At a time when parents are pressured to do more and more to assure their children’s academic success, it’s a relief to be told to do less.
That’s the counterintuitive message of “How to Raise a Reader,” written by the current and former children’s books editors at the New York Times Book Review. If you think you should struggle through phonics with your kindergartner, encourage your middle schooler to push through “Harry Potter” and ban your teen’s comic books, Pamela Paul and Maria Russo have some good news for you.
“Reading at home should be about curiosity, discovery and exploration,” they write. “It’s great, of course, to support your child while she’s learning the mechanics of reading at school, but your most important job is more profound: to foster a love of reading. So leave the lessons to the classroom; don’t put it on yourself to make your child hit particular targets. Your job is to make this a pleasure.”
Likely not all parents will believe reading instruction can be left entirely to the schools. But the idea that a parent’s job is to instill the pleasure rather than the mechanics is a liberating one. And the authors, say their less-is-more approach is backed by studies, though they forgo citing any sources.
What they do in clear, well-written prose is divide up readers by age: babies/toddlers; emerging/independent readers; middle-graders; and teens — each section illustrated by a different artist. For each group there are tips, things to be wary of and lists of suggested books with short descriptions. The first thing many parents will do is search for their own childhood favorite (“From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”? Check).
The last quarter of the book is devoted to lists of books by subject: funny, tearjerkers, great girl or boy characters, kindness and empathy, and self-acceptance and identity, among others.
Mostly the authors seek to debunk common myths and grant parents the freedom to pursue their own literary path as the best possible example to their children. Some of their suggestions:
▶ Surround your child with books, starting with board books strewn on a play mat.
▶ Let your little one turn the pages and interrupt you. If you don’t read the words the way they’re written, that’s OK for now.
▶ Create a culture of reading around your child: Hand out books as party favors instead of candy. Organize a swap of gently used books. Ask your child’s friends what they’re reading.
▶ Don’t worry about how quickly your youngster picks up reading. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, reading is taught later, which the authors note hasn’t led to rampant illiteracy there.
▶ As your child begins to read, hold back on the corrections in favor of respectful listening.
▶ Don’t scoff at comic books, graphic novels, joke books or activity books and fan fiction related to a video game such as “Minecraft.” In their own way, these help build your child’s reading habit.
▶ If your teen veers toward books with disturbing, rebellious or dystopian themes, such as the “Hunger Games” series, don’t worry. Such books are a safe way to channel the emotions of adolescence. If you have concerns, talk abut them.
▶ If your teen isn’t an enthusiastic reader, seek out unexpected sources of appealing age-appropriate books, such as Urban Outfitters stores.
▶ And for all age levels, incorporate new technology into the reading experience instead of treating it as the enemy. Encourage your child to follow a favorite author on social media, download extra chapters from the publisher’s website or post a video of a book review on YouTube.
The book’s tips are short, perfect for dipping into in the five spare minutes a young parent typically can grab at any one time. Tuck a copy into a baby shower gift basket; its illustrations make it a visual delight. Heck, give one to a new grandparent who last taught reading in the era of flashcards and gold stars.
Sure, you could call up lists of children’s books online. But the experience of the authors, both of whom have three kids, and their casual, conversational tone make the suggestions feel more like the friendly advice of a fellow parent sharing a bench at the playground.
I wish I’d had such a resource when my second child started slipping off the sofa, book in hand, and toddling away with it instead of sitting calmly asking for just one more chapter as her brother did. I would have realized she was learning to relate to books in her own way. And instead of worrying when she showed little interest in reading until she hit on Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” years later, perhaps I would have understood sooner that learning to love reading comes in its own time.
So go ahead and close your eyes for a few minutes while your child sprawls on the floor at your neighborhood bookstore while someone else reads to them, as I used to do at the cozy Chevalier’s on Larchmont. You’re not being lazy. You’re raising a reader.
Pamela Paul and Maria Russo
Workman Publishing: 216 pp., $20
Fawthrop is a multiplatform editor at The Times and a former book reviewer for the Seattle Times.