Last week I featured a guest post by author Sara O’Leary, who graciously included a prize for commenters — a set of six Screech Owl books by Roy MacGregor. We had lots of great comments from readers, and the discussion moved from animals to shoes to the Ology books with their flaps and pockets (we got one yesterday!) to electronic devices to the feminization of reading to breakfast-time reading to bathtime reading to audio books to Marvel Comics and The Water Babies. I’ve drawn a name from the pool of people who chimed in, and the winner of the books is Holly McDaniel. Thanks to Sara for her great post, and to Tundra Books for making the set available.
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.
“Black Beauty?” I suggested.
“No. It’ll be too sad.”
“The Railway Children?”
“I know: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! Funny! Or here — The Swiss Family Robinson!”
“It says it’s happy! Listen: ‘The Swiss Family Robinson is a story of the happy discovery of the wonders of natural history by a family shipwrecked on a desert island, who remain united through all the adversities that they encounter.’ Wait — it says it’s joyful too! A joyful classic!”
“No. Something else.”
Finally she pulled an Ivy and Bean from her shelf, which we’ve been reading since the picture book phase I wrote about last week. I like the Ivy and Bean books, but I’ve been craving a bigger story since before Christmas (though yes, I do read from my own library too!).
“Let’s pick something else,” I suggested. “Don’t you want to read a big, juicy novel?”
And then came the blow: “Mom, it’s just that I like to read those kinds of books by myself now.”
I smiled to hide the sting, but privately I was thinking about all our years of reading together, and — at least in retrospect — how quickly they have flown by. It was another of those bicycle moments. You run and you run alongside your child (in our case for years!), and suddenly she is ready to go alone, and before either of you has realized it, she is flying away from you, and it’s you who becomes the speck in her distance when she finally looks back.
But this is wonderful, I thought as I closed her door last night. In this one respect, I know I have done my job well. N is a reader, and I suspect she will remain so. She has moved up through all the phases of reading, recognizing first the pictures, then the letters as pictures, then the letters as words, then the words as sentences, then the sentences as information. And with this skill she can unlock many mysteries. Wherever she wants to go, books will take her there, and in that regard I hope she will become a world traveler.
I’ve read that reading fiction increases empathy too–I suppose because one gets caught up in a character and looks at the story’s situation through that character’s eyes. In a sense you have to become someone else. I used to get N to eat by pretending the morsel on her plate was sad because she’d eaten other morsels but not “him.” As I put on my warbly Tiny Carrot voice — “Please eat me so I can be with my friends. I am so lonely!” — I’d sometimes worry I’d gone too far when I saw her face fill with pity, eyebrows working, mouth opening wide for the poor bit of food that had felt so abandoned.
I also recall walking through Value Village with N and coming upon a bedraggled stuffed dog lying in an aisle, with a $1.99 tag pierced into his neck. We both stopped and looked down at him, and he stared up at us with large blue eyes, felt tongue lolling. We had to take him home, and of course he’s with us still.
Years later, we sometimes sit in her room and go through the stuffed animals with the aim of getting rid of some, but we make the mistake of holding them up one by one and looking at their faces, and for a quiet moment they look back at us, waiting for our decision. Our cull is far from thorough every time.
There are the real creatures too — the baby squirrel who lost his mother and cried for help in our backyard; the kindergarten friend who wouldn’t speak but found a loyal friend in N, who spoke enough for both of them. We used to walk home together at lunchtime, the wordless girl and her wordless mother just ahead, and N and I trailing behind, calling out a cheerful goodbye when we reached our house.
Recently when her grandmother was sick, N hung a reversible sign on her doorknob, and ran a full series of checkups. She made “emergency pain notes” on her own medical stationery with a logo that read “your health matters to us.” She asked careful, thoughtful questions about where the pain was and what the patient would be willing to take for “soothment.” And would the patient like one hairdo per day, or two?
Whether this ability to understand another’s emotions comes because of reading, I’m not sure. I like to think that’s part of it. But I wonder too what makes books so special? Do movies increase empathy? Does television? There are lots of awful television shows for kids, but there’s great stuff too. In fact, the more I think about it, I suspect a show like Nana Lan, which N loved as a little girl, did indeed boost her ability to empathize. There are lots of books that have done zero in that regard. So perhaps it’s not so much the medium, but the value of the story it contains, and the extent to which the viewer can embrace that story.