, two or three of my children, enjoying various books and the interesting ideas and conversations such books evoked from my boys. Once they grew up, they spent time watching t.v. with my husband in the evenings and I became disheartened by their lack of reading. However, reading about the Marvel comics your son enjoys made me think about each of my sons and how they DO read now, although it is not obvious that they do. My oldest son reads a GREAT deal of non-fiction as a Mechanical Engineering student. My second son is absorbed by the essence of story as he studies Film and Media Studies. My third son reads music as he studies for his grade 8 piano examination and my fourth son says he reads to accomplish a book, which I do not understand, but being an outstanding athlete, perhaps that is his interpretation of his reading experience. Who am I to judge him? As long as they are all reading in their own way, those twenty years of cuddle up time were the best investment I could have made because my boys too, I am proud to say, are very empathetic. I agree that reading provides different view points which develops empathy in children, an essential characteristic which can only better our children and our world.

  8. Marilyn

    Reading to boys came to me late because I have three daughters, but then, along came two grandsons. Both were read to constantly as babies and little boys by grandma and mom, but their mother had to do some hunting to find books that really gripped them as they grew older. JK Rowling was a favourite with the older one, but illustrated novels and the Screech Owl series was popular with the younger one. Both these boys are lovely, empathetic young men too, maybe thanks to their reading.

    • Those Screech Owl books sold in huge numbers – there must be many, many boys who grew up on them.
      I grew up taking reading and a surplus supply of books totally for granted and it still takes some adjustment in my thinking to realize that that’s in no way a universal situation. Anyway, it sounds like your grandsons were among the lucky ones.

  9. m

    I have a question for you parents of older children. I really would like to start reading chapter books to my boys (they are almost 7 and 5). I don’t do it before bed, as their father usually does their bed time while I try to get our youngest (17 months) to sleep. Ideally, I’d like to establish this for when they come home from school, but I haven’t had any luck.

    Any suggestions on how to start this and make it stick?

  10. I think it’s an interesting question, Marita. To my mind there’s too much haste to move kids on to chapter books for one reason or another and that picture book window is so small and so precious…. That said, there are all kinds of things that we want to share with them at the stage where you are still sharing things with them.
    What about bath time? Perching yourself wherever you can perch and reading a chapter of the Water Babies?
    Audiobooks for the car? (Which is not to say you couldn’t make these yourself either.) Last long car journey we listened to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. We’ve gone through loads of Dickens and Douglas Adams and other things in the same way.
    Maybe at this stage the best way to think of it is not as the same as laptime or bedtime reading but as you providing an interesting background noise to some other activity? There’s no quiz coming at the end of it so don’t worry about what they’re missing and think of the riches available in what they may catch.

  11. kristendenhartog

    This might sound like a crazy suggestion, as I know mornings are really busy in many families. But what about a breakfast-time read? They’re munching their toast while you read a chapter. When we were hooked on Harry Potter, we couldn’t help but read in the mornings as well as evenings (and whenever else there was the tiniest window).

    • I like that picture of you two compulsively reading, Kristen. I was thinking today of how I may have given a false picture of my own attitudes to reading – I’m very much for it but on reflection when I can remember many nights when I’d try to turn two pages at a time to get through whatever book I was reading that much faster! I suppose having a variety of strategies and as many willing readers as possible is key.
      I’m enjoying all this discussion on here. Nice to talk to people who are about the things you care about, isn’t it?

      • kristendenhartog

        Oh my, Sara, I have had those nights too! Also many times when I’ve eased the book into my husband’s hands and quietly slipped away. But for the most part it’s pretty wonderful.

    • m

      Breakfast reading sounds so idyllic, but that would mean I’d have to haul my arse out of bed earlier than I already do. And bathtime is also something my husband does, but now I’m thinking that perhaps reading over dessert would be nice, or I might try to go back to afterschool snack time.

      I think part of my problem was that I was reading them Treasure Island and I think it was too advanced for them. I abandoned it, for now anyway, which was discouraging.

      My eldest has started reading The BFG aloud at bedtime. I feel like I’m missing out and am worried that I’m not going to have the experience of reading novels together as a family. Selfish me!

      • kristendenhartog

        I know that problem — N and I started on Peter Pan before she was ready, and I could see her eyes glazing over. But when we picked it up again a year or so later, she loved it. And the BFG is a huge favourite for us. Just hearing about your love for kids’ books makes me pretty certain you’ll get things figured out no problem….

  12. Marita – Maybe you could go in and read at their bedsides while they are sleeping. It would be subliminal!

  13. Encouraging kids (boys or girls) starts with the adults in their lives. When I lived with my sister and her family, I always read to my niece and nephew. The bedtime routine always included stories. I read the entire Harry Potter series to my niece.
    More importantly they need to see YOU read. If you set the example, they will be sure to follow….

  14. Yes, I agree too – you gave a great gift to your niece and nephew by reading to them.
    And Kristen, good luck with the eggplant – I find there’s always lots left over for me.

  15. Dale

    I have three boys, age 7, 8 & 10, and it’s a struggle to get them to read. I saw the tweet about Screech Owl Books and I remembered the books I read as a kid. I’m going to see if that’s something they’d be interested in reading.

  16. Hi Dale, Sounds like it could be just the thing – and always nice to see them pick up something you remember from your own childhood.

  17. Pingback: And the winner is! | Blog of Green Gables

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