Jason Boog on reading to newborns and other parenting adventures
The journalist Jason Boog has long been a book lover. He’s written about the publishing industry for the Galley Cat blog, and about literary culture for NPR and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other publications. Three years ago, his daughter, Olive, was born, and he got an entirely new perspective on books and reading. He’s taken up his new parenting-and-reading obsession in “Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age.” He talks to Times’ writer and parent Héctor Tobar about reading to newborns, the role of digital devices in kids’ reading lives, and other topics.
How has your perspective on reading and kids changed since you became a parent?
When my daughter was born in 2010 I had not looked at a children’s book in maybe 20 years. I had no idea what to do, what books to get. Thankfully my wife received almost a whole bookshelf of books for her baby shower. That was my springboard. I started to read to my daughter from the first weeks of her life. I didn’t know any better, it just seemed the right thing to do. At that age, they’re mute newborns. They just sit there. After a few months I could see that it was really have an effect on her. She was reading along with me and she was learning. So I started interviewing as many different experts as I could to see if I could figure out what was going on and what was the best way to read to her.
How could you sense she was following along with you, even before she could speak?
For the first six months of a baby’s life, you watch their eyes. They become more focused and they start following what’s going on when you point to things. There was one book I read to my daughter every evening called “Lost and Found” [by Oliver Jeffers]. It’s about a penguin who goes away and comes back and there’s this very happy reunion with his friend, a little boy. I read it over and over. One night, six months into this, I read the line “And then the penguin came back!” She lit up and squealed with joy. That was the moment when I thought “She’s understanding at least part of this story.” It was very exciting. And one of the happiest days of my life.
Do you think that maybe she was picking up on the way you were reading, the way you ‘inhabited,’ or acted out the part of the book’s characters?
Absolutely. I’ve always enjoyed storytelling and reading stories out loud. That came easy to me. When I started speaking to child development experts, that was one thing they stressed over and over. It’s very important to have an interactive reading experience with your child. It’s doing different voices, it’s your inflection. Your child’s brain is actually hard-wired to respond to those clues. You’re helping your child get smarter by having this interactive reading experience.
The term “interactive reading” comes up a lot in your book. Can you elaborate on what it means?
These are ideas that have been around for 25 years. It’s also known as dialogic reading. It’s making sure that when you’re reading a book to a child you make it a participatory experience. The fundamental thing is to ask questions. With a very small child you can ask, “Do you see something red?” If they don’t talk yet, you can say, “What sound does that kitten make?” The idea is to show your child that reading is not a one-way experience, that it’s an interaction. You have to move away from passive reading experiences with small children.
Where do you come down on the debate about electronic readers and young children?
The American Academy of Pediatrics back in 2011 recommended that parents not use digital devices with their children before they’re 2 years old. I try to follow that recommendation. Those first two years are just a crucial time for their development. Print books and human interaction are so important. At bedtime, as well, I recommend that parents keep that time for storytelling. Digital devices can interfere with sleep patterns. I think they’re wonderful, I use them all time, and I’m almost entirely a digital reader. I think the storytelling tools my daughter will have at her disposal when she gets older are tremendous. Having said that, parents need to be very careful. Digital devices encourage a very solitary experience. With most apps, kids can spend hours by themselves interacting only with the device. Over and over experts told me the thing that makes your child smarter, that makes them grow emotionally and intellectually, is interaction between the child and another human being.
You make recommendations for kids’ reading at many different ages. As someone who’s surveyed the literature we have available for kids, what’s your take on what American publishing is providing to young readers?
I feel we have a problem with diversity in kids books. Both in gender and in racial diversity. Fairly recently I interviewed someone who looked specifically at science-fiction picture books for kids. Out of the hundreds of books she looked at, only 15% had a girl as hero. That really struck her as problematic. There’s similarly bad statistics for racial diversity in kids literature as well. My recommendation is to go to your local library. Librarians have a much broader picture of the literary scene. They can really help guide you. It’s important to make sure children can see themselves in the books they read.
I’ve heard that one of the biggest mistakes a parent can make is trying to force their child to read. What are the pitfalls a parent can fall into if they’re too anxious to have their kids read?
One danger is hewing too closely to age recommendations. Any time you restrict, or pressure your child to read a certain way, you run the risk of turning them off to reading. You have to show them that reading is something that people do because they love it. When we love something we read books about that. It’s that simple. You have to model those behaviors over the course of a child’s life. When I was writing this book, I realized it was my parents and grandparents who showed me that adults read books, and that you can go to the library and get books. They modeled those behaviors for me. And after a lifetime of that, here I am, a reader.
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