By Regan McMahon
Kids become lifelong readers for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes there’s one key book that captures a kid’s imagination and opens them up to the exciting world of fiction. Other times, a teacher who assigns great books in class sparks a hunger for more big ideas and fine writing. In some cases, parents influence kids’ appreciation of books by sharing their own love of literature and modeling reader behavior—always having a book to read, taking books on vacation, reading before bedtime, making regular trips to the library and bookstore, etc.
Here are our best tips for nurturing a love of reading that can last a lifetime:
Read aloud: This comes naturally to lots of new parents, but it’s important to keep it up. Kids will enjoy it longer than you think. When reading to babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and kids in early grade school, it’s wonderful to have a kid on your lap, snuggled next to you on the couch, or drifting off to sleep in bed as you enjoy picture books together. You may have to read your kid’s favorite a hundred times, but just go with it. Your kid will remember the closeness as well as the story. And try nonfiction for those who are curious about pirates, Vikings, robots, castles, history, sports, biography, animals, whatever. For second through fifth graders, read those rich and meaty books that might be missed otherwise, maybe classics like Treasure Island or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Many parents think that as soon as their kids learn to read on their own, they no longer need to be read to. But kids still love it and benefit from it as they hear the rhythm of the language, learn correct pronunciation, and get to relax and just take it all in. Kids will get the idea that there’s something worthwhile in books and that there’s something special about time spent with a parent.
Savor the series: It’s common for kids to become book lovers for life after getting hooked on a series. And there are lots of good ones that keep kids hungry for the next installment. Some reliable prospects: Ivy + Bean, Judy Moody for beginning readers; Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Percy Jackson for middle graders; and The Hunger Games, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and The Raven Cycle for older kids.
Grab onto a genre: Kids go through phases of genres they’re passionate about, from girl detectives to science fiction and fantasy. Don’t get hung up on whether it’s considered great literature (although some genre books are). Be happy that your kid is devouring books one after the other.
Feed the favorite-author addiction: Once your kids find a writer they love, they may want to read all of his or her books—a great excuse for a trip to the library or an opportunity for book swapping among friends and classmates. Here are some good bets for favorites. Younger kids: Dav Pilkey (The Adventures of Captain Underpants), Beverly Cleary (Beezus and Ramona). Middle grade: Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie), Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book). Tweens and teens: Judy Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret) and Leigh Bardugo (The Grisha Trilogy).
Count on the classics: Books are called classics because they continue to engage readers generation after generation. There are no guarantees, but you could try introducing your kids to books you loved as a kid and see which ones click. Some good ones to try are the Dr. Seuss and Narnia books, Charlotte’s Web, and The Secret Garden. Check out our Classic Books for Kids list to find more.
Find books about the things your kid loves: If your kid adores horses, try National Velvet or any of the titles on our list of best Books About Horses. If he’s wild about vehicles, check out our list of Books About Cars, Trucks, and Trains. Librarians, booksellers, and Internet searches will help you find books on any favorite topic.
Funny is fine: Some parents wrestle with letting their kids read Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other edgy humor books about kids getting in trouble. Talk to your kids about the content, but keep in mind that kids like these books not because they want to imitate the characters’ actions but because they can live vicariously through their bad behavior. Humor is a great pathway to book loving.
Comics are OK: Graphic novels are among the hottest trends in children’s publishing, and they can get kids hooked on reading. Kids may start with Squish and Babymouse and move on to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But these series can also lead to more sophisticated fare such as El Deafo, Boxers and Saints, and This One Summer. Find other titles in our list of best Graphic Novels.
Engage with e-books: Kids can cuddle up with a Kindle, Nook, or iPad before naptime or bedtime. Some recent studies say more than half of U.S. kids are reading digital books at least once a week. The electronic format has proved to be especially engaging for boys and reluctant readers, and you can download or access many books on an e-reader or tablet, which make it a great choice for air travel and car rides.
But note that some studies show that book apps and interactive “enhanced” e-books, while fun, can be distracting and inhibit reading comprehension. So to promote reading skills and encourage your kid to be a frequent reader, you might want to stick with e-books that have the look of a bound paper book. Some even have animation that mimics turning the pages.
Make reading a family value: Actions speak louder than words. Take your kids to the library once a week or once a month to get new books, make regular outings to your local bookstore, hunt for low-cost books at used bookstores or second-hand shops, and show kids that finding a good book is like a treasure hunt.
Fit reading into your family lifestyle. Set aside time for reading only—turning off the TV, computer, and cell phone. Encourage focused reading time, either for independent reading or reading aloud. Take preschoolers to story time hours at libraries and bookstores. For older kids, a parent-kid book club can be fun. Read to kids at bedtime. Provide time and space for your kids to read for pleasure in the car (if they don’t get car sick!), on vacation, after homework is done, on their own before bed. Warning: It could be habit-forming!
Regan has been reviewing children’s books for more than a decade. She’s a journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.
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