How I love summer. The weather and the end of school celebrations immediately take me back to my childhood, and days spent sitting against a tree or on the screened porch with a book. I can still picture the mural behind the desk at our local library. I can hear my mother telling me to stop reading already and just enjoy the view.
But as with all things parenting, my take on summer is quite different than that of my older son. I know what interested me won’t necessarily interest him, and what interests him won’t (mostly) interest his younger brother.
And yet, here we are, ready to kick off the weeks of outdoor play, vacations and yes, reading lists.
So how do other parents, particularly ones with a vested interest in books, handle the “how to get my kid to read” issue? We asked, and they shared.
First up is the Newbery-winning author of poetry and children’s fiction, Kwame Alexander. He spoke with me one recent morning just after he dropped his 8-year-old girl off at school. He was, as we all are after drop-off, breathless, commenting on the morning craziness. Knowing he also has a 26-year-old daughter, I asked him to share something he’s learned about parenting over the years. “I’ve learned absolutely nothing,” he proclaimed. “And that has surprised me, having done this twice now. I thought I’d have been much more prepared to handle the woes and wonders of this whole thing.”
He is, he admitted, clueless. Even when it comes to interesting his daughter in certain books.
Alexander’s 8-year-old has spent much of her childhood sitting in the audience when he gives talks. He could never tell if she was paying attention to what he was saying. But he spoke to 3,000 teachers in Boston last summer, about the importance of reading, where he said books were like amusement parks: Sometimes you’ve got to let your kids choose the ride.
Fast forward to this year, sitting on a plane with his daughter. She wanted to play games the whole time, but he came with something else in mind: March, by John Lewis. You can get more games after you read something, he told her. But his daughter declared that if she was going to read, it would be Smile, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier. Alexander pushed back — you’ve read that before, he said. “She said ‘You don’t practice what you preach! Books are amusement parks!’,” he laughed. “So two things were happening. Yes, she listened. And then I’m like ‘Oh, I’m busted.’ ”
Alexander was named the Collaborative Summer Library Program’s National Reading Champion. As part of his job as a sort of reading ambassador, he will make sure to tell other parents what he is still trying to learn: “Let them read what’s going to get them hooked, and they’ll also have to read things they don’t want to.”
Or things they think they don’t want to.
Find a book that’s going to get your kid excited, he advised. And try different things, such as haiku, or putting on a reader’s theater at dinner. Read to your 12-year-old at bedtime, or act out a poem. “I think there’s really fun and creative ways to show kids how cool words and books can be,” he said.
And yes, let them read that novel they’ve already read 12 times. After all, sometimes we get something new out of that roller coaster we ride over and over.
Mary Ellen Icaza, Montgomery County Public Library’s public services administrator, Community Engagement, Programming and Learning, was a book worm her entire life. But now that she’s a mother to a 10-year-old son and a daughter who’s 6, “my whole philosophy on reading has changed,” she says. “As a kid, I was the one in the library signing up for summer reading. There was nothing better for me than to have a huge stack of books.”
And then her son came along. “He just didn’t have that love. He’s a very active kid who likes to be busy and always doing something,” she says.
Knowing her son is obsessed with baseball, Icaza helped him discover the Ballpark Mystery Series. “It clicked for him and he read the whole series,” she says. In fact, one summer, they went on vacation and he got a minor league baseball directory at a ballpark. He read about each team in the country. “It sounds very boring, but for him, he was learning about the mascots, and I liked it because he was learning about what cities were in different states.”
The other thing that has worked to get him reading? Having a little sister. She would bring a different book home from school most days this year. “Often, we’ll have him read the book to her,” Icaza says. “We can hear him reading to her and it’s so neat to see that interaction.”
Icaza is also a big proponent of those library summer reading programs. Her library’s program is run by Arlington-based Beanstack, an online platform that allows schools, libraries and other organizations to customize their reading programs. She believes it’s good for reluctant readers because “kids earn points and badges, and they can see their progress,” she says. “The visual thing is a nice cue for kids.”
Washington D.C. libraries have the same program. Both of my boys are signed up for it and love telling me when it’s time to log in another 20 minutes of reading. The big reward at the end of the D.C. program? Tickets to a Nationals baseball game, which is a true prize for my baseball loving boys.
Which leads us to Jordan Bookey, co-founder along with her husband, Felix Brandon Lloyd, of Beanstack. Bookey and Lloyd also have a 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
So how do they make reading a priority, especially in the summer? “We’re a daily read-aloud family,” Bookey says. “We try to make it a fun thing in our house.”
They read a novel together, but also picture books, to the point where their bedtime routine takes a long, long time. (Her sister thinks she’s crazy, she said.) But the other key: They have learned to take advantage of their neighborhood library.
“Because we work so closely with libraries, I have realized how much they have to offer,” she says. It’s become a fun thing for the kids to visit and pick out their own books. She tries to direct them toward things she thinks they’ll like, but they have their own ideas. Her son, Cassius, has been into an NFL comic book that doesn’t thrill Bookey. “To me, it just seems not interesting at all, but he likes it and I encourage him and don’t let him have a clue that I feel that way about it.”
The library also offers more than just shelves of books. It becomes a social act, which kids love. “They see other kids reading and they think it’s cool,” Bookey said. She watched as her son struck up a conversation with a little girl reading a Judy Blume book. The helped him find other books she thought he’d be interested in. Bookey’s children also take part in programs at the library, like chess, craft night, author readings and more.
Another way to encourage reading is to focus on books that are also movies. Start with the book, then reward children with the movie adaptation after they’ve finished reading, Bookey suggests. The Lloyd/Bookey family loves, for instance, Roald Dahl’s work. They read the books, then see the movies, and discuss how different they are from the books.
Sometimes, life does get busy and reading can seem like an extra that can be pushed aside. But Bookey finds the time, even if it’s in the morning, to read together. After all, the benefits go beyond just inspiring kids to read: “It’s my favorite part of the day with them,” she says.