Childhood summertime conjures all sorts of scenes in our heads: beaches, sunshine, playing and sipping lemonade, perhaps. But the warm weeks can also be a time of summer slide, when kids forget a lot of what they learned in school. This is especially true for children who live in lower-income neighborhoods.
So how can parents stop the brain drain over the summer? James Patterson, the best-selling mystery writer and now children’s book author, has some tips based on his years as a father, and as a writer. He also is trying to stop the drain for children who might not have the support or funds to help them retain what they absorbed during the school year. He recently donated 30,000 books to the school district in Florida’s Palm Beach County, which many think of as the home of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. But it also contains some rural and low-income towns, places where books are luxuries and the summer slide is prevalent.
Patterson also donated $1.75 million to support classroom libraries around the country. Teachers can request the individual $500 rewards so they can add to their classroom book collections. Patterson said he has already received 20,000 requests for help. If all goes well, he will do this again next year.
Here are edited excerpts from an interview with Patterson on the summer slide and why he’s writing for kids and donating books in his home county.
Tell us about your son and trying to get him to read. When Jack was 8, he wasn’t a big reader. He’s a bright kid but wasn’t a big reader. That summer, we said, “You’re going to read every day.” He said, “Do I have to?” And we told him, “You have to, unless you want to live in the garage. But we’re going to go out and find books you really enjoy.” So we looked for books he would like. They ranged from “Percy Jackson” to “A Wrinkle in Time.” By the end of summer, he’d read a dozen books and his reading ability soared. It got him going.
For kids that are going to be pretty good readers anyway, you want to broaden their interests. They’ll be better citizens, voters, spouses. Which is really important, we’re finding.
But even more important to me are kids at risk.
You’ve come out as a bit of an advocate for younger readers. Tell me about that. Why did this start? The big stimulus, my agent just said you’re really good at getting people to keep turning the pages. And that’s so vital for kids. They’ve got to keep turning the pages. So we started the [children’s book] imprint at Little Brown, called Jimmy Patterson. [For books Patterson writes with the intent to hook kids on reading.] When a kid finishes a Jimmy book, they say, “Please give me another book” as opposed to “I don’t like books.”
What should parents and educators do to help kids avoid the summer slide and get reading? The key is kids just need to read a couple hours each week. And they can read fun stuff. I … spoke at a conference for middle school principals [in New York City] and I said: Convince these kids to read more for fun. So much reading they’re forced to do is just tedious. That’s not the way, especially with little kids, to get them to read. It should be more of a joyful experience. In the summer, read whatever you want.
Why is it important for kids to be readers? I tell parents that you teach your kid to ride a bike, catch a ball. That’s good. But keeping them reading, that’s the most important thing. Why? Because you’re building their character, preparing them for school, for life. Preparing them for choices. They’re going to learn about the other way people think. If they don’t become a competent reader, their choices will be limited.
Tell me about your current attempts to stem summer slide with the book donations to Palm Beach County schools. Why there? We live there. We were giving away some books, and I’d go out to the other side of the county. Like Belglade, one of the most violent small towns in America. These kids are good, they’re smart. But it’s very limited in terms of them being able to get out of there. To some extent, we gave to every sixth- and seventh-grader there a book. I went around to some classrooms to talk about how important it is. It’s all about saving lives. I tell librarians all the time that they save lives.
You also have something called Read Kiddo Read. What is that? The whole spirit of that is to provide book suggestions at various levels that will turn your kids on. You can pick out with your kids 10 books that might be interesting, go online or whatever and you have a head start. A lot of people are intimated by book stores.
So this summer, what should parents do? Just enforce it. It’s tough love a little bit. The important thing is getting them books that they’re going to love.
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