Updated On: January 29, 2020

How to Raise a Reader

Introducer (4:07): This book, How to Raise a Reader, contains many pieces of good advice to helicopter gunship pilots like me to model and not force the joys of reading on children. Ultimately I think I did ok or their mother did. They’re all great readers today. My favorite moments include the reading of the first chapters of the Wizard of Oz which I did to my middle daughter when she was in first grade and had just learned to read I thought. When I woke to her the next morning, she had finished it on her own or so she claimed. She did know how to please her father, that’s for sure. And then there was my son who was diagnosed with nine different forms of ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, etc. by his first-grade teacher who was actually angry at his lack of progress in reading. His second-grade teacher was gentler but with no better results and I’ve forgotten all about the third grade but at the end of third grade in the summer, as we were coming home back home from family vacation we were going to get on a plane and we were in a bookstore and he wanted to buy something that was Mangga or YuGiOh or some Japanese comic book thing. Pikachu, I’m sure, played a role in this and I said – I made a deal with him – I said if he would buy a chapter book and read part of it on the first half of our plane flight he could have the Manga, YuGiOh, whatever it was. So he picked up in the bookstore, The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat which is about an 800-page novel about the Merchant Marine in WW2 and I thought, “oh God, this is going to be a disaster.” And in fact, he read about a third of it on the plane flight and forgot all about his YuGiOh, Manga whatever and today he is a certified expert on the Second World War in the Pacific, a great reader of Murakami, etc, and who knows how children come to reading except that if you unleash them in the right places they do and the authors of this book, Maria Russo and Pamela Paul, give their endorsement of libraries as a place of unleashing children to make their own choices in a world of books and bookstores, of course. The opportunity, give them the opportunity, and they will take it. The magic of series books investing yourself in my case The Hardy Boys, *Bro…* (6:58) which I’m sure almost none of you have ever heard of or could be Nancy Drew or whatever. Pamela Paul talks in an interview she did with Will Schwalbe about the importance of biography to her, the biographies in my case it would have been landmark biographies of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Helen Keller. This is a wonderful book because it brings back to, I’m sure to everybody in this room, the memories of your own reading, the memories of reading to your children, or the expectation of doing the same. Maria Russo is a cultural journalist, she’s been an editor at the LA Times, The New York Observer and Salon with a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia and she’s the children’s book editor at the New York Times Book Review. Pamela Paul has written five books including books on parenting and pornography, those are two separate books by the way. The latter was named one of the best books of 2005 by, of course, the San Fransisco Chronicle. She’s been a style columnist at the Times and an editor of American Demographics – a journal of it you can count on. So ladies and gentlemen Pamela Paul and Maria Russo.

Pamela Paul (8:26): Thank you. This is such a beautiful library you all are so lucky.

Maria Russo (8:30): Very lucky. And you have the Rabbit Hole.

About How To Raise a Reader

Pamela Paul (8:34): I have to say of all the places where Maria and I speak about this book a library is the perfect venue and you guys are already clearly somewhat on board with the message of the book because libraries are all about books and community and a culture of reading which is really at heart with what this book is about. Maria and I wrote this book originally as a very unbook-like thing. It was a digital guide for the NY times we put together and at the end of it, first of all, when we worked on it, I think we were constantly rushing to do the work and to get it, although we love our regular jobs, to work on this because for both us it felt like a mission and a passion. This is something we believe so strongly in. Some people will look at children’s books and think like oh it’s just a children’s book or not quite a real book and for us, children’s books are the most important books of all because it’s those books that make us a reader. And so we put together this digital guide and it became as they say a sort of viral sensation but the biggest complaint we had was we can’t print it out because it was constructed in such a way that if you printed it out it would’ve been like 7-8 pages with one word on it. It wasn’t formatted that way. 

Maria Russo (9:57): That turned out to be a good thing because that put the idea in us, wait a minute, this needs to be a book. The obvious answer is turn this into a book and have an answer ready, too, for all the parents who come to us all the time. So that’s another thing about our job we get a lot of questions. A lot of people really need advice right now and guidance about bringing children to a love of books, about all the other competitive entertainment forms that the children are exposed to now so it was a no brainer for us to find a publisher and turn this into a book. We’ve been so thrilled at the response and at the chance to talk to people like you guys who are out there raising readers, and grandparents of readers, and educators of readers. So we have a presentation that we do that we’ll go through and at the end we hope we can get you guys to give us your questions and talk to us about some of your strategies for helping kids to love reading and just hear some stories from the field. 

Pamela Paul (11:07): Definitely please have questions for us because as Maria said, a lot of this book, too, came out of questions that parents constantly came to us to ask. “What should my kid be reading? My kid says he hates reading. My child’s teacher told him he’s two levels behind. Those kinds of questions.” We realize there’s a lot of anxiety out there, a lot of misinformation and what we want to do is give people a message to relax (this is a pleasurable thing – raising readers), but also to provide some very clear advice from what we’ve learned both as editors at The Book Review and also the parents, each, of three children. So we thought we’d frame this in terms of myths. So we’re going to go through some myths.

6 Myths Parents Believe About Children’s Reading

Maria Russo (11:52): So what you see on the blue cards are things that are myths – that people think are true and that even we thought, at one point, were true. I’ll read the first one and Pamela will explain.

Myth #1 – “Nothing is as important to raising a reader as reading aloud to your child.” 

Pamela Paul (12:10): Alright, so it’s true that reading aloud to your child is really important but it’s interesting when you look at longitudinal research into what is it that makes a person – a three-year-old – into a lifelong reader. There are actually two things that are really important:

  1. Reading aloud. There are lots of good ways to do this and maybe some not so helpful ways but also studies show that simply growing up in a household of books is surprisingly powerful, too. They’ve even gone down to the numbers of books and this is when you think about it, it makes sense. I do want to say that this is controlling for income and education levels so it’s not that just the richest people have the most books in their home. You can go to your library and take out 20 or 30 books a week and constantly rotate them so the kids are constantly surrounded by books. But when you have books accessible in every part of your house, it means that it’s very hard for a child to say here she is bored when there’s a book around to pick up. And also to make sure that you…
  2. Have plenty of different kinds of books – because children are still figuring out their own interests, who they are, what they want to see in books. And so it’s on you to help guide them and also to help them follow their own interest by having a huge variety of books in the home. So that means not just books in their own room which is very important, good for a child to have his/her own bookshelf, but also books in the family room, books where you have your Wii, or where the kids keep their computers, books in the bathroom because everyone reads in the bathroom, or should. And books in the kitchen, cookbooks. Kids love to read books about food and to cook. So it’s really about surrounding your child with literature and really creating a home that is literature-rich.

Myth #2 – “The earlier a child learns to read independently, the better a reader he or she will become.”

Maria Russo (14:01): Ok, not true. This is a really important one that has caused a lot of frustration out there. Somehow it’s crept into our cultural consensus that children should learn to read the sooner the better and that by the age of 5 or 6 every child should be able to sight-read and be able to get through an easy reader and that’s just not possible for every child and that’s just not true. In fact, the age your child learns to read is not related to future reading or cognitive strength. So the educators in the room probably know this. From ages 4 to 8 is the normal window when children learn to read. Every child is going to hit that goal at a different age, at a different moment in that window and that’s ok. Every brain is different. It’s just a skill that needs to be developed. We always say it’s like learning to tie your shoes. Do you feel stressed if your six-year-old isn’t quite tying her shoes yet? No! Every child will learn to tie their shoes. Every child will learn to read, of course, though we talk a little bit in the book about this and we’re making sure that we reassure the audience that there are signs your child is having trouble with reading that should cause some alarm. For example, if they’re pulling away from books when their classmates are starting to read and they’re just not interested anymore. That could be a sign that they actually have Dyslexia or other things that are in the way like an auditory processing disorder. Even vision problems, clever children can hide the fact that they actually have a vision problem that’s in the way of their reading so there are genuine causes for concern and if you feel that you’re detecting some of that, definitely talk to a specialist, talk to your child’s teacher, but other than that just back off the idea that you should be pushing your child to learn to read sooner because in fact it doesn’t matter and the time before your child learns to read on his own is a wonderful time to share books with them. To read the books that they couldn’t read on their own, even if they were starting to read. The great works of children’s literature Charlotte’s Web. The Roald Dahl books. All of those books are perfect to read out loud to a child who’s just on the verge of reading but not quite there himself yet. So our big message there is don’t rush learning how to read. Don’t feel stress over this. Your child will learn to read. It might require some extra support if they are dyslexic or ADD sometimes, can be in the way but it’s not something for parents to create stress around. We want to emphasize creating an atmosphere of joy, and pleasure, and entertainment around reading and if you’re really worried about achieving that goal, the children will pick that up and that kind of turns the whole reading environment into something stressful for them and we don’t want that. We want it to be a place of fun and joy and beautiful stories. 

Pamela Paul (16:57): It’s certainly true that we’re realistic here, we know that a lot of schools and states have put standards into place that expect that children are reading by a certain age but most educators know, they also feel the pressure to teach kids to read at that point but it is true, reading is a complicated process that involves multiple functions in the brain and because children develop at different ages, there isn’t a clear milestone that you should use to judge kids. In Europe, for example, in Germany and Scandinavia, they don’t even begin teaching reading until kids are 7 or 8. If your child does learn to read later, it often means that they are less frustrated by the process of trying to force it before they’re ready for it and also they’re older and more mature and able to absorb stories that are much richer. Frankly, if you’re child is learning to read at age 7 or 8, the kinds of books that his sort of larger self is able to absorb and appreciate is much richer and more rewarding than the kind of books you were reading him before. 

Maria Russo (18:05): In fact, that can be a problem with a five-year-old or four-year-old whose reading. There’s not really a lot of books out there that that five-year-old can understand or they quickly tire of the books that they can understand. There are American educational models like Waldorf and Montessori that wait to teach reading until later but in general, this is something where you have to kind of accept what’s happening in your child’s classroom but you don’t have to do that at home. You don’t have to be pushing for that start your child to start to read before they’re ready.

Myth #3 – “Reading the same book over and over means your child is stuck.”

Pamela Paul (18:51): Completely not true. There’s actually really great benefits to reading and rereading, being read to repeatedly, and reading on your own across the age spectrums. So babies and toddlers benefit from hearing books read over and over and over. So just an example, Goodnight Moon, how many people here can just recite, “in the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of…” Alright because you’ve read it a hundred times. And actually that’s one of the great children’s books because no matter how many times you read it I honestly don’t think you’ll get bored of it. Even as a parent it’s still good. Not all books are like this and so we know when your child perks up or your baby or your toddler is like this again, you can kind of inwardly grown. What happens during the process of reading these stories aloud is a few things: First of all, the child even babies, even toddlers they begin to memorize it. Sight-word, word recognition. That’s actually part of the reading process so they are learning to read. It also means that they’ve memorized that board book. That is then a very nice tool for you to have because when you go out running errands, or you know you’re gonna be waiting in a doctors office, you can tuck some of those board books that your child has memorized and give it to them instead of handing a phone to them so they can read it aloud to themselves because they know that story. They are also, as you’re reading aloud to them, it’s a comforting thing and that extends into older ages so older kids, you know sometimes parents will panic if their child is stuck on Harry Potter, and just keeps reading Harry Potter, and is not moving on from Harry Potter, but that’s fine because if you think about as an adult rereading, every time you re-read a book you’re getting something new from it. You’re getting your deeper insights. You’re noticing different things. If you think about what that’s like for a child, children are changing and growing so quickly that even if they re-read a book, 5 months later they’re a different kid than they were 5 months ago when they read the book and they’re going to be seeing new things in it. The other thing about re-reading books and this holds for series, too, which are your friends so fine to have all 68 or 78, I don’t know how many there are, Magic Tree Houses or warriors books, is that kids read those kinds of books for comfort because those characters become part of their social circle. They’re their friends. They’re recognizable to them. When their fantasy world, that kid who didn’t want to be at Hogwarts frankly on many days rather than going about their regular life. It’s an environment, it’s a world that they feel comfortable in and that they seek refuge in. And if you’re trying to raise a child who loves reading, then you would never want to deprive them of re-entering the worlds that they enjoy. 

Maria Russo (21:33): And it’s really important for the older kids, too, to support that. To support your child’s desire to read the same book over and over instead of saying “oh that book again, or isn’t that book too easy for you?” Because there’s a reason, you have to trust that there’s a reason your child wants to read that book over and over again. You need to give your child that freedom, just like you give them the freedom to explore other kinds of books. They should also have the freedom to read a book again. 

Pamela Paul (22:01): Alright, not true

Myth 4 – “Parents should work with their children, starting in preschool, to teach them to read, then help them progress year by year.”

Pamela Paul (22:08): This sounds reasonable. 

Maria Russo (22:10): It does. It’s not. So this is one of our central ideas in the book that we really hope we can help parents to bring into their lives. School is where children learn how to read. Home is where children learn to love to read. So again, we’ve kind of talked about this a little bit but don’t ask, “when will he start reading? What reading level is he on?” Instead, you want to ask “how can I help him want to read?” And that’s a whole different thing and it really does come down to very subtle messages that you’re giving around reading where you’re not recreating the classroom environment at home because your child has a classroom and has a teacher and you could trust that the nuts and bolts of reading are being handled in that classroom and of course in conversation with the teacher if you feel the need to do that about your child’s reading. But, once your child is home, that’s the place to read for fun, that’s the place to read for discovery. That’s the place to read just out of curiosity without pressure. It’s so important to create that environment at home. One reason, that you could think about is, it’s almost paradoxical if your child learns to love reading while they’re at home, when they get to school and they’re doing reading activities, immediate school will feel like home. And so they will be comfortable and they will succeed in school. So it’s almost counter-intuitive, but if you would like your child to do well in school, you’re better off emphasizing reading for fun because children who read for fun are children who do well in school. 

Pamela Paul (23:50): We all hear the term parent involvement and that’s very important and while you can help support what your teacher is doing in the classroom especially if she asks for specific things, you’re job as the parent is fundamentally different. And I would say it particularly holds true if your child isn’t doing well as a reader in school because if your child is like level K and knows that all of his friends are Level N, he knows that. He knows when he’s not doing well in school and so he’s already feeling bad about reading and feeling anxiety around it. So the last thing you want to do is to bring that anxiety and those negative feelings in the home. What you have to do, in a way, is compensate for it in the other direction by making sure that in your home reading is about pleasure and not pressure and that they are retaining positive feelings around reading. And so if for example, your child is being told they have to read this level book at school, at home they don’t have to do that. You can read picture books to that child. You can read a chapter book. You can be reading The Hobbit to that child or Little House on the Prairie…

Maria Russo (24:52): Guinness Book of World Records. There’s all kinds of books that they’re not going to come across in school. The weird fact book, the gross-out books, the joke books. Those are all ways you can bring the fun of reading into your home and make sure that kids understand that at home they have freedom to read. You’re creating positive associations because as Pamela said, a lot of kids are feeling really bad about reading at school, about their performance or if they’re not feeling bad they’re feeling pressured. They’re putting reading into this arena of climbing a ladder, competing, and performing for the adults. What we’re trying to help parents do is give that reading back to the child. This is their reading life. 

Pamela Paul (25:39): I mean this is another way to direct that complaint of my kids’ books are boring because it might be that they are boring or frustrating in terms of the level of the story that he is being asked to read in the classroom and that means that again it would behoove you to find what does this child think of as fun and we’ll read that. And who cares if it’s two levels too low, or who cares if it’s me doing the reading aloud. You’re trying to create a relationship between that child and books that’s positive. And so it’s really important to emphasize the kinds of books your child wants to read and to make that a positive experience. 

This goes, too, when kids are doing their read-aloud time if they’re feeling frustrated over reading, if you’re constantly correcting them or forcing them to sound something out rather than just jumping in and saying you know, “this is what the word is”.  Don’t worry about the mechanics in the classroom. At home, you want to make sure that it remains positive.

Myth 5 – “I can’t wait to read Harry Potter to them!”

Maria Russo (26:50): This is a corollary right. A lot of parents are in a big rush to get Harry Potter into their kid’s life and for good reason, right? Harry Potter is this incredible thing that happened, not just to children’s literature, but really to all literature. 

Pamela Paul (27:00): Not everyone like Harry Potter. That child in the corner does not like it.

Maria Russo (27:10): No because it was Harry Potter that really turned reading into a communal activity. Kids could share with their friends in a whole new way their reading experience and their love of these books. That was an amazing thing and so it caused almost like a frantic scramble. So everyone was like, “when can I start on Harry Potter?” But the fact is the first Harry Potter book was written for ages 8 – 12 which is officially called middle grade. Not middle school, middle grade. And even age 8 is on the young side for that first Harry Potter book. A lot of you have probably had that experience. These are scary books, you know. My son was at 8 was definitely scared, but not every child. My daughter had read all of them by the time she was 11 but a lot of kids find them way too scary so you need to be aware, is this the right thing for your child at this age? And then the later books are really because you know like a lot of good series, what J. K. Rowling did was she wrote it so her original audience could age with the books. So the kids who were 8 and 9 and 10 when the first one came out, well they were 14 and 15 when the last ones came out. So those are YA books, young adult books. Really dark things happen in some of those later ones. A child dies, a child we’ve become attached to so you really want to be aware of that. The final thing to say about Harry Potter, let them read Harry Potter on their own because they will be motivated. This is a book that you don’t have to push them toward. If Harry Potter is their thing, they will find it, and they will love it. This can be a way for them, for many kids, this is their first experience of taking off on something on their own with just complete choice and self-direction and really to finding their identity through it. My daughter who is 16, she still considers she’s a “Slytherin” that’s still a big part of how she identifies herself. So they don’t really need you as a parent. One of the great things about those books is you can just enjoy watching them love this book and fall into this universe but you don’t really need to push it.

Pamela Paul (29:30) Yeah, Harry Potter is like the prize that you get to and if you think about that and think about the fact that reading and this is sort of a general rule, reading is the reward. You don’t need to reward reading. You don’t need to push things that children will love on them. The message that you’re trying to send is a very different one which is, “this is the rewarding thing”, so if you push something on them, then it has the opposite effect, we all know our basic Child Psychology. Lots of reverse psychology in there. If Harry Potter is sort of the carrot dangling in front of them, they will get there. And the other point that Maria said these books are scary and they’re also not everyone’s thing. They’re our thing, but they’re fantasy novels and not every child likes fantasy so one of the main underlying themes in our book, is to let your child follow your child’s lead in terms of what he or she wants to read. 

Maria Russo (30:30): OK here’s an important one, this is a myth.

Myth #6 – “Once they’re reading on their own, move on from picture books.”

Pamela Paul (30:30): This is something that Maria and I both feel so important, it’s so important. Picture books should stay in the picture all through childhood and beyond. Once your child reads independently, don’t downplay illustrated books of all kinds including graphic novels. So there’s this tendency with parenting overall when a child hits a milestone, once they’re walking they don’t need to crawl anymore, that kind of thing. You think this old thing goes away, once they’re potty trained you don’t need the diaper anymore, but with picture books that is not true. People read all different kinds of books simultaneously or different stages or different moods. That holds true for adults and it holds true for children and the way that children read, you could have a child reading in many different ways at the same time depending on the age of the child. So a child who’s begun to read independently, reading those leveled readers, those like 1, 2, 3 those books or reading things like Dr. Seuss or Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books. Some of those are great. Some of those books are very dull. Their brains are capable, their souls, their minds are capable of absorbing other kinds of stories and the fact is that picture books are largely written for an adult to read to a child. What that means is the text is much richer. The vocabulary is more advanced because they’re not expecting a child to sound out a word like “bewildering”. So they’re being exposed to a larger vocabulary and to bigger ideas in picture books. So if you’re reading a picture book aloud to a child at the same stage that he or she is reading early chapter books or early readers and you’re also reading say non-pictorial book allowed to them like Betsy-Tacy or The One and Only Ivan. They can do all of that at the same time. They can also be listening to an audio-book together in a car. It’s not like you have to move from one thing to the next along a continuum. Another thing is people enjoy different kinds of books for different moods. We’re all not reading great literature all the time. Two nights ago I was reading a graphic novel with one of my kids, R J Palacio’s White Bird and then on my own, I was reading Zadie Smith’s new collection of short stories. It’s not like those things are mutually exclusive. The same thing is true for children’s books. And I would also say that picture books are a kind of reading, even when you’re reading them aloud. What the child is doing is they’re reading the pictures and they’re learning how narrative works, how narrative progresses. They’re learning sequencing and all other elements of reading. The last thing I would say is that we live in a visual culture. It’s not like we grow out of picture books. If people didn’t like looking at pictures, there would be no Instagram. So we all continue to enjoy looking at pictures. I’m sure people have coffee table books at home. Books that are largely pictorial in nature, whether it’s a photography book or for kids something like a National Geographic photography book or fact book. Things that are primarily not text-based but visually-driven. One last thing which is that there are all kinds of different kinds of readers and a lot of kids are what we call visual readers or kinetic readers. They don’t necessarily want to read pure text. They thrive on pictures. For those kids, graphic novels and comic books, in particular, are a great resource. Nothing to look down on. The phrase that Maria and I cringe most at is when anyone says about a graphic novel is not a real book. I challenge you to look at some of the great graphic novels that are written for people of all ages, adults included, and say that they are not great books because what they are doing is pure genius in terms of combining visual and textual storytelling together. 

Maria Russo (34:10): And this is really so important for these children, Pamela mentioned, who are more visual readers. These are kids who were left behind 20, even 10 years ago. They were just written off as oh he doesn’t usually use boys because there tend to be more boys who read visually. He’s not a reader. He doesn’t like to read. That’s just not true. When you’re reading visual books, you are reading. Studies of MRIs of a child’s brain who’s reading a book with pictures and words, both sides of the brain are lit up at once. That’s a good thing. The pictures and words are working together to deliver the information. So if you have a child who is a visual reader the goal is just find them more good visual books. Another question we get a lot, the most frequent question I get will be something along the lines of, “my 10-year-old son will only read graphic novels. What should I do?” 

Pamela Paul (35:10): He’ll only read Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants

Maria Russo (35:10): I said that’s great. Find him the best graphic novels you can find. These books, Captain Underpants Dav Pilkey, he was a child with dyslexia and ADD and lots of other issues in the way of him staying on the pace with the rest of his class in reading. He wrote these books for children like him. So these are an incredible resource – these graphic novels now. They are creating a generation of readers of kids who would not have been readers without these books. They’re so important. As Pamela said, these people are geniuses and let’s shout out some of these books, they’re winning awards you know. Gene Luen Yang, American-born Chinese, the first graphic novel to win a national book award, I think, in the children’s category. These books are every bit as literary as a book that’s all words and there’s always going to be some kids that see a block of text without pictures and they pull back. They’d say oh I can’t read that, I don’t want to read that I’m not a reader and we’re finally at a moment where there’s other books you can give that child with lots of beautiful pictures that tell their story through the pictures and keep them excited about reading.

Pamela Paul (36:29): You know a couple points, too, about not looking down on what your child is reading. First of all, speaking of boys specifically, because we tend to look down on those books and say like, “oh can’t you read a real book or that’s not a real book or why are you still reading Calvin and Hobbes. We know from statistics from surveys that boys read less frequently than girls do and they sight-reading less often as their preferred activity. They read less over the summer than girls do. And one of the reasons and there are other reasons to do with modeling, one of the reasons has to do with the fact that they’re not finding the books that they want or they’re being told those aren’t real books. That those aren’t options. The other factor while I’m on it is role models. So one of the big messages of our book is if you want to raise a reader, be a reader. Both girls and boys see their fathers reading less frequently than they see their mothers. Parents of both genders, fathers, and mothers are less likely to read to their sons than they are to their daughters. So we are sending sort of subtle messages to boys about who reading is for. The other message I want to say about letting your child choose what he or she wants to read, and this goes back to reading being about pleasure, not pressure, is that this is kind of the elephant in the room, Maria mentioned it at the very beginning, kids have a lot of options of what to do with their free time. They also have a lot less free time than probably many of us did when we were growing up. Kids today have many more extracurricular activities, often more homework than we did and in the amount of free time that they have, there’s so many options of what they can do. I remember growing up. What I had to do after school was… we had a TV. It had 5 channels. We didn’t have a remote control. I had brothers who would either switch it on to Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch, neither a great option frankly. That was boring. So reading was a natural alternative for me. The kids today obviously have the internet, they have their Wii, they have Instagram, they have Snapchat, they have TikTok, they have YouTube, they have Hulu, they have Netflix. They have so many more options for what to do with their free time. So if you want them to choose reading as an option, you’re going to have to do everything you can to build that love of reading early on.

Maria Russo (38:49): While we’re on the visual stuff, comics. There’s been a revolution in the acceptance of comics as a valid part of childhood. A valid part of education. Pamela and I work at the New York Times. We both grew up reading Betty and VeronicaArchie comics and Richie Rich. Why would we deprive our children of that? The comics are much better. Don’t judge. Comics are not just all superhero nonsense, even though the superhero stuff is great now, too.

Pamela Paul (39:29): So we’re going to actually end with this big question –

So what does a parent do to raise a reader?

Pamela Paul (39:34): We have a lot more tips and dos and don’ts.

The Big Idea: Reading should be fun.

Maria Russo (39:47): Reading should not be a chore and it shouldn’t carry stress and judgment. So…

Do express delight over your child’s book choices, interests, and curiosity.

That, again, helps the atmosphere in the house. And of your own. Be excited when the book you’ve been waiting for comes. You get a call from the library. You get that email saying, it’s available, the book you were on the waiting list for. Showing excitement about the books that appear in our lives and in their lives.

Don’t talk about reading levels.

We talk about this a little bit but reading levels are useful for teachers trying to assess but there’s not a big place for them in your home life. Your child will go through the reading levels at school. Some people even doubt that whoever went about at some point very recently putting those numbers on all the books and what level they are, it’s not fully consistent. Anyway, it’s not something you need to worry about. What you need to worry about is what your child wants to read. Some of them you might consider a little advanced, some of them a little easier. But when you talk about levels, you’re constricting your child’s choices.

Don’t ask if it’s too easy or too hard

…because again, we were mentioning no book is too easy and no book is too hard if it’s what your child is really into at that moment (Dos & Don’ts). And then…

Don’t judge.

This can be really hard for a lot of us. I admit, my older son was big on Big Nate and Wimpy Kid and he’s still even at 14 he’ll still sneak the Big Nate and I was like “oh but they’re so dumb.” Why did I do that? I should not have done that. And of course, he said, “Mom, that’s the point.” So it’s just not a good idea to bring in judgment. 

Pamela Paul (41:33): Put The Girl on the Train for kids. It’s a perfectly entertaining book. Two doses of reality because we’ve both been through the trenches. Maria has a 15-year-old, 14-year-old, and a 9-year-old. My kids are 10, 12, and 14. There are things that you can do, when my oldest child, my daughter was really into these books, these skip books? I don’t know if you’ve read these. Anyone here read skip books? Woof Woof? So my husband and I wanted to put a gun to her head after reading Woof Woof so many times. What you can do when you’re kids are really little you have some control. You could slowly kind of shift to those books sort of out of circulation. Start to introduce books that might be similar. Try to figure out what she likes about the Woof Woof thing. Find something else. When they get older like my older brother in San Francisco, he would send me photos of he and his partner reading Rainbow Fairies aloud to their daughter and saying something like I am ready to die. Does anyone know these books by Daisy Meadows? There are well over 150. There is no daisy Meadows. She’s not a real person so we can’t hold anyone responsible for it but kids love these books. They love them so much. What I said to my brother is, do not read those books to your child. That is that level. That child’s Harry Potter. So that’s the thing that will motivate that child to read it herself. When she really wants to read those Rainbow Fairies. So you can say like, those are books for girls to read, or boys to read when they are ready to read them and I will read you this other thing. So you don’t have to end up reading things you completely despise…

The Big Idea: Everyone learns to read.

…Some dos and don’ts.

Do trust teachers to handle the nuts and bolts of learning to read.

That is their job. If they want you to see a reading specialist, by all means do. It can never hurt. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your child. It means you might need to tend to something but in general, that’s the teacher’s job.

Do let children go at their own pace.

Don’t rush them. One of the great things about reading aloud – a real physical book – to a young child, is they’re learning gross motor skills, fine motor skills. They’re learning how to turn the pages themselves. If they want to stay on a spread for 5 minutes because they want to talk about all the things in the pictures, let them do that. One of the mistakes that you can make when you’re reading aloud is like you can get into your own reading of it and they might not be into it. They might think you’re going too fast or reading in an annoying way. I used to have certain books that I would sing aloud out to my children and after a while they were like, “please do not sing that book, just read that book.”

Do let them make mistakes.

So if they make a mistake, again – they’ll get it eventually. You don’t have to stop them and correct them and interrupt that joyous experience to point out that they’ve done something wrong.

Do respect if they don’t like reading aloud.

Some kids don’t want to read out loud. So they will be forced to do that at school. They will have to do that. They will have to learn that skill but some kids are shy or introverted or they just want to read it in their head.

Don’t be too perfect, yourself.

My kids love nothing better than when I’m reading aloud to them and I make a mistake. It’s so wonderful and it’s great for them and it’s good for you to be able to laugh at yourself. If they point it out not to say like you know, be quiet about that or pretend you didn’t hear that but to acknowledge we all make mistakes. Sometimes if you get home from a long day at work and you’re reading aloud to your child, you are going to make mistakes and that is OK. It shows them that it’s OK for them, too.

The Big Idea: Create a family culture around reading.

Maria Russo (45:24): And that’s what all this comes down to. So a really important part of that is…

Do broaden your idea of what counts as a book – from joke books to puzzle books.

So the joke books, the puzzle books, all of this is stuff that your family can enjoy together that is not on a screen and that’s a good thing. That really helps.

Do talk about books when you’re together for a meal or just hanging out.

This goes back to what Pamela was mentioning if you want to raise a reader, be a reader. If they could see that books are a part of your life, it’s something you really enjoy talking about whether it’s to your spouse or your friends and to them. That is something that they’re registering. And talking to them about their own books. I love talking to kids, my kids’ friends, or kids that I see at schools when I do school visits and sometimes it can be a little awkward to talk to a kid. The best opener is what’s your favorite book? What’s the last book you read? When they tell you, who’s your favorite character in that book? Be someone who talks to kids about books. It’s fun and you learn about kids. It’s always surprising. My favorite thing I do is I interview kids for the New York Times for kids section. One of my favorite things, I have so many. And that pull-out section one Sunday of every month and I call kids around the country and they just tell me what their favorite books are. The enthusiasm will knock you out every time. They really love talking about their books.

Do watch movies based on books together.

One thing that Pamela and I really feel strongly about is to not convey that books are a precious, separate, roped-off realm from the rest of our culture because that can also create a negative association for kids. No one wants to be part of, and for teenagers, they don’t want to be part of, oh books are so separate from pop culture. Books are actually part of pop culture, especially for kids. This is what they talk about. They talk about Dog Man. They talk about Wimpy Kid. They talk about Dory Fantasmagory. These books that they read together are really part of youth culture. So don’t see them as separate. So by the same token, why not show them the movie of a book they just read? Watch it as a family, talk about it, and discuss it. 

Pamela Paul (47:53): Isn’t that a great motivating thing? Like in our house you can’t see the movie until you’ve read the book. 

Don’t make it competitive.

Maria Russo (47:59): This is actually important in families with more than one sibling. You don’t want to create competition between the siblings. For who read earlier or who’s a better reader. It can be very destructive. When you have the first child who’s a great reader. The second child, it’ll often be the case, that they suddenly, well what do you know they’re not as much of a reader because they’ve identified reading as something that belongs to the older child. So it’s really important to make sure that you haven’t kind of assigned one of your children to be the reader of the family. There’s lots of tips that we have for how you can counteract that. One thing is have the older child read to the younger child. That really helps everyone to feel excited that they’d get the chance to be the smart older one and the chance to have the attention of your older sibling. And just the sharing and just the idea that everyone has their books. They don’t need to be pitted against each other. 

Pamela Paul (49:00): The other thing is that once they do become readers, you’ll find that you know, Maria and I both have 3 kids and you’ll find as with everything else like I remember after I had my first 2 kids and I was pregnant with my third I thought oh is he going to be like my daughter or like my son? Of course, he was something totally different which is my other son. And as they are different in everything else they’re very very different kinds of readers. My youngest child will sit there and read science encyclopedias. Something I cannot imagine wanting to do. And my older daughter will read Stephen King over and over again. My middle child likes to read more literature, high literature. So they become very different readers and that’s something to emphasize like we’re all following our own taste. This isn’t about who’s better or worse. 

Maria Russo (49:54): And then, we’ve been saying this a lot, too…

Don’t hide your own reading.

It’s so important for you to realize part of raising, a kid can be a spur to you to take a look at how you live and what you think is important and give yourself the chance to read just for you and the benefit is your child will see you reading and you’re modeling something that you would like them to do. So we talk about if you want to raise a reader be a reader, it’s partly for the kid but also for you. It’ll also help you to keep your own reading life going because there’s nothing better for all of us. 

Pamela Paul (50:34): If you have older kids that maybe aren’t reading so much, it’s a really powerful message if they’re saying, “oh hey, Mom or Dad, do you want to watch this movie with us?” You say, “no” I’m gonna read my book. I really want to finish it. I have like 2 chapters left. That’s a really important message. The other counter to that model is you don’t want to be sitting there scrolling on your phone and saying guys, I said it’s time to read now. 

Maria Russo (50:57): They have like half an hour reading for school. That’s a good time to say oh you know that can be a drag that the teacher’s assigned half an hour of reading and then the reading log which we both think is not the greatest way to motivate kids to read if they have to take their private experience of reading and then turn it into a piece of data for the teacher but you could also use that half an hour and say, this is family reading time and you get your book and everybody’s reading together. 

The Big Idea: Show books some respect.

Pamela Paul (51:31): So…

Do give books as gifts and show appreciation for books as gifts.

One of the things, now this worked far better before I worked at the Book Review and they started to get all these books for free, they now have such an abundance, but when my kids were really little we would do at the end of a birthday party for example, we would do a book exchange instead of those horrible little goody bags that are filled with such cheap toys made out of plastic that always end up on the floor at the back of the car. No parent will be unhappy if you give a book away at the end of the party and there’s a lot of different ways you can do it. You can have your child pick from amongst books on her shelf and say these are books that I’m done with but I think my friends would really like and I’m going to put them all in a pile and have at the end of the party each kid pick a book or have your child designate a book for each person and wrap them up and have her give books.

Do inscribe books for them.

You can do things like tell a grandparent, “you know what, rather than buy my child a new toy every birthday, I’d like for you to give her a book and I’d like for you to inscribe it and explain why did you choose this book.” One of the greatest gifts my daughter got for her first birthday was The Little Engine That Could and my mother wrote a note to my daughter in it explaining how much I loved it as a child and how she thought of this as a motto for life. That became something that was a keepsake. My child has never given that book away. You can do something where a grandparent gives a book for every year and the child has a shelf in their room that’s books from grandpa. There’s lots of different ways to do that.

Do treat books well and use bookmarks.

Show respect. So I’m sure, we’re in a library, everybody knows you never leave books splayed down. Always use a bookmark, never fold the corners, and treat books as something special. That’s not to say that your baby can’t chew on books because they’re going to do that.

Do give your child his or her own space for books.

This is really important. Kids are collectors. They like to have their own things. They like to have books. They like to have the entire series. If they’re into that, feed that indulgence. Again, I know that books can be expensive, but you can buy used books online, you can get them at library sales. So there are lots of ways to get inexpensive books but it really is important for a child to have a space of her own for her books.

Do donate books.

So one of the things that we do in our house when the kids are done with books, we’ll make piles. Like this book is for this friend, this is for this little cousin, this is for this other little cousin, these books go to the library, these ones I think my teacher would like for the school, and then the kids give away their books. So that they think of books as some kind of ongoing exchange.

Do talk about what it takes to make a book.

So this has been very easy for Maria and me because they’ve seen this process in the works but it’s really useful for any child when authors come to the library or to local bookstores to give talks to bring them to show them that. You guys are so lucky to have the Rabbit Hole opening because they’re going to be able to see all the great creativity that goes into making a book.

Don’t throw books away.

…ever. And we’ve already talked about…

Don’t leave books splayed open.

…which is very mean.

The Big Idea: Let your child take charge.

Maria Russo (54:44): So this is what it all comes down to. We talk about creating intrinsic motivation to read rather than depending on external factors. You want to create someone who is intrinsically motivated to read. So the ways you can do that… here’s some examples:

Do let your child arrange his or her own bookshelf.

That really gives them a sense of ownership and we all like to display who we are through various things that we own and displaying who you are through your books is a really fun thing. And it’s a good way for you, too, to get to know your kid when you see how your child chooses to arrange his or her bookshelf.

Do let her decide what to read that night.

This might seem obvious, but make sure you’re really not making all the choices yourself, even with toddlers. They can start to express their preferences if you let them. 

Pamela Paul (55:38): Yeah, they can get overwhelmed by a huge bookshelf but one of the things you can do with a two or three-year-old is you take out four, five books and you say pick which one you’d like or why don’t you put them in the order you like and I’ll read them aloud to you. 

Maria Russo (55:50): Right and even if you’re starting that early to associate reading with always with choice.

Do remind your child to pack books on a trip.

Just a simple thing but it’s one of those ways you can work it in casually. This is just how our family is. “We’re going away to Grandma’s this weekend, what books are you taking” to your five-year-old, your six-year-old, your eight-year-old, your teenager? “Did you put some books in there?”

Do let your child re-read the same book over again.

We’ve talked about this a lot but it’s really important. The same books, the comfort books over and over.

Do let your child have free rein in this incredible library, the bookstore, the school book fair.

…places like the Rabbit Hole. For a lot of kids – I feel like, for my kids – libraries and bookstores were the first places where they could really wander on their own and feel a little more grown-up cause it’s such a safe place. 

Pamela Paul (56:45): It’s so empowering, too. Like when I grew up, which was a very different era and from the age of seven was walking to and from school every day. The public library was across the street from the elementary school so I went there every day after school. I had my own library card, which is such a key milestone for kids – getting their own library card. And I went into that library every day and my mother worked so I didn’t have any supervision. I could just take out any book that I wanted… It’s a feeling of independence and freedom and responsibility that I think is great for all kids. 

Maria Russo (57:23): This is my little guy’s bookshelf. I just threw this in because as Pamela said, we get tons and tons and tons of books. So lucky to be able to bring home to our kids but I think I was overwhelming my kids with too many books and finally my son, right before he turned nine was like, “I want to just pick the books on my own shelf by myself” and, I was constantly sneaking more on there than you know, and so I said OK, fine fine fine and this is what he came up with. It was such a great day for me because I was really proud of him. He really expressed who he is and I got to see the books that have really stayed with him. He’s a different kind of reader. His sister and brother both are more kind of into novels and stories and fantasy and history but he’s a fact guy. So he’s got all of his National Geographic, his atlas, his weird fact books, all of those – the yellow ones. And then he picked out the picture books that we had read together that really stayed with him that he loved. And I was surprised and happy to see Knuffle Bunny, he loved Knuffle Bunny. 

Pamela Paul (58:30): It’s amazing how much kids really love to hold on to those picture books. 

Maria Russo (58:34): And I got to see exactly which ones. All the Roald Dahl books that I had read out loud to him which I just love so much. And then you go down and there’s all his collector, his Wimpy Kid, and his Dog Man collections and a few little things here and there like Wonder, which he has not read yet which he’s very excited because he saw the preview for the movie. He knows he has to read the book first. He feels like he knows what it’s about. He’s not quite ready yet but he has it there waiting for when he’s ready. And that’s it. He’s a Miami Dolphins fan and his other stuff that he wanted there. It was a good visual reminder to me. It was a way to get to know him through his books and really reassured me that, you know with him I did a little bit compare him to his brother and sister who did seem to read more and I realized he just has his own taste. He’s carving out his own identity through his books so it’s a great opportunity to do that with every kid in your life. 

Pamela Paul (59:37): I want to end with one little anecdote about my own youngest child which is, Maria and I have been talking a lot about “in the great green room there was a telephone” and I started to say it to him curious if he would remember. He’s now 10 and a half and he said that sounds familiar. How did it go? And so I recited it from memory but I was stumbling. I was getting parts wrong. And he said, “can I see that book?” So we went to the library and of course, they didn’t have that book cause everybody has always out. So I actually bought a copy of that book. The last book that I bought for my son a couple weeks ago brought home this board book of this book I hadn’t read to him in like eight years. He actually likes me reading it aloud to him before he goes to bed at night just to bring back those memories. He remembered it once I showed him the pictures. And I think that’s really important to remember just how special, even when you’re only 10. Those are very early reading experiences are and the feelings you have of closeness as a baby, as a toddler when you’re held in a parent’s arms and reading isn’t just about the text. It’s about the sound of your voice, about your emotion, the feelings of warmth, the skin on skin, the full-body sensory experience of reading and loving a book together.

Audience Member #1 (1:01:23) First of all, I just wanted to congratulate you on this book. It’s been one I picked up at our National Conference during the summer. I got an advanced reader’s copy and I promoted it at a conference I gave a presentation last week. So I’m very excited about it. And the fact that you included classics as well as the latest and greatest. I also wanted to say something about school libraries because in addition to schools teaching kids to learn to read, they also teach kids how to love to read and the school library is a great bridge between the home environment and school environment to be able to do that. And school libraries are under siege right now. So if you are a parent or a caregiver or a grandparent and there is not a certified school librarian in your local school for your child please make sure you campaign for one and make sure that this book is part of that school’s professional library. 

Pamela Paul (1:02:16): Maria and I both fight on behalf of our local school libraries.

Maria Russo (1:02:19): I’m so glad that you said this because I actually live in a district that does not have school librarians and that’s one of the reasons that we feel our book can come in and help. But the best situation would be to have a school librarian, a librarian at the library, and the parents at home and this is sort of a community of adults who can help the child find the books because that’s the key. It’s helping children find the books. The teachers tell us they don’t have time to know all the books, first of all to keep up with all the books that are out there and second of all do that work of pairing. 

Pamela Paul (1:03:00): One of the reasons why teachers need to go to the reading logs just for one second because we mentioned them, briefly Maria mentioned them, but teachers often say that they keep those reading logs to get a sense of not just where the child is at but also their interests so sort of as a shorthand to help them. The reason why we don’t love them is that, especially for a child who’s had a pleasurable reading experience and maybe doesn’t like handwriting and is struggling with fine motor skills to have to do some of the fields like a chore but then gets handed into the teacher on a worksheet. One of the suggestions that we have is work with the teacher to say is there another way that they could do this? Could they draw a picture of the book that they like or could they have their own book that they get to keep in which they write the book they’ve read and they show it to you but then it comes back to the child so that it becomes a sort of diary of their own reading experience. 

Maria Russo (1:03:49): But our district is, the parents are fighting this because people… Don’t worry, we’re behind you. We know that’s a wonderful part of it. 

Audience Member #2 (1:04:00): Hi, I have always personally been an avid reader. I’m in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Program. It happened for seven years and I was matched with her. She was eight, now she’s 14 so I’m curious. I’ve always kind of pushed reading on her but she’s never been interested. And so just hearing you guys talk, I’m curious how I can change the narrative of that. She’s 14 now. 

Maria Russo (1:04:29): There is a book for every child. It really is about just finding that book. So find out what are her interests. We could throw some ideas at you. Do you have a suspicion about what her interests would be? What kind of book would…

Audience Member #2 (1:04:44): Sports, boys, and Cardi B

Maria Russo (1:04:49): There’s lots of YA novels that combine, oh we have to ask, are there any YA librarians here? There’s one that just came out. 

Pamela Paul (1:05:01): Another thing about sports is like lots of biographies of sports figures, books about sports, sports facts which, again, we might not think of as traditional books but those are books. Who she follows on Instagram or on YouTube like a lot of those write books or whatever the specific interest that they’re following. I really think that for every child there are books that match their interests and just find the book counterpart for it. 

Maria Russo (1:05:27): Maybe that’s the first thing I should have thought of that. Would fiction or non-fiction? Maybe it would be a non-fiction book about an athlete or team or maybe it would be a novel about a high school athlete who’s interested in boys. 

Pamela Paul (1:05:40): There’s probably even a book about Cardi B. I haven’t looked into it but I suspect there is.

Related Pages

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